- Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 December 2009 05:00
- Published on Wednesday, 16 December 2009 05:00
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This statistic will surprise some people. Some, like me, will find it disturbing. Others will simply shrug their shoulders and think very little about it. The alarming projection is that if current trends continue, the last newspaper in the United States will be printed in 2043. That’s based on statistical projections. However, even that estimate, given the state of the industry, may seem optimistic.
The great papers, whether it’s The New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Baltimore Sun (the paper H.L. Mencken called his literary home), are all fading. The businesses have been bleeding red ink for years. They’re laying off reporters by the dozens and trimming the size of their publications. The Baltimore Sun is just a shadow of its former self.
The concept of a newspaper, as we understand it today, has been around since the 17th century. One of the first newspapers was published in Strasbourg in 1605. The first newspaper in the American colonies was called “Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick.” It began publication in 1690, promising, like the great papers that had begun publishing in England, to be a regular source of news and information. Unfortunately, it lasted precisely one day. The British authorities didn’t like what it had to say, a sign of things to come, and immediately shut it down.
In 1705 however, the Boston Daily Letter had more luck and began regular publication. In Virginia, the first paper to offer more or less regular publication was the Virginia Gazette published in Williamsburg. The Gazette, in its first publication, boasted four pages.
Newspapers have been a part of our national experience since our very beginnings as a nation. One of the sparks in the run up to revolution was the Stamp Act. This was a tax on everything printed, from playing cards to legal documents. It also included newspapers, and many of the early revolutionaries saw this tax as a backdoor attempt to limit the distribution of their principal source of news. During the revolution, newspapers were the only source of information available to the colonists. \The Declaration of Independence, after it was passed in 1776, was reprinted in newspapers in all 13 colonies. In later years, in the early days of the republic, newspapers, just like our talking heads on cable TV (they’re not new), provided an outlet for the lively debate over the Constitution, the role of the president, and the future of the country.
But times have changed.
Just a few years ago, if you were overseas, getting a hold of an American paper, even if it was weeks old, was an exciting experience. I still think a hometown paper carries an unmistakable connection with the folks back home, but that link, in an era where anyone can log on to the net and read the news, international, national or hometown, may be something of an anachronism. Though I hope not.
However, there is something about a newspaper that in my mind will never be replaced by the Internet. A newspaper, a well-written newspaper that is, is a guided tour, courtesy of the editors and the reporters, of the news of the day. I don’t have to read every article, I almost never do, but if I catch the highlights, I generally feel pretty well informed. Also, I can’t imagine staying online long enough to catch up on, say, a recent find by the local historical society, a new appointment to this or that board, or for that matter, a nicely written farewell (in other words, obituary) for a neighbor. Inevitably, if left to my own devices, I would miss something.
Also, a newspaper, to me, offers something an Internet connection can’t. I can touch it, fold it, and even, if I want to, stick it in my pocket. If there is a picture or a cartoon I like, I can cut it out and post it in the kitchen at the office. And then there is one other benefit. I can use the newspaper as a rest for my coffee, and if I spill some (which I will), unlike with my keyboard, it’s no big deal.
But the question remains. Will newspapers survive? I wish I knew the answer. National papers are suffering, but various analyses suggest that local and regional papers, like this one, have a future. Their niche is hard to replace with an Internet site, and if the paper can judiciously combine Internet content with its publication, then maybe this part of the newspaper industry will last well into the future. I’d like that and it would give me a place to put my morning coffee.
You may reach David Kerr