Blowing in the wind

26th May 2000 at 01:00
For millennia, the wind has been a metaphor for change and restlessness. From the Latin poet Horace, who spoke of being an exile going "wherever the wind takes me" to Christina Rossetti, who wistfully wondered, "Who has seen the wind?", writers have called up turbulent airs to swell the sails of their meanings. Most famously, perhaps, the poet Shelley, most Romantic of the Romantics, wrote an 'Ode to the West Wind', summoning the tempestuous change of seasons, "O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being" in throbbing stanzas that conclude, "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" Citizens of Miami, Florida, also have intimate acquaintance with the wind. Hurricanes regularly rip through their city, smashing buildings, cars and trees, forcing families to flee with their possessions and leave the elements in charge. Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, was one such tempest, trashing the suburb of Naraja but (as seen in this picture) leaving, capriciously, the vending machine for the local newspaper, the Miami Herald, unscathed. Your house might have been destroyed, but at last you could still put your quarter in the slot and buy the Herald's warning of impending mayhem: "Bigger, stronger, closer."

Newspapers themselves face a wind of change potentially as forceful as Hurricane Andrew. For a century and more, newspapers have been the dominant means of transmitting mass information, from inky samzidat sheets in the old Soviet Bloc countries to the bold designs of Western tabloids, from the solemnity of the New York Times to the saucy headlines of the British Sun. Yet newspaper readership is declining.

As the proverb says, it is an ill wind that blows no one any good. First radio, then television, now the Internet, have offered wider, quicker access to information than the printed word. Will newspapers, like medieval scribes or the society of the ante-bellum American Deep South described in Margaret Mitchell's popular novel, soon be Gone With the Wind? Or will they evolve into a niche, minority form like storytelling or calligraphy?

As singer Bob Dylan put it, the answer is blowin' in the wind.

Victoria Neumark

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