The reward of the constant reader

Seventy years ago, in February 1937, a hardworking young man with dark hair and a ready smile graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Armed with a degree in electrical engineering, he boarded a bus for Rockford, Ill., 70 miles away, to begin a job with a large manufacturing firm.

Money was tight. He had worked his way through college, earning 35 cents an hour waiting on tables at the Student Union, and had no savings. His starting salary was modest – $125 a month, or $1,500 a year. He rented a room in the home of a Mrs. Thompson, rode the bus to work, and ate simple dinners at Bishop's Cafeteria every evening.

Even so, he had his priorities. With one of his first paychecks, he ordered a subscription to The Christian Science Monitor. He had read the paper in the Student Union when time permitted, and now he wanted his own copy. One year cost $9.

It was an investment, as he calls it – and a reading habit – that would prove enduring. So enduring that this month marks his 70th year as a Monitor subscriber, with no interruptions.

That devoted reader is my father, and his appreciation for the paper continues unabated. When the mail arrives, the Monitor is a welcome sight – an old friend, new each day, a beacon of intelligence and substance tucked in among the bills and junk mail.

This kind of loyalty represents a publisher's dream. It's also a milestone that offers a chance to reflect on nearly three-quarters of a century of change in the world, as well as in newspaper reading and publishing.

In his first month as a subscriber in March of 1937, my father would have read front-page articles about President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Child-labor laws made news. So did strikes by auto workers and longshoremen. One headline read, "Refugees from Dust Bowl seeking new farms in West create national problem." And a youth round table debated the question, "Is college worthwhile?"

That month also marked the beginning of a 13-part series in the Monitor called "Issues before America." Topics included the Supreme Court, Social Security, labor, foreign policy ("our relationship with Europe, the Far East, Philippines"), the budget, fiscal problems, and taxes. All would be timely subjects for another series today.

Other headlines that month would also be at home on front pages in 2007: "US housing program: America found to lag far behind in low-cost dwellings." "Senate opens inquiry on judiciary reform." "Italy's falling birth rate."

During seven decades as a Monitor reader, my father has followed world events through 12 US presidents, five wars, and countless economic ups and downs.

Then there are the social changes that have transformed every aspect of society. On March 15, 1937, a story at the bottom of page 1 carried the headline "Jobs for wives? Why not?" A poll by the American Institute of Public Opinion posed this question: "Do you approve of a married woman earning money in industry or business if she has a husband capable of supporting her?" The majority of respondents thought married women should not work.

How attitudes have evolved! But another headline that month offered reassurance that some things stay the same. It read, "Example of parents held vital in training modern children."

Newspapers have changed, too, of course. During the past 70 years, 11 editors have shepherded the Monitor from a broadsheet to a compact format, from black and white to color, and from hot type to cold type to electronic production.

As devoted newspaper fans, my parents wanted their daughters to appreciate the Monitor, too. Even when my sister and I were in elementary school, they would regularly ask, "Have you read the Monitor today?"

They didn't expect us to cover the whole issue at that early stage. But even the Family Features page and The Home Forum gave us a window on the world beyond our sheltered Midwestern home. We learned early the pleasure of newsprint and the power of the printed word.

That exposure to newsprint is less of a certainty for new generations, who are more likely to catch their news on the run – or online. As the Monitor prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, its editors and staff members, like journalists everywhere, are seeking answers to a very 21st-century question: In an electronic age, how can newspapers and the Web play complementary roles, each enhancing the other and bringing the best coverage of news, analysis, and features to readers of all ages?

However sophisticated technology becomes, lovers of words on paper hope the world will always find a place for the printed page alongside those wondrous computer screens.

But whatever form newspapers of the future take, one thing is sure: The need for loyal subscribers and readers will never go away.

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