Brenda Starr copyright Tribune Media Services
What’s black-and-white and not read all over?
Sadly, the daily newspaper. With the Internet’s ascendancy, print-on-paper journalism is disintegrating; reduced to what some characterize as troubled technology that’s as outmoded as chiseled tablets or scrolls of papyrus. Yes, The Times (as well as the Journal, the Chronicle, the Examiner and the Post) are a changin’…gentlemen start your eulogies. Where once the dove-like rustle of broadsheets cooed the news, the icy stare of LCD screens now command. Where once the union of writers and editors presented stories with perspective and focus, bloggers and “citizen journalists” now vie for bandwidth via bilious screeds and narcissistic eruptions. As paper-thin profits slice through newsrooms, knifing the careers of journeymen reporters, a new class of commentator arises: every man a tetchy muckraker, every woman a malodorous correspondent. The ticks and the quirks, the petty irritations and nasty annoyances of millions are now compulsively posted and social-networked. And as this sludgy electronic sea of inconsequentialities pushes further, actual news is subsumed and relegated to endangered species.
More than two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson expressed unstinting faith in newspapers, writing that if faced with choosing a government with no newspapers or newspapers minus a government he should “not hesitate to prefer the latter.” But would Jefferson have so readily avowed this if he were marched before an iMac or handed a Blackberry and made to receive his news from the Drudge Report (“Student arrested for taking 'upskirt' photos of teacher...”) or AOL’s homepage (“Nude Madonna Photo Goes for $37K”)? In fact, if Jefferson were fed a streaming daily diet of news transmitted by the Internet, might he not agree with Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, that the net’s info flow can be more “cesspool” than news pool?
The sure shift in newsgathering and its delivery was brought home to me by The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages: 1851-2008 -- an expansive 456-page book (which given its dimensions could, itself, serve as a coffee table) accompanied by three white DVDs. Several months ago I had been impressed with The Complete New Yorker; this a modest softcover also accompanied by DVDs holding the magazine’s run from Harold Ross’s startup in 1925 to David Remnick’s editorship in 2005. Here were the captivating covers, the cagey cartoons, and the exhaustive profiles as well as everything in-between. Quite an accomplishment. But every front page of the New York Times!
Make no mistake; The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages triumphs not because of bulk but because of scope, reaffirming the power and the glory of a great daily. In no small measure The Complete Front Pages reveals how a true newspaper serves as a journal of who we are, a diary of our collective experience. For a great newspaper reflects the nation’s psyche; our aspirations and our misgivings, our hopes and our hurts, where we wish to go and where we have regretted coming from. And here permit me an indulgence in noting writer Nicholson Baker’s efforts to insure that centuries of original newsprint remain with us. In 1999, Baker established the nonprofit American Newspaper Repository, this in response to an auction by the British Library that was selling off a staggering amount of its original American newspaper holdings. Baker subsequently bought other newspaper collections, which in 2004 were given to Duke University with the requirement that this delicate history be kept safe and not tampered with for perpetuity. Indeed, old newspapers are a national treasure, their survival worth fighting for. Baker decisively explains the reason he and we must press for preserving print journalism in his introduction to The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911). “A century ago, newspapers like the World, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Tribune, and many others were everywhere and were read by everyone; now they are almost nowhere; their historico-artifactual resplendence and indispensability was, it seemed to me, beyond dispute.”
Publisher Philip Graham called newspapers the first rough draft of history. It is a description that implicitly acknowledges the immediacy and the vitality skilled reporting renders; writing that pushes to the center of things while pressing up against a deadline. In fact, the very best reporting can achieve art. E.L. Doctorow admitted to a group of Neiman Fellows that if he could write just one edition of The New York Times it would cap his literary life.
