I was going to grab a copy of The New York Times for posterity today, but there was none to be found. In fact, this afternoon there wasn’t a newspaper of any kind to be had in a dozen locations where I stopped in different areas of the city, nor in any newspaper boxes I saw.
And I was struck by two thoughts.
First, the sight of an empty newspaper rack might be commonplace by the time the next Presidential election comes around, to hear industry analysts speculate. There’s no question, newsprint editions are in decline. Given that it’s a depressing thought for someone as ink-stained as I am, I moved quickly to the other thought.
The papers sure flew off the racks today.
When it came to marking history, people wanted to hold it in their hands. Sure, some were speculating that the papers will have worth — and not just sentimental — later on. Perhaps they will. Maybe they just wanted a piece of history to pass down to a child or grandchild.
Whatever the case, they weren’t printing off newspaper home pages to mark the day. No carousel of stories, no list of web updates, no number of photo galleries could take the place of a broadsheet edition.
When it comes to presenting passages, wars, elections, tragedies, triumphs, we like our history set in cold type with 100-point headlines.
It wasn’t just here in Louisville. Newsstands throughout New York City experienced long lines and sold out of all papers. Copies of today’s New York Times are being offered for as much as $400 on eBay.
It’s the same in Chicago, where the Tribune quickly authorized another press run of 50,000 copies.
The Washington Post sold all of its copies and is printing another 150,000 of a commemorative edition.
Is there anything instructive in this for the newspaper industry today? I’d like to be able to say there is. I’d like to be able to say that instead of trying beat blogs at their own game and cram more immediate (but less considered) news into a new format, or flocking — usually late — to the latest focus-group generated idea for attracting new demographics of readers, that today shows readers will buy papers that offer depth and perspective and substance on real issues or important events. Papers are good at attacking politicians for not focusing on the real issues, then doing the same things themselves.
I’d like to say there’s a lesson to be drawn from what people will buy, and maybe there’s something to be noted here, but probably not as much as I’d like.
It was just an extraordinary day. On ordinary days, the shelf life of newspapers is still fading.
When you tell people you work for a newspaper, you’re always going to get an editorial comment in response. I have a lot of folks tell me why they like this paper, and many who tell me why they don’t, or no longer take it. Most tell me the paper is too liberal, but this newspaper has always been more liberal than its readership dating back to issues like school desegregation, race relations, the coal industry, politics and beyond. Many thought the paper was too liberal even in its golden age, when it was winning five Pulitzer Prizes in 13 years from 1967 to ’80 for News Reporting, International Reporting, Photography and Public Service.
The newspaper, and the industry, of course, have changed. And so have readers. While many view the media as more and more slanted, sometimes I think they want it that way. The conservative wants to watch FoxNews and doesn’t want to hear things that don’t fit a particular viewpoint. Same for the liberal and CNN. There’s a segment that will watch both. And a segment that watches nothing.
I experience this as a general sports columnist. Readers sometimes have trouble accepting the notion that someone can write good things about UK or U of L, or bad things about either. You’re one or the other, the reasoning goes. Red or blue. The notion that you’d be praising either when they earn it, or criticizing either when you think they deserve it, seems more and more like a foreign concept. What’s my bias? I’m biased toward success. I like to see the local teams do well. But I’m more biased toward good stories. And those can come in success or struggle.
My experience is that if the reporting is excellent or the story is good, people will read.
And I’m glad people were reading today, if only to be reminded that newspapers can have a place in life, even if it’s only in a scrapbook or drawer somewhere. I’m not sure if there’s a lesson in today for newspapers, but it wouldn’t hurt for them to look, lest more and more racks be empty for an entirely different reason the next time a Presidential election rolls around.
Thanks for indulging me, and now, back to the game . . .