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The News We Need

When I was a kid, The Sacramento Union was on our front porch when we got up in the morning. Actually, by the time I dragged myself into the kitchen, the paper was on our dining room table, where my dad read it cover to cover every day while he drank black coffee with one teaspoon of sugar. He was a man of habit, and this was part of his routine. In the late afternoon, The Sacramento Bee would be tossed onto that same front porch by some neighborhood boy from the seat of his Schwinn. My dad read that paper in a green, wing-back chair in the living room before dinner. After the rest of us went to bed, my mom would do the Bee crossword puzzle while she watched The Tonight Show, with Jack Paar.

Other than looking at the Sunday comics, I didn’t actually start reading the newspaper myself until the 1960s, mostly because we were required to by one teacher or another. Whether it was for a cheesy Current Events presentation, or for research for some essay we had to write in high school, I started learning about different writers and about how much was involved in what had occurred the day before. I had read the paper in earnest during 7th grade, when President Kennedy was assassinated, but I didn't read it seriously until high school, when older boys we knew were being drafted to go to Vietnam. That's when I found myself reading the paper to get an in-depth look at what was really happening in that faraway country. I loved newspapers then, and I still do. Sometimes I think I became a college journalism teacher because I liked to read newspapers more than because I was a particularly talented writer.

These newspapers still live in a canvas bag in my office, treasures for me like tiny, colorful stones are for beachcombers.

Even today, I still read (or at least scan) two daily papers. The Union is long gone, and the demise of The Bee doesn’t seem far off, but I can’t bring myself to stop subscribing to it. As a gift to myself about 10 years ago, I started subscribing to The New York Times. If I had the time, I might read every story in it every day. On most mornings, I’m just in awe of a group of people that can still bring that kind of research and insight together every single day. I do read news on the Internet, but I’m skeptical about most of it.

As a newspaper reader, I’m probably in good company with people around my age, but not with younger folks. Newspapers are not how most people get their news today. In fact, only about a tenth of the people in the country read an actual daily newspaper. I wish that were different. When I used to teach journalism, I would stress to my students that I understood the ease of scanning the latest happenings on your phone or even on the radio in your car. But newspapers—good, solid, objective newspapers—look at that news in depth. They give the reader a chance to see the story from a variety of viewpoints. Plus, it is often just amazing writing and reporting.

This is one of the rituals I am appreciating deeply in the middle of this pandemic. Even pre-COVID, like my dad, I started the day with coffee and the paper. There isn’t a better feeling in the world to me than having an open hour or so to just read about how people are living their lives, dealing with changes, conflict, tragedy and triumph, and often being so much more resilient than I could ever imagine. And the photographs, graphics, and designs are like a daily trip to an art museum. I often save sections of the paper to look at later, even though I rarely get back to them and I could easily find them online. But these newspapers still live in a canvas bag in my office, treasures for me like tiny, colorful stones are for beachcombers.

Like many people my age, I have long lamented the very slow death of newspapers. Partly it means the loss of employment for many former students and current friends. But it also means the loss of reading with contemplation about the world we live in. It is one of the major ways that the world I grew up in is not the world I inhabit as an adult. I also know that many wonderful sources of journalism exist on the Internet and for that I am grateful. But there never will be anything quite the same to me as the feel of a newspaper in my hands, the luxury of time to peruse it, and the quality of work that so many people put into it. I feel lucky I got to be in the group that knows this to be true.

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