Hey, hold on! Can’t newspapers be parochial, petty, and dead wrong? In 2003 the Virginian-Pilot ran corrections to its 1903 account of the Wright Brothers getting off the ground. And as determined by the Virginian-Pilot’s editors, the original story contained scores of errors. In fact, even the headline was stunningly off, with its declaration of "Flying Machine Soars Three Miles in Teeth of High Wind Over Sand Hills and Waves at Kitty Hawk on Carolina Coast." The Wright Brothers never made it beyond the beach, and the longest flight accomplished that day was just 852 feet, hardly three miles. Morever, the Virginian-Pilot’s account was not based on a reporter on the scene but gleaned from disjointed descriptions offered by Coast Guardsmen stationed nearby. In opting for a flight of fancy journalistically, the Virginian-Pilot forced a crash-landing of accuracy.
Perhaps the most infamous modern instance of a newspaper brokering in fiction was 1980’s Pulitzer-winning feature in the Washington Post about a drug addicted boy named Jimmy. “Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.” Riveting writing, but fiction not fact. Little Jimmy was a character concocted by journalist Janet Cooke. Once the hoax was discovered, Cooke’s Pulitzer went pffffft and she quit. Apologizing for this grave journalism transgression , a contrite Ben Bradlee, then the Post’s executive editor, cited credibility as a newspaper’s paramount virtue. For once a paper lost its integrity, the resulting wounds, said Bradlee, were “grievous.”
In addition to mangling the facts and making stuff up, newspapers can suffer wrenching dyslexia when reading the tea leaves of current events. A New York Times art critic, reviewing Henri Matisse at the fabled New York Armory Show of 1913, excoriated his work for reducing psychology “to a purely animal significance” and “turning humanity back toward its brutish beginnings.” The usually puissant Walter Lippmann judged Franklin Roosevelt “a kind of amiable boyscout,” who really had no grasp of “the great subjects which must concern the next President.” And the Chicago Daily Tribune, announcing the winner of the 1948 Presidential election, shouted this exquisitely wrong-headed headline high above the fold on page one: “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Will Rogers voiced a popular peeve about newspapers, saying, "I hope we never live to see the day when a thing is as bad as some of our newspapers make it." Rebecca West assessed the essential activity of newspapering as “the ability to meet the challenge of filling space.” And Norman Mailer, no slouch when it came to nonfiction writing, believed that the very act of converting actualities into newsprint content was fated to fail. “Once a newspaper touches a story,” Mailer warned, “the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists.” A recent argument against weeping over dying newspapers was even advanced on The New York Times’s Op-Ed page by Michael Kinsley, a Time magazine columnist and founding editor of the online magazine Slate. Kinsley dismissed ink-on-paper journalism as “an artifact from a time when chopping down trees was essential to telling the news…”
My own long experience as a reporter, the formative years of which were spent at the scrappy but now departed Los Angeles Herald Examiner, showed me the limits and the latitude of newspaper writing. More than a few blockhead editors, claustrophobic deadlines, and advancing battle fatigue in having to file the same formulaic stories week after week (the names changed but structure and circumstance repeated) took a toll. Yet there was satisfaction in seeing my name bylined over a story that I knew I had written well, had gotten right. Though the paper would be tossed that night, my story trashed and discarded, there were times I had honestly learned something. I, myself, had been at the center of things and had touched a small square of history. And this would be something I would keep my whole life. I had talked to a mayor at City Hall, had been stared down by a man on trial for attempted murder outside the courtroom, and had watched the back of a Malibu home disappear into the Pacific during a wrenching winter storm. I had sat in a church where hundreds of policemen recalled a murdered friend and fellow officer as bagpipes keened a piercing dirge; and I had flirted with all the members of a famous girl band (well, the singer and lead guitarist). I had lived with runaways in a sullen flophouse on the edge of Hollywood, and I had driven long miles with displaced GM factory workers relocating from Southgate to Oklahoma City. I had been a newspaper reporter, and I had learned a thing or two about writing, about trying to know something as truly and as honestly as I could. Today I see this commitment to getting it true and right in my nephew Tyler Hayden, who recently began reporting and writing for the Santa Barbara Independent.
