I’ve been thinking about newspapers recently. My generation might be the last one to read newspapers in large numbers, and in fact I still get the newspaper delivered every day, which is probably rare even among my generation today.
I don’t think even my generation has a true understanding of how important and influential newspapers once were in the United States. They were effectively the only form of mass media in the 19th and early 20th century, and major newspaper publishers could be major figures in public life. But their influence waned as new mass media technologies were developed – radio, television, and of course the Internet.
When I was a kid, my parents subscribed to the Boston Globe daily, and the New York Times on Sunday. We’d walk up to the local newsstand to buy the latter. I, of course, bought comic books instead, and that’s where I started with newspapers: The comics page. I was a big fan of Garfield, and I also remember cutting out episodes of The Amazing Spider-Man and taping or pasting them to paper to gather whole stories to read. Later on I discovered Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and others, though honestly the quality of strips dropped off pretty quickly after those two. (The heyday of newspaper strips was long before I started reading them.)
For three years in high school I had a history teacher – Dr. Paul Gottlieb – who every year said we should read the newspaper and that we could supersede the regular syllabus to discuss current events, so long as we actually talked about it. I never took him up on it, but a few other students would half-heartedly try, mainly to try to defer talking about the class materials, but it never worked. Obviously Dr. Gottlieb had been around this block a few times.
(Aside: While I was pretty much a C+ student in his class, Dr. Gottlieb was one of my favorite teachers in high school. He died – from a heart attack, I heard – a few years after I graduated. So I never got to hear his recitation of the history of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringens. I think I’m now older than he was when he died.)
I also was a delivery boy for the (now defunct) Newton Graphic in high school, one of two weekly papers in my home town. I picked up the route from a friend of mine. It involved the papers being delivered to my house in a stack, and I’d have to fold and rubber-band them and then walk or bike around the route delivering them. And I’d get paid, thus supporting my comic book habit. I wasn’t very good at it, mostly in that I wasn’t able to carry a bag full of papers without really hurting my shoulder. So I’d wrap the bag around the handle of my bike and ride around, which worked great until the day I was booking back home with the empty bag flapping off the handle, and it flew right into the spokes of the front wheel, throwing me off the bike and leaving me with badly skinned hands and knees. But no permanent damage, fortunately.
I had to deliver in the rain, which led to a couple of complaints that I was being lazy and throwing the papers on the steps where they got wet. So I had to go up to each door and put the paper somewhere dry. I’m sure I saw it as an annoying inconvenience rather than learning a lesson from it. (Aside: Not that I don’t take responsibility for my, well, irresponsibility, it’s just that after over 35 years it feels like it was done by someone else, and that I’d do a better job and better react to the experience than I did then. Of course, maybe I’m fooling myself!)
I had a couple of routes during the years I delivered, for reasons I don’t remember. And I’m sure I got less out of it than I should have, but “I got less out of it then I should have” could be the tag line for my whole teenage years.
And now, a discontinuity: When I went off to college at Tulane, I started reading the paper every day. I don’t know why, I just did. The New Orleans paper of record was the Times-Picayune, which has since merged with another paper. I’d walk down from my sixth-floor dorm room and across the street to buy a paper from the vending machine. I imagine it cost about 50¢ an issue, but I don’t remember. But I don’t really remember clearly reading this paper. Maybe I read it all through college, maybe not. I suspect not, because I don’t think I was reading a paper when I went to grad school at Wisconsin in Madison.
That changed in the spring of 1993 when I started playing fantasy baseball. This was at the very leading edge of being able to compute the weekly results by computer, which our league commissioner handled, but it was really before the World Wide Web, so if you wanted to follow your team you had to buy a newspaper, read the box scores, and tally up the scores yourself. (Before this, league owners would compute their scores by hand from the box scores in the newspaper. I’m sure it was delightful.)
