Jun 072012

My life-long love affair with newspapers and with newsprint dates from my childhood. My mother and I used to walk from my parents’ apartment in Brown’s Addition to downtown Spokane. Along Monroe Street, I could peer into the street-level press room of Spokane’s newspapers, the Spokesman-Review and Daily Chronicle. As in movie newsreels, you could see the papers rolling neatly from the monstrous presses, tended to by scrawny men wearing square hats folded from newsprint.

As an 11-year-old, I lied about my age to land my first newspaper-delivery route. I usually bought some candy at the corner grocery in mid-afternoon waiting for my bundle of roughly 40 Chronicles that I delivered to my neighbors on Spokane’s near north side. Soon I had two routes.

Equipped with a little coin dispenser that attached to my belt, I loved collecting the 25 cents a week that the Chron cost in those days. Subscriptions were dated from a day of the week. Most households paid by the week. Monthly subscribers paid $1.00, except in months with five Fridays (or perhaps Saturdays).

One summer, I managed five Spokane paper routes, two in the morning, three in the afternoon. I contracted out some of the delivery duties. To this day I have dreams about delivering newspapers. My nightmare is not remembering which houses have active subscriptions.

From the time I could read, I’ve loved reading newspapers. By the time I got to high school, it was natural that I join the staff of the monthly student newspaper. I naturally was its editor my senior year. I was recruited (via an ingenious traveling workshop that visited Catholic high schools in the Pacific Northwest) to Seattle University by its then one-man journalism department. Virtually from my first days on campus, I helped produce the university’s then twice-weekly student newspaper, The Spectator. I moved through the ranks and became its editor my senior year.

Late in my short career as a graduate student at the University of Washington, I landed a spot on the boisterous copy desk of Seattle’s Hearst-owned morning daily, the late great Post-Intelligencer. Then, after three weeks, I was hired by the Seattle Times.

Over a span of 10 years in the vineyard of Seattle’s Blethen family, I worked on the copy desk, covered civil rights, county and city government, and, eventually, business and finance. I was the financial editor of The Times in 1977, when I left to join Elliot Marple at Marple’s Business Newsletter.

Although I was a newsletter editor and publisher for more than 32 years, and now style myself as a professional speaker and consulting (self-taught) economist, I still consider myself primarily a newspaperman. Figuratively, at least, newspaper ink (soy-based these days) runs in my veins.

Needless to say, I am dismayed and disheartened by the seemingly relentless decline of newspapers.

I get that most people now get their news on screens — TVs, personal computers, tablets, smart phones. I get what David Carr of the New York Times said about people like me who still relish the news on dead trees: “We are like Shriners, once a proud, powerful bunch who now meet in little rooms and exchange secret handshakes.”

I sympathize with John Paton, chief executive officer of Digital First Media, which operates 75 daily newspapers, who told the New York Times that he would consider reducing his print schedule if necessary. Paton said: “I’m a career newspaperman. I feel the emotional tug. My father was a printer. I get it. If you care about journalism, you’ve got to do this.”

I spend countless hours reading news and analysis on line. But I still read four daily newspapers. I subscribe to three national newspapers, and recycle a neighbor’s local paper. I know I may be regarded as an old fogy, but I think something is lost reading on line. I call it serendipity — the discovery, when paging through my broadsheets, of something at the corner of a page that I would have missed in the linear on-line experience.

Paper still has its usefulness. Though it is dated, Malcolm Gladwell’s March 2002 book review in the New Yorker on the usefulness of paper still resonates. Read it and weep for the decline of newspapers and newsprint.


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