And here Tyler is in good company. Newspaper writing informs many of our most celebrated poets¸ novelists, and playwrights. Washington Irving, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Willa Cather wrote for newspapers. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath grew out of a series he filed for The San Franciso News in 1936, sketching the lives of “The Harvest Gypsies,” the migrant workers bucketing to California during the Great Depression. As a 19 year-old reporter on the Kansas City Star, Ernest Hemingway was forever influenced by the Star’s style sheet. It required reporters to “Use short sentences” and “Eliminate every single superfluous word…” These qualities would become hallmarks of Hemingway’s mature style; his stark, direct fiction. A piece attributed to Hemingway while working at the Star in 1918 for $15 a week already suggests emotion and feeling rather than outrightly stating them. Titled “Mix War, Art and Dancing,” this account speaks of soldiers at a dance up on the sixth floor of a fine arts school while down below a lone prostitute “walked along the wet street-lamp sidewalk through the sleet and snow.”
Another celebrated American writer, Carl Sandburg, also gained insight and agility as a journalist. In addition to filing film reviews, Sandburg covered highly charged social and political issues. In the summer of 1919, Sandburg, then 41, investigated a race riot that had erupted on the shores of Lake Michigan leaving 38 dead. Sandburg’s story expressed the sentiments of public officials, political activists, and local church leaders, putting racial tensions into a perspective all could more fully understand.
Surely memorable newspaper writing is not exclusive to the famous. Many unsung scribes slogging away in obscurity have produced enduring journalism. In May 1931, an un-bylined reporter in a brief piece describing the “new view” from the top of the just opened Empire State Building, conveyed more than statistics and facts. “In Manhattan the tall buildings, which from the streets below appeared as monsters of steel and stone, assumed a less awe-inspiring significance when viewed from above.” The writer went on to say, “Central Park appeared as a flattened rectangle of earth and turf, a welcomed relief from the stern irregularity of the skyline and the buildings which hemmed in its lake and trees.” When the New York Post reported Franklin Roosevelt’s death on April 13, 1945, an anonymous rewrite man inserted two lines into the Pentagon’s daily list of casualties. Under the “Army-Navy Dead” appeared: “ROOSEVELT, Franklin D. Commander-in-Chief, wife, Mrs. Anne Eleanor Roosevelt, the White House.”
But I’m straying from this critique’s central concern. For the bold-faced headline is assessing The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages: 1851 – 2008. And, truly, it’s impressive. Not long ago, access to this mind-boggling mass of information demanded a trudge to a library’s dark, airless microfilm room where stacks of reels awaited. Now all you need do is step over to your computer. True, if a story falls inside The Times, that library trip remains mandatory. On the other hand, a full subscription to the paper yields free online access to its entire contents. But let’s stick to what’s under review.
For starters, what other chronicle of the American adventure can claim to be “The Paper of Record”? Whether politics or culture, sports or religion, science or commerce, society or weather, The New York Times has been recording it all. Its front pages have registered the murder of a President (“AWFUL EVENT: PRESIDENT LINCOLN SHOT BY AN ASSASSIN, Saturday, April 15, 1865), the flocking of youth to a spot called Woodstock (“300,000 at Folk-Rock Fair Camp Out in a Sea of Mud,” Sunday, August 17, 1969), and the start of deciphering our own hidden history (“Genetic Code of Human Life Is Cracked by Scientists,” Tuesday, June 27, 2000).
A purely random romp through The Times’s front pages finds Tunney defeating Dempsey, Sacco and Vanzetti executed early one morning, President Truman sacking General MacArthur, and a faltering Wall Street kick-starting the Fed to action. The big book that comes packaged in this offering is organized chronologically into sections with descriptive titles. For instance, “A Nation Divided” covers 1851 to 1865, while “Passion, Pain And Progress” concerns 1968 to 1976. Short essays accompany each section, with William Safire on “The Emancipation Proclamation,” Frank Rich considering “The Age of Television,” and Thomas Friedman clocking in with “Noah and 9/11,” this a concise meditation on the American mindset that appeared in The Times a year after the Twin Towers tumbled.
