The Last, Best Reason for Newspapers
I have not bought a hometown newspaper for a decade. I haven’t read a whole one in years. I do occasionally read the article which just happens to be facing up on The Globe & Mail abandoned at Starbucks while I’m waiting for my four shot American Misto. I rarely touch the paper itself. That’s not because I’m a germaphobe — although I do have tendencies in that regard — it’s a subconscious holdover from the days when the ink used to come off on my fingers as I hungrily turned the pages of the The Vancouver Sun on Saturday mornings when I was a kid. I am also struck by how small the pages have become — sub-tabloid size and not much larger than an 11 by 17 sheet of paper. More of a news flyer as opposed to a broadsheet of old. More colour, perhaps, but less colourful.
When you think about them in the context of the all-digital, all-the-time 21st century, the mere notion of a newspaper is utterly absurd. Take a group of people in one place and have them write some words down. Then, print those words on sheets of flimsy paper and fold them so they are sort of like a book, but without the critical element of a binding. Put bundles of the book wannabes in a truck and drive them to within reasonable proximity of those who might want to read them. Take some of that bundle and place them strategically near our smartphone-obsessed gaze and hope that someone — anyone — wants to read about things which happened at least 24 hours ago. But then, charge the would be readers money if they actually do. Heaping one absurdity on another, throw all of that away and start again tomorrow from scratch.
If newspapers magically didn’t exist, nobody in their right mind would even suggest the idea, let alone actually start one. Given they do exist, however, it’s easy to think of them like an unwelcome houseguest who hasn’t yet realized the party was over days ago and it’s really time to leave.
I was writing, recently, about an airplane crash which happened in my home town of Calgary just two days after the war in Europe was officially over. My objective was not to surprise Calgarians with the story — many know it quite well already — but to try and tell it for a new audience who would not know of the accident but may still find resonance in it. It’s one of profound tragedy and irony which transcends place and time. My goal in the new article was also to avoid reading the recently written accounts for the most part and focus instead on the original reporting. If you were an ordinary Calgarian in May of 1945, how might you have experienced the event at that time? Keep in mind there was no TV or Twitter back then. Even a radio was still found only at home or maybe, if you were lucky, you had a Motorola in the family car if, indeed, you had one of those.
The answer, of course, is that an ordinary Calgarian in 1945 would have read about the airplane crash in the newspaper. It was the search for those articles which led me to one of those websites where I eventually realized “OK, this is going to change everything I write for the rest of my life.” I’m not exaggerating much when I put it on par with discovering word processing if all I had known to that point were typewriters or pen-and-paper.
What I had personally discovered was the pot-of-gold treasure trove of Newspapers.com.†
Within what seemed like seconds, I had found the issue of The Calgary Herald for May the 10th, 1945, the very day of the crash in question. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a curated-by-algorithm summary of the story but rather the entire edition of the newspaper faithfully imaged page-by-page and the entire text captured so that it could be easily searched in full. I was able to luxuriously browse through the paper as if it were 1945 and I was sitting in the local automat with a ham & cheese and five cent cup of coffee.
Newspapers.com certainly provided the facts which were the feedstock of my article, without a doubt. But that was only the beginning. The experience of seeing the entirety of those Calgary Spring days, captured concisely in one place, transported me back as if I were living the story first hand. It was fascinating to see the reporting of the crash in the context of all the other things which happened during those terrible days. The language itself was different from how we speak today and that changes how we understand the events they describe. It was even interesting to see the advertisements and what the weather was like and the box scores for Major League Baseball in those happy days when World War II was finally reaching a merciful conclusion.
A hint as to the shock of the crash and the desire to get the story straight comes from an article on page nine with a jump to page 16 of that day’s edition. This was clearly the story written earlier in the day or maybe even well in advance of the anticipated arrival of the aircraft: “Calgarians had a realistic demonstration of how it feels to have an RAF Mosquito bomber swooping only a few feet over their heads” the article read and there was absolutely no mention of the crash. That sad story, however, had knocked the other news off the front page of the same edition with the headline “Famous British Mosquito Plane Crashes in Calgary”. The Herald staff had obviously scrambled to get some sort of same day coverage. At the same time, the breathless “exhibition of low flying” buried on page nine had been hastily replaced on the front page by the pejorative “[f]ollowing a stunt similar to this” along with a picture of the aircraft buzzing the tower at Calgary Municipal airport. Obviously a lot had changed in just a few hours and the tragic twist of fate is all there in the pages of The Calgary Herald of Thursday, May 10, 1945.
