Column: You’re reading this because of Steve Jobs

The first rule for this column — and for this newspaper, really — is that its subject matter must be local. If there’s an earthquake in East Hampton, I have been known to say in the past, we’re only interested in it if it rattles Mrs. Sledjeski’s dishes on Sound Avenue.

For many years, we enforced this rule to the extreme, even declining to publish letters to the editor that commented on national and international issues. (There were plenty of other publications willing and able to publish such letters, we argued. And few others out there were interested in Mrs. S’s dishes.) Eventually, that restriction was lifted, and we rationalized the move by saying that a local person writing on a national or international issue made the letter, by definition, local. That and the advent of the Internet, which has changed the definition of what is “local” now and forever.

Which brings me to the subject of this local column: Steve Jobs.

Last week, when word of the death of Apple Computer’s founder and inspirational leader first broke, I was out of the loop, literally and figuratively, walking the streets of Manhattan without my iPhone. I heard dribs and drabs from the friends I was with, but the full impact of his passing didn’t register until I chanced upon the spontaneous memorial to Jobs that had sprung up on the sidewalk in front of the new Apple store on the Upper West Side.

There, on the exterior wall of the striking glass cube of a building, were hundreds of Post It notes of condolence, traditional sympathy cards, photos, trinkets and dozens of apples, many of them with a single bite taken out to mimic Apple’s famous logo.

It was as if a president like John Kennedy, or a moral giant like Martin Luther King Jr. or a superstar like Elvis had died. But this was just a guy who ran a company based in Cupertino, Calif.

Or was he?

Steve Jobs and I go way back to the early 1980s, when our little newspaper company was looking to make the move to electronic publishing. We had experimented at first with the TRS-80 computers sold by Radio Shack, but they were only suitable for capturing a reporter’s keystrokes and transforming them to the printed page. To create a true newspaper, with photos and graphics and advertisements, we needed something far more sophisticated — and, we thought at the time, far more expensive.

Preliminary research pointed toward proprietary software and hardware priced at hundreds of thousands of dollars, which was totally out of the question for a company with total sales in that same range. And then someone, somewhere — I think it may have been at a community newspaper publishers’ convention — mentioned the MacIntosh computer and the miracles it was working for small publications like ours.

When we bought our first one, I remember friends and associates telling us the Macs would never stick because they weren’t good for crunching numbers and the other tasks traditionally handled by computers. But we soon realized Macs were perfectly suited for the task at hand — so-called desktop publishing — and we ended up buying five, then 10, then 25 more. The rest, as they say, is history.
Is it hyperbolic to suggest that this newspaper is here today, more than a century after its founding, because of Steve Jobs? Yes, it is. But I have a hard time imagining how we would have survived the transition from hot type to cold type without the availability of those sleek, moderately priced tools he and the company he created placed at our disposal.

So tonight, as I type this column on my MacBook Pro — after having texted my high school teammate on my iPhone and having read this week’s issue of The New Yorker on the iPad I ended up buying the other day at that store on the Upper West Side — I am prepared to argue that Steve Jobs’ death is a local story as far as this community newspaper is concerned.

Other testimonials have asserted persuasively this week that Steve Jobs changed this world. I assert that in a very real way he also changed this very word.

[email protected]