Yes, The New York Times has been setting down in column inches (along with some mighty telling pictures) the nation’s heartbeat, catching current events before they harden into history. A look back at The Times’s own past reveals an enterprise that, itself, has made history. Begun as the New York Daily Times in the middle of the 19th-century by Henry J. Raymond, who also served as editor, the paper was generally conservative with an accent on accuracy. After Raymond died in 1869, the daily tilted toward activism. In the 1870s it advocated reforms and went after New York City’s corrupt Tweed Ring. But the death of publisher George Jones in 1891 resulted in weaker standards and falling circulation. Only after Adolph Ochs bought the paper in 1896 did quality and readership rise. Ochs, in stating his goals for The Times, asserted that he wanted his paper to “give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved…” while serving as “a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance.” Consequently, he hoped The Times would encourage “intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.” In 1918 The Times won its first Pulitzer for public service. The paper’s size and influence was reflected in a quip attributed to an Army official, who groused that The Times was “too big to read, too important not to.”
Closer to our day, The Times caused a stir in 1971 with its printing of a series centered on the “Pentagon Papers,” leaked secret reports exploring America’s involvement in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. When the government under President Nixon fought to block the series’ publication, the case went to the Supreme Court, where the finding favored The Times. More Times milestones include creation of a respected book review as well as a valued Sunday magazine. Subsequent innovations involved launching specialty sections focused on the arts and science, as well as the home and personal style.
Yet these changes and additions have not eclipsed the front page as The Times’s central calling, influencing opinion worldwide. As executive editor Bill Keller points out in his introduction to The Complete Front Pages “…Page One is still what most stirs our ambition.” Keller also observes that even the relationship of one story to another in the mosaic that is the front page can evoke meaning. By way of example, he draws our attention to the March 21, 1933 edition, pointing out that while one front-page story tells of newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt’s push to gain special powers to defeat the Great Depression, “across the page (was) a report that Hitler was assuming dictatorial control in Germany.” Indeed, for Keller, assembling the front page is the essence of making a newspaper. To this he adds that newspapering is more than a job, believing that daily journalism serves as “a gathering place…where we pool our information and invigorate our sense of community.” Still, when Keller weighs the newspaper’s front page against the Internet’s homepage, he sees the former as journalism’s version of the record companies’ doomed vinyl.
Inarguably, there is about The Compete Front Pages an air of summation and endings; a respectfully bound last will and testament occasioned by the expectation of encroaching death. Heydays have passed, Rubicons breached, the golden age already dissembling into memory. In fact, some see the end as already here. According to many top analysts, The New York Times Company fatally jeopardized its future by shelling out $2.7 billion to buy back its own stock from 1998 to 2004, an amount equal to three times the company’s current capitalization. Moreover, ad revenue for the Times Company (which in addition to The New York Times publishes The Boston Globe and The International Herald Tribune) has dropped nearly 20 percent over the last two years. In an attempt to gain much needed cash, The Times has been trying to sell its sake in the Boston Red Sox, and recently entered a sale-leaseback deal with the real-estate investment firm, W.P Carey & Co. involving the paper’s new glittery 52-story high-rise Manhattan headquarters designed by Renzo Piano. Other ominous indicators include the Times Company slashing stock dividends by nearly three-quarters, and borrowing $250 million from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim HelÚ in a deal that even a recent Times’s analysis piece called “punishing terms.”
These grim financials, coupled with the riot of free online news services and the steamrolling spread of “electronic delivery systems” as Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader seem to signal finito for the frail newspaper. And so it appears we are media GPS-ed and locked into an Internet future where broadcasting personal minutia and piddling secrets is to be received as big news. But as New Journalist Tom Wolfe once told fellow writer Paul Wilner, “I know that when I read what someone has had for breakfast, I am reading a desperate man.” Typing is not writing. Nitpicking is not reporting the news.
As I moved through history on page one of The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages: 1851-2008, the joy and the awe in revisiting the past as conveyed by keen-eyed reporters raced the pulse. True, the virtual conjuring of scanned front pages is no substitute for the touch and the texture, the smell and the flutter, of original newsprint. But is there not something wondrous about having history so tantalizingly close? On three white discs spin the symphony of how we lived. Expectation, grief, retreat and renewal… The stories materialize in big bold headlines; the past regained for us today, to feel and to understand, to revisit once again.
Miles Beller is a contributing editor of Psychological Perspectives and co-editor of American Datelines: Major News Stories from Colonial Times to the Present.