Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Election 2008 keepsake

As a teenage hippie, I used to take the bus to downtown Kenosha to buy big, thick, imported vinyl LPs at One Sweet Dream, our local record store/head shop. Print media was part of the ritual too: Picking up the latest issue of Rolling Stone, folding that big, thick newspaper under my arm, and taking it home to spread out on the floor, where I would read the long, rambling screeds of Hunter S. Thompson that went on for page after page.

There was another local record store/head shop downtown too, but their copies of Rolling Stone all had the “Rolling Stone” nameplate banners cut off. A friend of mine surmised that they were probably sending the banners back as evidence of unsold copies in order to collect a refund, since the return shipping charges for a heavy stack of two-week-old newsprint like that would be cost-prohibitive.

When I finished reading a copy, I would label its spine with a marker and stack it in correct order with the rest of the Rolling Stone issues in the basement. I was a kind of amateur librarian, but my only patrons were the silverfish who saw these piles of decaying paper as food and housing. Eventually, a basement clean-up day came, and my pathetic accumulation of rock and roll journalism was carried to the curb, silverfish families and all.

Our farsighted garbage man must have been the only one to sense the value of my archives, and perhaps he acquired digitizing equipment the same way. In any event, you can now buy Rolling Stone Cover to Cover: The First 40 Years on DVD-ROM and read about Debbie Harry and Billy Joel to your heart’s content, without having to touch that moldy paper.

These days, Rolling Stone is a slick, glossy magazine consisting largely of 100-word blurbs about downloadable U2 tracks. It is only 91 pages, and 36 of those are devoted entirely to advertising. It is both too glossy and too insubstantial to make a cozy home and pantry for silverfish.

Rolling Stone is also very small now. It is still larger than the TV Guide and Soap Opera Digest of my youth, but not by much. In the last few months, it has begun to straddle the legal no-man’s-land between magazine and pamphlet. U2 is featured frequently because their name takes up less space on the tiny new pages.

Ever since first seeing the miracle of full-color layout delivered instantly via Internet, it had to be fairly clear to everyone involved that bundling newspapers and magazines and hauling them all over the nation — to either be sold to readers or not — no longer seemed as cost-effective as it may have in the days of the rotary phone. It also stands to reason that soon, even commuters on the train are going to use something like the Amazon Kindle to read their daily newspapers, magazine, and blogs.

As Andy Ihnatko pointed out over a year ago, the Kindle’s Internet connection alone makes it a bargain:

In the meantime, though, while the world is waiting for everyone to buy a Kindle, our quaint old print media are disappearing in varying ways. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, has decided to publish every day on the Web only, with a print edition just once a week.

Other publications, like Rolling Stone, are getting smaller. Today in his “Tower Ticker” blog, Phil Rosenthal reported that the Chicago Tribune will put out a new tabloid-sized paper for single-copy readers like commuters, while still keeping the classic broadsheet size alive, for now, for home subscribers.

I’m just afraid that before going completely electronic, newspapers and magazines will first shrink to the dimensions and type size of that unilaterally-revised agreement you get from your credit card company every other month. After that, it will be the fine print of the disclaimers and odds listed on the backs of lottery tickets — and perhaps the very last newspapers will come wrapped around a small slab of bubble gum.

We are living in a time of profound change, and — caught between our sentimentality for the old ways and our rush to embrace the new — we are also living in a time of profound Alice in Wonderland awkwardness.