Newspaper Nostalgia vs. Social Media Mania

In his book, Late Edition: A Love Story, famed Chicago journalist Bob Greene laments the decline of newspapers and the outright death of so many of them. As a longtime reporter and editor for several newspapers, including the now defunct Milwaukee Sentinel, I directly relate to his tales of quirky newsroom characters at the old Columbus Citizen-Journal, and how he developed a deep affection for the days of “extra, extra” and newsprint-stained hands.

Greene has a touching way of reliving the days when reporters would yell “copyboy” to him as a newspaper intern when they needed him to take their hard copy (typed on paper) to the linotype operators or walk a couple blocks to get them coffee and a sandwich. When he mentioned that the guys who operated the presses would fold newspapers into hats, I couldn’t help thinking, “Really? They did that at the Citizen-Journal too!?”

And he – like me – was in absolute awe at the mere idea that he would walk into a newsroom for a day’s work knowing that the next edition of the paper was a clean slate and that the work he and colleagues did that day in the newsroom would become the next morning’s newspaper that would start the day for thousands of people in his city. As you read his book, you can just feel his genuine love of newspapers; Greene has newsprint coursing through his blood.

To Greene, the guys at the Citizen-Journal, where he began his newspaper career, like mid-size newspaper reporters and editors throughout the country, were just regular people doing a days’ work and loving it. And he deeply respected them for their expertise, hard work and dedication.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when he projects what these grizzled journalists would have thought if someone told them that someday any old Joe could write a story, or a column of rambling thoughts, and send it out directly and immediately to potentially millions of people using something called a blog. “I think reporters, hearing that, would have deemed the proposition so loony, they would have done pirouettes – they would have placed their fingertips on the tops of their heads and twirled around on their toes like ballerinas. It just would have struck them as deranged – to think that a reporter (not to mention anyone else who owned a computer) would have the ability to reach the world, and without having to wait for an editor’s approval, or for the presses to roll.”

There absolutely is a sadness to watching this bedrock of American democracy and society – the newspaper industry – wither away like a crumbling sheet of newsprint that’s been exposed to the searing sun for days on end. And the thought that we have fewer and fewer highly trained, experienced reporters and editors covering, and uncovering, the news and sorting fact from fiction and putting news in proper perspective is disturbing and worrisome.

But, frankly, it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s a new era. It’s a new world. The newspaper industry has had a great run. But today we have so much more. As fascinating as the concept of a daily newspaper once was, it pales in comparison to the depth, the speed and the reach of the Internet. We have millions of Web sites and blogs and social networking sites. News – from a war breaking out to grandma getting her hair done – has never spread faster, and we have far more choices than anyone could ever have imagined. As someone who – like Bob Greene – has always been in awe of newspapers, I am a thousand times more fascinated by new media. It’s more convenient, more extensive, more useful, more interesting, and more exciting.

Yes, we have to be more careful about what we believe and don’t believe when we get our news from sometimes dubious online “reporters.” We have to take the source of our news into account. But having to be on our guard is a small price to pay for what we get in return.

When I started at the Milwaukee Sentinel in the late 1970s, I remember when bells would ring on the AP wire machine as important news came streaming into the newsroom. I would always walk over to see what the big, breaking news was. I loved knowing I was one of the very few people in the country at that moment to know about this news. Most people would have to wait for the next morning when the paper would arrive on their doorstep.

Now, I get an automatic text alert when breaking news occurs. I’m no longer one of just a few who get the news first. I am one of millions, but that’s OK. Even though I no longer work in a newspaper newsroom, I have never had more access to the news than I do today. And I love it.

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2 Comments on “Newspaper Nostalgia vs. Social Media Mania”

  1. I cannot speak for the papers of old, but I do not think highly of what I see in modern papers. Grammatical and spelling errors are not unusual. Journalists seem to lack a sense of the logic in sentence building. They have little knowledge of style. They do sloppy background research. They (at least in Sweden) give their work a political angle without preserving objectivity. Critical thinking is not a prime skill (to be kind).

    If editors are still used, they are not the pedants they should be. Peer reviews for facts and logic appear to be an unheard of concept.

    I like to cite the nit-wit at FAZ (the NY Times of Germany) who wrote an article repeatedly speaking of the universe’s age in—light years.

  2. billhurley Says:

    As newspapers lay off reporters and editors and copy desk personnel, you have to expect more and more typos and factual errors. Unfortunately, that comes with the transition away from traditional mass journalism. Hopefully, real journalism will find its resurgence in this environment but I am afraid it may take quite a while. Quality journalism will probably become a niche product for that segment of the population that values it – and can afford it.

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