That loud noise you hear is not the rumble of distant thunder. It's the sound of presses grinding to a halt all over America as daily newspapers fold. In the past few months, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocky Mountain News have closed their doors. Publishers of The Chicago Tribune, The L.A. Times, and The Baltimore Sun have filed for Chapter 11. The San Francisco Chronicle is on thin ice, and it's got plenty of company.
This end-of-print-media-as-we-know-it scenario was just a scary rumor when I watched the last press run of my former newspaper, the old Knoxville Journal, in 1991. Newly unemployed after 14 years as a reporter and editor, I steadfastly refused to believe that print was heading the way of horse-drawn carriages and tintypes.
In the metro New York of my childhood, there were at least a dozen major dailies. The Herald Tribune and The New York Times arrived on our front porch every morning of the week. On Sundays, we sometimes bought the Journal American, too, because it had better funnies. A breakfast table without newspapers was as rare as one without coffee.
When we moved to Chicago and I began my career as a journalist, the city had three daily papers. My first job was at a small-town weekly devoted to local news. There I covered cat shows and town picnics and, for one endless summer, wrote wedding announcements. I reviewed community theater productions and interviewed the new school principal and reported on utility board meetings. It was the perfect apprenticeship, a smorgasbord of stories that taught me to look and to listen and to keep asking questions.
In the end, I found my voice in feature writing. Going to work for Knoxville's morning daily, I got to try on people's lives for a few hours, and then go back and write about them. I spent time with a man who made violins out of walnut shells. I followed child beauty pageant contestants around for a weekend and watched them win and lose and fall apart in hotel rooms. I learned about raising parakeets and training police dogs and why the hairdresser is as close to the confessional as many women ever come. I met the mighty and the lowly of this mid-sized Appalachian city and found them to be as alternately admirable and scurrilous, baffling and transparent as their New York and Chicago counterparts.
And then my paper closed, an early casualty in the long, slow decline of print journalism. The Internet roared ahead. Blogs sprouted like mushrooms after rain. The buzz about the growing irrelevance of dailies and the primacy of electronic news became deafening. No one under 40 reads a newspaper, trumpeted market research gurus. They appeared to be right.
Well, almost. Visiting my 30-something son and his family in the New England village where they live, it's no surprise to see that they get their national news from the Internet and NPR and an occasional snippet of 60 Minutes. But the eight-page local weekly covering church suppers, parades, and abandoned pets, along with the riveting police blotter ("Garden tools stolen from Elm Avenue residence" ), has pride of place on the coffee table and is required reading in their house. This gives me hope and comfort. A computer screen is just not the right delivery system for these bulletins. They cry out for a slightly smudged broadsheet with a front-page photo of toddlers at the new playground or senior citizens at the Fish Fry. This is news to be clipped and sent to friends and relations by regular mail and stuck on refrigerator doors. Links won't do the trick here. Dailies may dwindle, but somehow I believe there will always be a market for a small-town weekly. This is real life, and it needs a tangible record.