The decline of American newspapers is a sad thing to watch, especially for those of us who were trained to go into an industry we had the impression would be around at least until our retirement.
Well, that pipedream is gone, and along with amazing shrinking staffs and lighter-weight content, there is the item of newspaper hats.
This weekend, as part of the fabulous Hobart Porch Festival, only the second annual occasion on our long residential street in Northwest D.C., I offered to teach how to fold newspaper hats as part of the other food, crafts and performances offered on dozens of participating porches.
My aim was not to make those easy triangular pirate-style hats that everybody knows how to do (don’t they?). I’m talking those complicated, cool-looking square topped hats that pressmen used to wear to protect them from random ink splatter. I knew I could find a video on YouTube that would teach me in a way that even I could understand and I’d be on my way.
What I hadn’t counted on was the amazing shrinkage of the newspaper.
In addition to cutting staff, newspapers have been regularly cutting an inch off the edges of papers every few years — as if people wouldn’t notice — while still charging the same amount to subscribers, newsstand customers and advertisers, for whom a full page ad was now a distorted four inches thinner. Lay a current issue of one The Hartford Courant over one from a decade or two ago and the difference is almost comical if it weren’t so sad. It’s barely 11 inches wide now; the tabloid sections are practically square.
Even the esteemed papers to which I now subscribe, the New York Times and the Washington Post, have been guilty of such trimming, to about 12.5 inches from an industry standard of about 15 decades ago, because less newsprint means lower costs. The result is that we’re obviously not getting as much news on our front pages (or inside).
But as well: we can no longer can you make a decent newspaper hat out of them anymore either.
The method for making both styles of hat is to fold a four-page sheet down from its spine to form a triangle. Once that’s done, it used to be, you’d have the necessary two inches or so on the bottom to fashion the brim that would hold the thing together. Fold a triangle now and you’ve got nothing left down there.
Lest you’re left to use tape (and that would be cheating), you have to fold your ends toward the middle on angles, but not so they meet in the middle. No longer do you have a point on the top but a flat space that will allow some room to play with at the bottom. Even so, it takes a little extra folding and messing around before you fit it into an approximation of a box.
So the fine citizens of Hobart Street who accepted our handmade millenary goods — and those who sat and learned to make their own — were able to wear their squared off newspaper hats up the street, to hear music, participate in tie-dying or large-scale expressionist painting or consume a variety of good food and drink for a while. But after a couple of hours, I noticed that few people kept wearing them.
Had fashion whims changed so quickly? Did they clash with the Mardi Gras beads? Were people only humoring me that they’d wear it in the first place?
More likely their hats had unfolded by themselves, abandoning the public in its sartorial need just as its diminished editorial product has failed its citizenry.