--P. T. Barnum
I still have ink on my hands, smudged black newspaper ink, from my time as a newspaper delivery boy, in West Springfield, Massachusetts, in the nineteen-seventies. For six years, six days a week, I arose well before dawn, sleepily stumbled out to my front stoop, and picked up a huge pack of fifty or so tightly twined Springfield Union newspapers. Then I’d roll them all up, stuff them into my canvas bag, get on my bike and make my early morning deliveries, often arriving back home just before sunrise.
It was my first real job and other than the pocket change I made as pay, the one thing I enjoyed the most was my daily ritual of reading that newspaper after my route was done. On warm summer mornings I’d sit out in our driveway and lean back against the garage door and then open up the paper to find out what had happened in the world in the past 24 hours. First the comics. Then the sports. Then the front page.
I still vividly recall the hot summer of 1974 when, as a budding news junkie, I read all I could about the Watergate scandal and the downfall of the most powerful man in the world, President Richard Nixon. It was two newspaper reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and one gutsy newspaper, The Washington Post, which brought down Nixon, exposed his lies. Told the truth, in black and white and column inches.
I hope you can excuse my newspaper nostalgia. It’s easy these days to see the notion of a physical newspaper as somehow quaint, old school, retro, maybe even just the stuff of our grandparents. Who reads the newspaper anymore? Who needs to depend upon a real item, made of newsprint and ink, when virtual news is available so readily and handily and inexpensively and conveniently, on the screens of our phones and computers and tablets and TVs?
These are tough days for print journalism and newspapers. Since the early two-thousands, newspapers have been in steep decline: in circulation, readership and revenue. Right now New England’s largest newspaper, The Boston Globe, is having a delivery nightmare. It decided to switch from one delivery vendor to another at the end of last year. The outcome has been a disaster, with thousand of customers left without a trusty paper at the end of the driveway in the morning. This debacle could not have come at a worse time.
Yet here are some newspaper truths. We may get our news in differing ways from our forebears, as we surf the information superhighway. We may imagine that in 2016 news is now “free” and so we don’t have to bother anymore with plunking down a few bucks for the latest New York Times or Wall Street Journal. We may even think that a post newspaper world is a better place: no more messy ink, and so anyone with a computer and an idea is a journalist, right?
Newspapers and the reporters who work and write for them, who write for us: newspapers still matter and still make a huge difference for the good. The child sex abuse scandal in the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese? Who discovered the story, wrote the story, doggedly pursued the story, went the distance to uncover the awful and ugly truth? Print reporters, who armed only with curiosity, a pad of paper and their questions, tracked down the answers. (Go see the film “Spotlight” for this amazing tale.) Who asks the hard questions of our Presidential candidates, uncovers the secret folks and groups who pour billions of dollars into our elections? Who first reported the story of Volkswagen cheating? Who covers your kid’s Friday night game and then shares their name with the world? Who sits through boring civic meetings for hours on end to make sure the citizenry knows what government is really up to?
Newspaper reporters and newspapers, more than any other media or medium or high priced star TV reporter. Even the most visited news websites—Yahoo news, Google news, the Huffington Post—these most often aggregate and collect stories from print media sites. We may imagine as consumers of news that we are now liberated from ink and print but the reality is that almost every story we read, every tidbit of gossip we consume, every game day fact we pore over, begins at the end of a pencil, held in the hand of a newspaper reporter. A real live person whose vocation it is to seek the truth and then share that information with the public and readers, so that they might be better informed as citizens.
So here’s to newspapers, real newspapers. Dailies and weeklies and hometown mailers. Small town tabs and big city tabloids. We may not get that ink on our hands anymore, may not even subscribe, or pay the freight for the news. But the next time you read a story and think, “I didn’t know that…” remember this. A newspaper probably made your enlightenment possible.
And that’s the real news.