This is a nice — not a great, but a nice — profile of one of my heroes, Donald Knuth, but it does have an odd little moment:
Dr. Knuth lives in Stanford, and allowed for a Sunday visitor. That he spared an entire day was exceptional — usually his availability is “modulo nap time,” a sacred daily ritual from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. He started early, at Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church, where he delivered a Sunday school lesson to a standing-room-only crowd. Driving home, he got philosophical about mathematics.
Hmmm, isn’t that interesting? Knuth is the deepest and most wide-ranging of computer scientists; plus, “many consider Dr. Knuth’s work on the TeX computer typesetting system to be the greatest contribution to typography since Gutenberg”; and he’s a Sunday-school teacher? Might it not be worth our time to explore that a little bit? Apparently not.
But if you, unlike the NYT, wanted to explore these matters, then you might take a look at the book of calligraphy and commentary that Knuth put together called 3:16: Bible Texts Illuminated; or, if you’re really interested, listen to or read his lectures on religion and computer science, Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About.
What can be done? Start figuring out how to make journalism work as a philanthropic enterprise. If you’re a journalist at one of the countless struggling papers, get together with other journalists and start feeling out philanthropists. Make the case that local journalism’s traditional mission — poking around in the details of city budgets, monitoring what the school board is getting up to, investigating self-dealing politicians — benefits the community and is worthy of their involvement. Who knows, maybe a few subscribers will turn up when they see the local paper as a philanthropy instead of as vulture bait.
There are no obvious treatments for journalism’s profound malaise, but I think Megan has identified the most plausible direction to take.