My Newspaper Habit
This begins what I hope is a regular series of columns for my local paper, the Maryville Daily Times. This column appeared on December 8, 2022 (here).
Some readers may be surprised to see my name in a byline on this page, as opposed to as the signature on a missive directed to the editor. Over the course of my life, I have written plenty of both: op-eds and letters to the editor. That is because, as a Boomer, I grew up in the age of newspapers, and developed reading habits that I have never had occasion to change. I love newspapers.
As a boy, I delivered newspapers—for the Washington Evening Star. In the early and mid-20th century, before the advent of cable TV, the Internet, and the now-ubiquitous smart phone, most cities were serviced by several newspapers, which were the community’s primary conduit of information. In suburban Maryland, where I grew up, there were three general circulation papers: the Washington Post, which was delivered in the morning, mainly to white collar households; the Evening Star, which catered to blue collar readers; and the Daily News, an evening tabloid owned by the E. W. Scripps Company. Before my time, the nation’s capital also supported a fourth paper, the Times-Herald, which published multiple editions each day until it went defunct in 1954.
In the 1960s, many households subscribed to more than one newspaper, all of which were delivered by youths (“paper boys”) operating as “independent contractors” who bought the papers in bulk and “collected” the subscription amount each month from the customers on their “paper route.” Paper boys delivered the papers by bike or on foot, in either case carrying the papers in a large canvas sack. My parents subscribed to the Evening Star and got the Post only on Sundays. A couple of hefty Sunday papers could keep a reader busy for several hours, leaving one’s fingers stained with printer’s ink.
I remember those days fondly. My parents also subscribed to the Montgomery County Sentinel, a local weekly paper where Bob Woodward started his journalism career covering the crime beat before achieving fame breaking the Watergate story for the Post. Readers relied on the newspaper for news, entertainment, classified ads, and political commentary. Each paper had a unique “voice” reflecting the point of view of its owner or publisher, as evidenced by the syndicated columnists it featured, unsigned editorials, and original editorial cartoons. Sadly, only the Post survives, and the Sentinel is digital-only.
I moved away from the Washington, D.C. area in 1977, but have been an avid reader of newspapers everywhere I lived in California and Texas. From time to time, I felt compelled to “talk back” to various papers with letters to the editor, and eventually to contribute opinion essays, including an occasional column in the Wall Street Journal. For a period while I was practicing law in San Diego, I wrote a monthly column for the local legal paper. Since I retired, my writing has expanded from newspapers (including the L.A. Times and the New York Post) to various magazines, digital publications, and my own blog, Misrule of Law. But I continue to read newspapers every day, even while on vacation.
Many things have changed since my days as a paper boy. The digital age, 24/7 cable news, and the blogosphere have displaced newspapers as an essential information source. Newspaper circulation has plummeted, the number of papers has dwindled, ownership has been consolidated, and most communities are lucky to have a single paper to report local news. Some papers have moved (or are moving) to a digital-only format, and most papers are delivered by adults driving cars, not paper boys with canvas sacks. I lament these trends.
When I moved to Blount County a few years ago, I immediately began subscribing to the Daily Times, and still read it every day. When I disagree with something in the paper, I sometimes respond with a letter, but I don’t stop reading. Newspapers are important. An informed citizenry is essential to democratic self-government. Benjamin Franklin, one of our most astute Founding Fathers, was a newspaperman, as were some of our most influential public intellectuals, such as H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann. In a prior era, newspaper publishers such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were—by virtue of their circulation numbers–among the richest and most powerful Americans. Now, the Washington Post is a mere trophy for Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos. Twitter is regarded as a news source!
Perhaps I am simply being nostalgic, but the notion of a local newspaper, read each day by residents throughout Blount County over their morning cup of coffee, is a shared experience that constitutes a form of civic glue that helps to bind our community together. For that reason, I embark on what I hope is a series of regular columns for the Daily Times.