More interesting still is the additional context provided by the papers leading up to the visit and the days that followed. The next day, right next to the article about “Himmler and Goering to Face Allied Court”, there was an extensive article entitled “Death of Flying Heroes In Crash…Shock[s] Calgary”. There was also a notice of the “Public Funeral For Fliers” which was to be held the following day. The 24 pages of the Saturday Herald made no mention of the crash until page 15 where it was briefly reported that an “RCAF court of inquiry is convening”. There was no Herald published on Sunday back then, so the memorial service was covered in-depth on page seven of the Monday edition. By Tuesday, the further mentions of the tragedy came in the form of a notice in the quaint, small town Personal section on page five, where the sole surviving member of the crew was mentioned as “leaving by plane for Regina”. The section called At The City Council carried a story where a “legislative committee was requested to investigate the low flying of planes over the city.” Just one week after the accident, in the Thursday edition of May 17th, there was no mention of the crash at all.
After my first experience with Newspapers.com, I could easily see how being able to hopscotch at random through four distinct centuries — the 18th through to the 21st — could easily occupy my every waking moment for the foreseeable future. I was like the proverbial kid-in-the-candy-store. My first stop? How did The Dayton Evening Herald report the epoch-shifting first flight of their hometown Wright Brothers on December 17th, 1903? The answer? They didn’t. News of the first powered flight didn’t come until the next day when it squeeked into the Last Edition with the headline “Dayton Boys Fly Airship”. On that cold Ohio night, a horrible fire at the Canby Building rated equal billing. Curiously, so did the announcement that former Assistant Secretary of the Navy McAdoo was to be named Police Commissioner of New York City. The latter even rated a picture. But not the Wrights, or their eventually famous Flyer, who were still “at [an] Isolated Spot on [the] Carolina Coast”.
So much history. So little time to read about it.
However, at the risk of not eating, sleeping or attending to other physical necessities notwithstanding, I was able to immediately put this richly-detailed ocean of history to use in the next story I wrote. The subject was an air race from England to Australia which captured international attention in 1934. I know it was international attention because I was able to browse the newspapers from England, the United States, Canada and Australia for the days surrounding the race and in a number of newspapers in each of those countries. In effect, I had transported myself back to those exciting, blissfully ignorant October days in the mid-1930s and was able to witness history unfold through the seemingly still damp-from-the-ink newspaper pages.
Perhaps the most touching stories I have been able to find so far are the really small ones which just met the threshold of being newsworthy. I searched for an aunt of mine who, still bearing the same last name as me, was introduced by her future husband to “[n]early 150 friends” in his hometown of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. How ironic that Aunt Joan really hated crowds. Nonetheless, the happy event was announced in the The Daily Republican of nearby Monongahela on April 11th, 1947. It must have seemed a long, long way from Manchester, England where my aunt and father had grown up and from where my aunt had departed just a few years before.
In another story in the February 20th, 1949 edition of the The Baltimore Sun, that same aunt and uncle were chosen at random from the “men of mark in psychiatry, pathology and obstetrics [who] are seen when the Monday Night Skating Club convenes.” Later in that story it describes my aunt and uncle as “not regular attendants due to conflicting lectures but often enjoy a quiet evening of skating together.”
That’s the image I can’t get out of my head: my favourite aunt and uncle, youthful and beautiful with their whole lives stretching out before them, gently gliding across the ice on that February night in Baltimore.
Philip L. Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post from 1946 until his death in 1963, was credited with the saying that journalism is “the first rough draft of history.” Given the arc of Graham’s career, it’s easy to imagine that when he used the term ‘journalism’ he really meant newspapers. From my anecdotal experience with the Calgary airplane crash, I think Graham had it exactly right. The uncurated, unabridged original articles from the newspapers of 1945 provide an infinitely rich portrait of what actually happened on that day in Calgary as well as the events leading up to it, and the devastating aftermath.
So, in the rapidly approaching day when newspapers as we currently know them no longer exist, what will provide that immutable, first rough draft of history?
The last, best reason for newspapers is to provide that once-per-day, all-in-one-place snapshot of that day in the proximal world in which they exist. Their value is that they cannot be changed or updated once published. Once the daily edition is on the street, there is no way of changing it until the next day at the earliest. And even then, only in a way which lets us see the original and the revision and with that possibly gain an even greater insight into what actually happened and what it all meant. That is what Newspapers.com does so well. It lets us, the visitors from the future, examine not just the content of the news for a given moment in time, not simply the facts, but their form as well — warts and all.
I only hope that whatever the future of newspapers might be, that it still includes smart people who we entrust to make decisions about what’s important in our communities on any given day, who do their best to understand the nuances of that moment and then tell the story as faithfully to the truth as possible. And when all of that is done, put the finished product into a very safe place and then do it all again tomorrow.
Those in the distant future will thank us when they, too, can travel across time to this place and moment and have some clue of what life was really like.
©2019 Terence C. Gannon
†It’s important to stress that I am in no way affiliated with Newspapers.com. I’m am a paying subscriber, however, and clearly a fan.