“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper”
To be fair, it really isn’t the end of the world but it is the end of something that has been a big part of my life for over twenty years. I am referring to my weekly column, House Calls, in the Orlando Sentinel. Sunday, February 12 was my final column. For more than two decades I have faced each new week knowing that I had a deadline to produce a roughly 600 word column that would distill some complex medical issue into a succinct essay, understandable to readers with no formal medical education. It had to be accurate but easy to digest.
If I succeeded at all, it is due to diligence on my part in continually striving to improve my writing and the help of some excellent writers on the Sentinel staff, particularly Lauren Ritchie, who reviewed my weekly submissions, offered suggested edits, and made me sound more polished than I really am. I learned a lot in those two plus decades, certainly more than those who read my column. The end came as a bit of surprise, as these things often do. I received an emotional courtesy telephone call from Lauren letting me know that the Lake Sentinel was cutting back its operations to twice a week and the section was being severely cut back to a few pages which would not allow for several of us with regular columns to continue. Twenty years of weekly columns were over in the span of a few weeks. I still find it hard to believe.
The problem wasn’t the column. I know from multiple directions that it is well received and many, many people have told me over the years that they looked forward to it each week. My emails, patients, friends, and even strangers tell me that it is informative and some have used it to make beneficial changes to their lives by taking some of the advice dispensed. I have been amazed at how far and wide it has gone and have received feedback from across the country on columns I have written. No, it wasn’t the column itself.
The money, $75 for each column if you want to know, has not covered my time in producing the typical column but it has been a nice validation that the paper felt there was real value in my writing. Now that it is over I can say, without fear that the paper will take me seriously, that I would have written House Calls regardless of whether I was paid or not. It was simply too much fun.
The culprit, I suspect, is that big bugaboo, technology. We have so many ways of obtaining our news these days that newspaper subscriptions have been steadily withering away, to the point where many newspapers are struggling to survive in an electronic age. This is too bad.
I fear that people are only too willing to obtain their news in electronic soundbites and snippets, hardly more than headlines, rather than take the time to read an in-depth article which covers complex issues more thoroughly and, hopefully, objectively. I know that in other writing ventures, such as for a monthly magazine, I have been asked to substitute for my long, comprehensive articles short paragraphs that can be more easily digested by readers with short attention spans and an aversion to too much information.
What I fear is that we are raising up a new generation of functional illiterates that react rather than reflect when confronted with information that might be complex or controversial. We are seeing this today in the vehement, often misinformed protests regarding issues that are both important and complicated, as though these can be addressed by emotion alone, without good, factual information. If we cease to read, read multiple sources with different views points on an issue, read scholarly analyses of complex issues, read those who have both education and experience on an issue, even if we don’t agree with them, we will be at the mercy of the most recent sound bite or plausible false fact from anyone with a smooth tongue and slick delivery. God help us then.
In medicine, the landscape is replete with charlatans, opportunists, quacks, and the misinformed all pushing their personal agendas, opinions, and profiteering. I always sought to provide accurate, objective information. Outside of my practice, I do not derive any income from promoting any medical device, procedure, or supplement. Most of my medical colleagues practice in the same fashion. Who are you going to believe, an MD/DO who has dedicated their professional life to practicing sound, evidence based medicine for the good of their patients, or the online guy selling you a magic bullet for whatever ails you? Journalists have received a lot of bad press recently, some of it deserved, but they are still a critical part of the fourth estate, which is essential to a free and democratic society. Without the press as a watch dog holding politicians, lawyers, businessmen, civil servants, and, yes, doctors to account, where would we all be? I have seen how journalists like Lauren Ritchie and Scott Maxwell can bring to light problems and issues that would not be public knowledge without them and sometimes force the powers that be or the public to do the right thing, if only to avoid further censure.
For my part, I hope that newspapers adapt and survive without compromising their mission to inform the public. I know that I don’t feel my day is complete without at least a perusal of the local news so that I know what is going on out there. I happen to like the feel of holding a newspaper, hear the rustle of the pages, and have the ability to jump back and forth effortlessly from page to page, without the need to scroll through pages of extraneous material to get to where I want to go. Besides, you can’t use your Kindle, Nook, or iPad to catch oil drips under your car in the garage, line the bird’s cage, or soak up grease from your bacon strips in the morning.
I understand the market and sociological forces at work here but I sure will miss writing that weekly column…………