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Wednesday, July 5, 2023

My Love Affair with Print Newspapers

Lamenting great American newspapers

By Gerald E. Scorse, Progressive Charlestown guest columnist 

It all began with baseball. I was growing up in the 1940s in Rochester, N.Y., a farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals. I couldn’t get enough of them in the first newspaper I ever read, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. The instant it came I grabbed the sports pages, flopped myself down on the living room floor, and lost myself at the ballpark. 

Eight decades later the Cardinals are still my favorite team, but my heart has moved on. These days I’m clinging to a deeper love: print newspapers. 

We’ve lost more than 2,500 since 2005. They’re currently dying at the rate of over 100 a year. My heartthrob The New York Times has metamorphosed into a print/digital hybrid, testing my loyalty to print like never before. 

Back to the early days. My family moved to Erie, Pa. For years the Erie Daily Times tutored me in how the world turns—including the world of the Cardinals and their superstar, Stan (The Man) Musial. The Times also gave me my first real job, tossing newspapers onto lawns and front steps, knocking on doors once a month to collect from subscribers. 

Another move, to Jamestown, N.Y., put the bloom on my newsprint romance. I became a sports writer at the Jamestown Post-Journal. It was intoxicating: phones forever ringing, heads bent over typewriters, magic moments when each day’s paper was raced upstairs from the pressroom. I wrote articles, headlines, a column that included my picture. It couldn’t possibly get any better. 

And then it did. I took a new job writing for a bigger paper, the Syracuse, N.Y. Herald-Journal. I covered the Cornell-Syracuse football game. The star that day would be a star forever: the late Jim Brown, possibly the greatest football player of all time. I covered the Hall of Fame baseball game in Cooperstown, N.Y. My first-person story ran under the headline “Writer in love with slowed-up copy of ‘The Man’”. 

The draft intervened. The Army took me away for two years. It taught me, among other things, that sports weren’t the most important thing in the world. 

Home again in Jamestown, I switched from sports writing to cityside reporting. It pumped me up even more than before. I wrote about City Council meetings and the police department, crafted offbeat pieces for a feature called Talk of the Town. I loved print newspapers from two sides now, and I’ve never really stopped. 

I came to New York City with dreams of writing for a big-city daily. I remember seeing the city’s skyline for the first time, feeling the city’s energy for the first time. 

So much for my dreams. In December of 1962, a 114-day strike by the printers’ union shut down all seven of the city’s dailies and ultimately killed four of them. They were icons and then they were gone: the Herald Tribune, the World-Telegram & Sun, the Journal-American, the Mirror. 

Vanity Fair wrote this epitaph 50 years later: “As a newspaper town, New York was never the same again.” 

The union struck because the new technologies of offset printing and cold type were beginning to replace linotype presses and “hot” type. Today the new technology of digital printing is replacing type itself: instead of words on paper, we’re getting images on a screen. 

In my dinosaur world, digital newspapers are imitations of the real thing. 

The real thing is what my wife and I sit down to at the dining room table every morning. The New York Times comes in sections, which we swap back and forth until we’ve gone over all of them. We tell each other what looks most interesting or enlightening, what makes us laugh or touches our hearts. In other words, we communicate with each other while being communicated to; it gets our days off to a super-sweet start. 

Maybe not for much longer, though. The reasons just keep piling up, pushing a newsprint lover in the digital direction. 

The Times long ago stopped printing stock market tables, box scores, anything and everything with lots of numbers. TV watchers have been shorted as well: no more daily listing of the programs that are airing, on what channels, at what times. 

IMHO, I’m also seeing overlong stories over-illustrated with over-large photos. The baseball coverage comes up short in the opposite direction: there are days when The Times doesn’t print a word about the Yankees or the Mets or anybody else, throwing a shutout at all fans. (Note: In early 2022 the corporate New York Times went sports-digital as well as news-digital, buying out the online The Athletic for $550 million cash.) 

Lastly, the print Times is regularly being scooped by its digital offspring. Print subscribers get access to the digital version too, so of course I log in now and then. Time and again, I’ll read stories online that won’t appear in the paper for days. (Recent example: A June 8 piece about the author Joan Didion didn’t show up in print until June 17.)    

I cherish the old Times. We’ve had it home-delivered to our apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for decades. Inflation has seriously upped the price, pushing it into four figures for the year—and it’ll likely go even higher. 

My head and my heart are locked in a one-on-one. My head is urging me to live in the 21st century. My heart, long in love with print, wants to keep having those sweet Times mornings. 

In the end my heart and my head will probably keep playing one-on-one. They’re torn by two very different newspaper worlds. Very torn.

Gerald E. Scorse helped pass the bill requiring basis reporting for capital gains. He writes on taxes. His articles have appeared often in Progressive Charlestown.

© 2023 Gerald E. Scorse