Growing up in Washington D.C in the ‘50s and 60s, we had two newspapers land on our doorstep every day. My father would rise early enough to read The Washington Post as he ate his breakfast of one soft boiled egg, one piece of toast, and a cup of instant coffee made with the water that cooked his egg, before catching the bus for his government job downtown. Arriving home precisely at 5 p.m., he would scoop The Evening Star off the front stoop and settle into his chair to determine what had changed in the world since morning and to see the differing perspectives of the Post and Star reporters.
The gradual decline of print newspapers is a great sadness to me. While I do read the news online, it is not the same. I can only describe it as a loss of serendipity.
As soon as I learned to read, I, too, started my morning with the Post in eager anticipation of the comics, also called the funny pages. The Post was the best, having at least four full pages peopled with characters that became very real to me: Charlie Brown, Pogo, Lil’ Abner, Nancy and Sluggo, Beetle Bailey, Mary Worth, Rex Morgan, MD, and Prince Valiant, to name a few. Although the comics today don’t seem as funny (is it me or them?) they are still a part of my daily routine.
As I grew older, my newspaper reading expanded. If my memory holds (a dubious assumption), the Post situated columnists, such as investigative journalists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson, next to the comics. I am not sure what, if anything, that implied about the Post’s view of columnists, but soon I entered the world of differing views on the news, depending on the political leanings of the columnist. Today, after the comics, I turn to the columns of whatever newspaper I am reading. The front page can wait. I am fascinated with the roles columnists play in shaping public opinion and public policy. I have often thought that the best, most engaging way to teach history would be to have students read columns about an event (e.g. the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention) as history in the making, and then read historians’ accounts – history viewed from a distance in time.
Whatever city I moved to, my first act once I had an address was to subscribe to the local paper. Instead of an alarm clock, I relied on the thump of the paper against the door to wake me. Reading the local papers helped me understand my new home and what mattered to the people living there. Letters to the editor were especially revealing. The demise of local newspapers is a huge loss. With only national news outlets and websites for information, communities have no easy access to issues specific to their neighborhoods and towns. The loss of local news can result in greater isolation from the thoughts and concerns of our neighbors. Local papers can elicit a feeling of pride in the unique aspects of a town or city, emphasizing that diversity is a positive, unifying feature of our country, not a source of divisiveness. These newspapers are also an important breeding ground for young aspiring reporters.
The gradual decline of print newspapers is a great sadness to me. While I do read the news online, it is not the same. I can only describe it as a loss of serendipity. As I turn the pages of my print newspaper in search of the comics and columns, I invariably come across an article or essay that I might never have read without thumbing through the paper. Perhaps I learn something new or alert a friend to a piece they might enjoy. I try to explain that to my now grown children who view print as almost immoral (too many trees; I get that). But for me, this kind of stumble – this serendipitous discovery – does not happen in my online reading. I read a headline, click on the article, and then move to the next headline. Even with headlines as “clickbait,” I rarely page through the digital paper at a leisurely pace. I will miss my casual strolls through print if it ever truly disappears. I may also have to buy an alarm clock.