Much has been written in recent months about the future of newspapers. In a week-long series, we asked our opinion-makers what newspapers mean to them and how they have affected their lives.
A few years back, a professor’s widow donated various things to our Catholic chaplaincy at Queen’s University. There was a piano, some furniture and an old, handsome desk. While rummaging around, waiting for men stronger than I to do the heavy lifting, I came across another treasure: A box of old newspapers recording historic events. I sat down to read; the others did the moving.
There were London broadsheets telling the news of Queen Victoria’s death. The newspapers themselves were rather strange to my eyes — plenty of advertising on the front pages, and the inside pages consisted in large part of the official messages of condolence upon the death of Her Imperial Majesty. Judging from the advertising, readers at the turn of the last century were as keen on health as today –page after page of
ad copy enthusing about this or that elixir, potion or remedy.
There were papers from the Second World War and Trudeau’s declaration of martial law. The last papers in the box were from Nixon’s resignation. The most interesting front page told of the moon landing in 1969. And right there on the front page beside JFK’s great posthumous triumph was his little brother Teddy’s great disgrace, having driven Mary Jo Kopechne to an early death at Chappaquiddick.
It’s often said that the newspaper provides — to use an old-old-old technology term — a snapshot of the day’s news. But that’s not quite right. It’s more like a collage — some images may dominate, but there is much to be seen in between them, or at the margins, or squeezed in at the edges. That’s why newspapers are superior to television, which demands that you look at this one thing, this one story, for exactly this amount of time.
Television has a vaguely totalitarian ethos to it: Watch only this! — Take a break and watch this commercial now! Newspapers are for freedom-loving people. They have been used for propaganda, to be sure, but the reader always maintains the liberty to skip ahead, to turn the page, when he wants for whatever reason he wants. One reason that newspapers are challenged by the Internet is because the latter offers more freedom.
Freedom can be misused, as we all know after wasting hours online reading obscure stories from faraway places. Newspapers offer freedom but with guidance. The editors pick and choose stories and images that convey a sense of what is important. Readers who choose a newspaper are choosing a guide to help them use their freedom better. At best, they are choosing a community and even a helpful friend.
My relationship with newspapers started early, as a boy who read the Calgary Herald growing up, supplemented by my older brother’s Sports Illustrated every week. In high school, I started writing for the Calgary Herald’s community supplement. It was called Neighbours, which has always struck me as an apt title for the columnist’s task — to be the kind of neighbour that people like to meet, rather than try to avoid; a neighbour who has something interesting to say and a congenial way of saying it.
The columnist’s trade is also one that adds a healthy discretion to what is, at least in part, based on the egoistic premise that other people need to know what I think. The newspaper gives my readers my words, a reasonably accurate image and nothing else. TV, podcasts and the like give too much– the voice, the shiny balding head, the jowly face. It’s like the neighbour who isn’t content to chat on sidewalk or porch but insists on a disquisition in the living room.
Billy Joel once confessed that he preferred the time before music videos, where as a songwriter he could be suave and elegant in all his songs. In the music videos, he could only be ugly, as that was what he was. Newspapers allow us that discretion, to show the best of ourselves if we can. So permit me to stay in the pages that someone may discover decades from now, rather than the screens that open and close and disappear even as we watch.