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 got up, it 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 routine, and this was part of his ritual. 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 dinner, my mom would do the crossword puzzle while she watched television.
I didn’t start actually reading the newspaper until the 1960s, mostly because we were required to by one teacher or another, either for a cheesy Current Events presentation or for research for some essay we had to write in high school. I read the paper in earnest in 7th grade, when President Kennedy was assassinated, and it gradually became a habit. In high school, when older boys we knew were being drafted to go to Vietnam, reading the paper to get an in-depth look at what was really happening was a part of every day. I love newspapers. Sometimes I think I became a college journalism teacher because I like to read newspapers more than because I was a particularly talented journalist.
These newspapers live in a canvas bag in my office, treasures to me like glass stones are to beachcombers.
Even today, I still read (or at least scan) two daily papers. The Union is long gone, and The Bee doesn’t seem far off, but I can’t bring myself to stop subscribing. As a birthday 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 days, I’m just in awe of an organization that can still bring that kind of research 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 and conflict and tragedy, 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 still save many sections of the paper to look at again, even though I rarely get back to them. But these newspapers live in a canvas bag in my office, treasures to me like glass stones are to 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 many, many 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 so 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.