Newspapers: The Past – The Future
Newspapers! Are they becoming a thing of the past? A relic? The Buffalo News is now a shadow of what it once was. As recently as when Margaret Sullivan was editor (and an excellent one), I thought the News was a first rate newspaper. Under present editors, it is just plain sad. It is down to three sections with a few pages in each.
The larger picture is that the entire future of the newspaper business is in jeopardy. I decided I had to discuss this with my generation, those of us in the 70-80s plus crowd who grew up with newspapers (the print version) and still await the daily each morning to read with a cup of Joe (for you in the military).
I convened a session of such newspaper readers. Immediately, the conversation turned to “I remember when, …” and “In the good old days…” and so forth. Scully, noting our rite of passage, said that “all able-bodied young boys when they reached 12 years of age had a newspaper route, usually the News or Courier Express.” For others, it was the weekly Shopping News, Kenmore Press, or the North Park Advertiser. Dick D pedaled the Courier. Despite 6am deliveries on blustery mornings, the Christmas tips made it worth it. My pal, Fring, delivered monthly magazines such as Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post. He also sold clothespoles door to door.
We turned to the present. All agreed that the newspaper business was hurting and that many newspapers could soon be extinct. Many are now published only three days each week. Baltimorean George Constantine asserted that the once superb Baltimore Sun, of H.L. Mencken days, is hardly worth the paper it’s printed on.
Tom Comer would recall that there was a newsstand on almost every corner in Times Square circa 1950. Seven NYC dailies were sold (Times, Tribune, Journal American, World Telegram, and three tabloids: The Mirror, Daily News, and Post) along with newspapers from nearby localities (Newark Star Ledger) and countless movie magazines. At the east end of Times Square, next to the military police station, was a kiosk selling newspapers from major cities around the world. Buffalo’s most prominent newsstand may have been at Main and Court. Kunzie, who delivered various papers on the East side, recalls a vibrant newsstand at Genesee and Fillmore. Hertel and Delaware had one also; I remember standing there with scores of other disbelievers awaiting the delivery of newspapers with the details of President Kennedy’s assassination.
The roundtable discussion turned to the ancient past. Mike Davis noted that his ancestors began to communicate with drawings and etchings in caves. Zuke chimed in that “it looks like the News is reverting to such prehistoric times what with all the photos it has been using.” Tony Illos recalled Brother Dominic, the famous television advertising creation who spent his life copying historic documents during the Middle Ages. Then came Gutenberg with printing and the Bible. Soon, we were in the era of printing books and eventually newspapers.
Newspapers in America began back in colonial days. Adrian Voyer noted that Ben Franklin and fellow colonists began to disseminate information with their four page “sheets” in the early 1700s. Newspapers played an important role in the American Revolution and continued to do so in many of the momentous events of the following century. As cities grew in the 1800s, newspapers proliferated. At the time of the Civil War when Buffalo was emerging as a major city, several dailies were available in the Queen City.
Tim Bohen, an established authority on Irish immigration, noted that when our grandfathers arrived in America the newspaper was their main source of news. Later, when our fathers became teenagers in the early 20th century, they still relied on newspapers for national and local news, baseball scores, and entertainment information.
Radio began in 1920. Buffalo witnessed its beginnings with WBEN, WGR, KB, and WEBR. Radio and newspapers were the principal sources of information for the general public through the 1940s. For us teenagers, those were the two means by which we learned that Truman defeated Dewey and no less importantly were able to follow the rivalry of the Red Sox and Yankees and the exploits of DiMag and Ted Williams. We developed an appreciation for the better-known radio and news personalities of the period: Ralph Hubbell, Cy Kritzer, and a little later, Van Miller, Chuck Healy, and Bill Mazur. As Phil Morey recalls, sport fans also quickly embraced Sport Magazine, the predecessor of Sports Illustrated.
Newspapers continued to play a major role for Americans throughout the 20th century. Garwood remembers that Time magazine would publish a list of the country’s top ten newspapers. The New York Times would lead as the paper of record. The list included: Chicago Tribune, Cleveland Plain Dealer, St. Louis Post Dispatch, and the Atlanta Constitution. Even in the military, readers eagerly consumed the daily Stars and Stripes. In Korea, it was delivered to our tents; I kid you not.
The 1950s witnessed the astonishing growth of television. Almost overnight, every home seemed to have a 12-inch black and white Admiral or Emerson with rabbit ears. Children born in the 50s and 60s grew up watching I Love Lucy and Mr. Roberts. In the 1970s, cable emerged as a major player in communication. Newspapers were still important; radio was mostly for music and a few sporting events. By the end of the 20th century, a huge technology revolution was underway with the Internet. Personal computers, smartphones, iPads, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., all changed the way we received information.
Traditional newspapers began to take a major hit. The New York Daily News, which seemed like a mainstay forever in the nation’s metropolis, recently cut its staff in half. Time magazine cited a Pew Research study that found that “67% of the U.S. population consumes the news in bits on social feeds and streams” at any time of day or night rather than anything brought in from the front porch each morning at 7am. It noted further that the daily circulation of newspapers is about the same as in 1940, a heyday for the printed word. But back then, the nation’s population was only 40% of what it is today.
What of the future? Tony Magg feels that we can look forward to the Buffalo News publishing a Sunday edition and perhaps two other days. Warren states that the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal seem to be weathering the storm by focusing on their online versions.
There will continue to be plenty of sources for international and national news. But what about local news? Who’s going to monitor the crooks in Albany and the local embezzlers? We need competent investigative reporters. What about obituaries? Clem says that is a question on the mind of every 70 year-old.
Suburbs and small towns have been blessed with weekly publications. They provide local (political and business) news and they do a superb job reporting amateur and high school sports. The classified sections are more than adequate. In our area, we have the Bee publications. Nine first and second-ring suburbs have a Bee (e.g., Amherst Bee). Similarly, most rural areas also have weeklies (some have been in existence for well over a century).
But what about the citizens in cities and larger metro areas like Buffalo? There are neighborhood papers, such as the Westside Times, the Riverside Review, and the North Buffalo Rocket. Some areas have “focused” newspaper weeklies, such as the NAACP Challenger on the East Side, and the Am-Pol Eagle. Other monthlies focus on specific age groups, e.g., After 50 News. But many of these neighborhood newspapers need more staff, more money, and more advertising in order to do an adequate job of keeping the citizenry informed.
The future is uncertain, as always.