Madison had – and I think still has – two daily newspapers, the Wisconsin State Journal, published in the morning, and the Capital Times, published in the afternoon. (This was a weird holdover from the days when many papers would publish two – or more – editions per day, a practice which ended well before my time.) Since I wanted to see the box scores every morning, I subscribed to the State Journal. I think the Cap Times was a slightly more left-wing paper, but the State Journal had really good sports coverage, in particular they would publish every box score of every baseball game, even if a game ran late and they had to run it a day later. I learned how important this was to me when I became immersed in fantasy baseball when I went back to visit my parents that summer and found that the Boston Globe definitely did not do this, which was immensely frustrating.
To further feed my fantasy baseball habit, I bought USA Today once or twice a week, as it had detailed baseball transactions. I also bought USA Today’s Baseball Weekly, which featured in-depth coverage of the ongoing season combined with fun historical articles. It was a competitor of The Sporting News, which had been the preferred paper for fantasy baseball owners for years, but for whatever reason I picked and stuck with BW. I even cut out a stack of articles from it over the years, which I still have sitting in my office upstairs. While these papers are both still going, I suspect they lost much of their readership to fantasy web sites in the early 2000s. Both of these papers I picked up from the newsstand rather than subscribing – these were the days when convenience stores would have racks of papers, so it was easy to find them.
Madison had at least two other newspapers while I lived there, one being the weekly free local paper Isthmus, and the other being The Onion. Yes, that paper. I kind of regret not saving some of my copies of The Onion from when it was a local humor weekly, as keepsakes. Especially the one with my all-time favorite headline, “Chick Corea Falls to Communists”. Anyway, I think Madison may have had another local weekly – probably entertainment-focused, and maybe others I no longer remember, but those are the four I recall.
Another thing which was in vogue in the 90s were weekly newspapers which would collect political and other cartoons, as national syndication could be spotty for some artists. It was a great way to follow, for example, Tom Toles, or other favorite political cartoonists at the time. Once newspapers started going online, these papers largely went away.
I think initially I was buying the Wisconsin State Journal at a nearby convenience store, and only during baseball season, but once I finished school and got a real job I subscribed. This was a little exciting as I lived in a fancy (for Madison) apartment building with a locked front door, so everyone in the building who subscribed got their papers dumped in the atrium outside that door. The delivery person did write the apartment unit on each paper, though, so everyone knew if they’d gotten theirs or not.
In 1999 I moved to the Bay Area, and again I chose my paper based on its baseball coverage, going with the San Jose Mercury News, which like the Wisconsin State Journal had excellent daily baseball boxscores. What it also had was a muckraking sensibility which regularly exposed scandals in local and state politics. As the newspaper industry has contracted, the Merc has changed ownership a couple of times, but the paper is still pretty solid, with national, local, and sports/finance sections – plus comics pages, games pages, weather, and a pretty hefty Sunday edition. Between my recent visit to Boston where I bought a Globe exactly once, and accidentally receiving a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle last week, I have a new appreciation for the Merc‘s standing among daily newspapers.
My current home town of Mountain View also had a weekly local paper, the Voice, part of a network of local papers in the area. The Voice discontinued its print edition at the beginning of COVID in 2020, but continues to publish online. It’s not quite the same, and I miss picking up the Voice every weekend when we’d go downtown for dinner, but I still pitch 10 bucks per month to support them. They do good work.
The Merc is pretty expensive to subscribe to these days, but I still get it. One good thing – for me – about the decline of newspapers is that my paper hardly ever gets stolen out of my driveway anymore. Sure, I could read all this stuff online, but I enjoy reading it on paper. For now it’s worth it to me.
I don’t feel nostalgic for the eras of newspapers of the past, though I do think they served a valuable role in investigatory news which has been seriously degraded over the last 20 years. It would be nice if we could have that and what we get from the Internet, but it seems it isn’t to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if all but a few big national papers and some niche local papers like the Voice fold completely in my lifetime.
It’s strange to think that my life has been witness to the end stages of the newspaper as a business and social phenomenon.