Friday, March 15, 2013

Why I’m Going to Miss Newspapers

I’ve said it before:  my favorite time is when I sit down in the morning with my first cup of coffee and start to read the three newspapers that I devour every day.

One reason this is such a guilty pleasure is the contrast to my first job, in public relations at Lever Brothers in New York, when I had to walk into an empty office at 8 a.m. carrying five newspapers, then read and summarize all the business news of interest to the company’s executives, who would get a mimeographed newsletter from me when they drifted in around 10 a.m.  Now, of course, all executives can get their own news summary on their I-phones right in the taxi or commuter train on the way to work.

The paper that I read first with my coffee is the local paper—the Worcester (MA) Telegram & Gazette.  I need the comfortable perspective of the T&G before I tackle the increasingly depressing first page of The New York Times.
 The T&G on Monday, March 11, for example, devoted much of the front page to Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade-- photos and the title “Smilin’ Skies” with two subtitles “Sun Shines on St. Pat’s Parade” and “One band finds itself out of step.” Inside on page three was a feel-good story and photo about how the library in Hardwick is sponsoring a seed exchange, lending seeds as well as books to its patrons, who are expected to bring seeds back from their crop for the next year’s sowing.  That’s the kind of uplifting local story that I like.

While The New York Times likes to lead with photos of mass graves and starving refugee children, the T& G has featured page-one photos of firemen rescuing a cat from a telephone pole.  When I’ve finished the T&G and checked to see if anyone I know has died or been arrested, I go through The New York Times methodically, section by section.  Often the obituaries of fascinating people I’d never heard of are my favorite part.
 I need a second cup of coffee before I tackle The Times, and when I’m through, I go about my chores. But sometime during the day I go out and track down a copy of the New York Post, which is famous for its lurid headlines like “Headless Body in Topless Bar” (that one was voted a readers favorite.  Here are some more below.) 
 People often ask me “Why on earth would YOU read the Post every day?” (Meaning—since I’m an educated professional with presumably better taste.)  But I reply truthfully that I need my daily gossip fix, and often I find my New York friends and acquaintances and their misadventures chronicled on Page Six.  Where else but in the Post would I find articles like the one last Monday about: “Why does everyone hate Anne Hathaway?” 
 My kids and their friends get all their news on line.  And I understand and respect their reasons why I shouldn’t read the print version: it kills trees, it gets your hands and furniture dirty, and by the time the paper appears in the driveway at 6:30 a.m. (usually in a plastic bag landing in the snow), it’s already out of date.

But I love handling the newspapers; the smell of the ink that smudges my hands.  I love being able to tag with post-it notes and later cut out articles I think would be of interest to my kids.  I regularly send them clippings, which I suspect they never read (but if I forward the article by e-mail I sometimes get a comment back.)

Today we get breaking news via internet the instant it happens—and we also get all the confusion and fear and wrong information gleaned by bystanders.  Think about the Newtown massacre and how many wrong “facts” were reported until, by the afternoon, the terrible truth was pinned down and rendered into print for the next day’s papers.

I graduated with a master’s degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and I realize the serious dangers of broadcasting breaking news while it’s still rumor. I understand how easy it would be to cause mass hysteria , serious injury and even death using no more than your Twitter or Facebook account.   Look what Orson Welles did with “War of the Worlds” on the radio in 1938, before the days of television.

The ability of bystanders to report the news on line is also a good thing—it can uncover and document police abuse, domestic abuse, all kinds of criminal acts. But I still prefer my news on paper, evaluated and fact-checked by the reporters of the Great Gray Lady presenting “all the news that’s fit to print.” 

I know we’re approaching the end of the road for print media. Newsweek is gone, except for on-line. The Boston Phoenix just folded after 47 years. The New York Times, suffering financially like everyone else, is trying to find someone to buy the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. One day soon there won’t be any more news delivery people or any more newspapers landing in the snowdrift at the end of our driveway.  And millions of trees will have been saved.

When I was born on Feb. 4, 1941, my parents saved the entire Milwaukee Journal: (“Score Hurt as Big Locomotive Explodes in Streets of Denver”.)  In September of 1970 I cut our wedding announcement out of The New York Times and put it in an album. Like everyone else, I saved the paper from Nov. 23, 1963, about Kennedy’s assassination.  That was the first time the nation pulled together to mourn a tragedy as it was taking place on television, but, still in grad school, I didn’t have access to a television, but stood over the teletype machine in Columbia J School’s newsroom as crumbs of information were typed out at an agonizingly slow pace.

When all the newspapers are gone and news comes beeping through our phones and computers all day long, my first cup of coffee in the morning won’t taste the same.  And as one friend asked, what are we going to use to pack up the china and line the birdcage?

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