When newspapers make the news

Everybody is trying to cheer up us print people these days, even the TV people.

David Brinkley said he didn't know what he or anybody else would do without newspapers. He said it only the other day--just after the Philadelphia Bulletin closed down.

When the Washington Star folded, everybody declared a one-newspaper town was a vacuum that nature, or maybe Rupert Murdoch would soon abhor. A town, it was agreed, needs two newspapers the way a democracy needs two parties.

As for the wobbling New York Daily News--not to worry. It will survive, everybody said, because it has to, for the sake of New York, the continental United States, and possibly the entire free world.

Odd business. When everybody was buying a morning and evening newspaper every day, you never heard these airtight explanations of how necessary the press is. Still, keep those convincing arguments coming, folks. As an interested party, we love to hear the good word about the printed world.

Almost any good word, that is.

The other day a media analyst tried to cheer us up by saying, among other things: ''Nothing can beat newspapers for portability.'' We're sure that John Reidy, like everybody else, meant to be comforting. But it struck us that there was something forced, and more than a little irrelevant about the argument. We just could not imagine a pollster asking a newstand customer why he is buying a newspaper and receiving the answer: ''Portability, sir, portability.''

As far as we're concerned, Mr. Reidy is leading from weakness. While we readily concede its advantages over a gallon of bottled water or a pair of ski poles, we've never found a newspaper all that portable.

Whenever we've bought a newspaper on the street, we've never been quite sure how to carry it, or port it, in Mr. Reidy's parlance. Some people have perfectly marvelous success porting it under one arm in the briefcase position. Others roll it up and slap their leg with splendid flair, as if they were brandishing a riding crop.

Neither porting comes naturally to us--especially the thigh-thumping one, which leaves us feeling like a walk-on actor who has forgotten his one line.

But it is actually reading a newspaper that gives us the most trouble. Years ago, when people commuted by train, we did too. With our newspaper firmly in hand--well, fairly firmly--we mounted the steps of our chosen coach, and with the sports section flapping like a becalmed sail, made our way to our seat.

There are commuters--or at least there used to be--who can do precision drills with a newspaper that would make a team of Marines blush. They keep the original creases and then, casually, with the back of a thumbnail, they make new ones, as sharp as if a steam iron had managed it.

They bisect. They fold up. They fold down. They fold sideways. And when they get off the train, they leave the final result behind--as neat as a paper hat.

We will not go into the details of what some of the rest of us can do to a paper. But a vacant lot with 50 mph gusts will leave a newspaper looking tidy compared to the damage we could perpetrate during a 38-minute train ride.

If not for portability, why buy a newspaper? Perhaps for the opposite reason. In a morning patch of sun a child spreads out a newspaper on the floor like a map, as far as it will go. Lying on his or her stomach, breathing the smell of paper and ink, the child takes pleasure, like all children, in the comfort of a habit.

Here, as it was yesterday, as it will be tomorrow, is The News. Rows and rows of data--wind velocities, batting averages, stock market reports. Columns and columns of what happened, and what reliable sources say happened, and what right-thinking people recommend we should do about it.

Trivia? Plenty of it. But here also is the child's first record of lives outside itself. Here is a primary act of the historical imagination without which further acts are less likely.

Maybe they are portable. But newspapers, finally, do spread out. Newspapers, in the end, are made to unfold.

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