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Patt Morrison’s ‘Don't Stop the Presses!’ explores the untold story of historic newspapers

Patt Morrison’s ‘Don't Stop the Presses!’ explores the untold story of historic newspapers
The Richmond Planet was not the first African American newspaper in the American South, but it gained a national voice from its founding in 1883 until its end in 1938, reporting on matters like “Negro Exodus to the North” and the systematic disenfranchisement of black citizens. (Angel City Press)

Patt Morrison likes the small stuff. "I am a great lover of what is erroneously called ephemera, our paper trail in this world," the longtime journalist says on a recent morning at a Cypress Park Starbucks. She likes small objects, postcards and notes on napkins; all things that could be easily discarded. Yet there’s a story in every scrap.

A few years ago, Morrison began to notice postcards with images from long-gone newspapers. During that time, she saw the troubles in print media industry, including the ongoing challenges of newspapers large and small. "We are in the business of telling other people's stories," says Morrison, an L.A. Times columnist. Journalists are the conduits of the world's stories, the writers of the first draft of history. But she wondered: Who would tell the stories of journalists?

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So Morrison embarked on her own journey to share the story of newspapers. Her new book, "Don't Stop the Presses! Truth, Justice and the American Newspaper," released in late 2018 through Angel City Press, explores the story of the newspaper business as it intertwines with the history of the nation. "Don't Stop the Presses!" delves into the American news biz, mixing both the harrowing and fun stories of journalists across the country, from national and major cities papers to smaller, hyper-local markets. It's rich with detail, as well as historic photographs revealing how the newspaper industry weathered war, scandal and social change.

As she began digging, Morrison found fantastic photos of historic newspapers around the country.

Weeks after the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, Honolulu Star-Bulletin newsroom windows were blacked out; staffers were ready for news.
Weeks after the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, Honolulu Star-Bulletin newsroom windows were blacked out; staffers were ready for news. (Angel City Press)

One that stood out to her was taken inside the newsroom of the now-defunct Honolulu Star-Bulletin not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the image, a small group is at work writing and reading copy while wearing gas masks. The windows behind them are blacked out. "These are the conditions that journalists work under," she says. Morrison mentions journalists who have been killed or injured in the process of doing their job. One of her mentors was Dial Torgerson, a Los Angeles Times reporter who was killed by grenade fire in Honduras in 1983.

But "Don't Stop the Presses!" isn't just about heroism and nostalgia. Morrison brings to light some of journalism's more embarrassing moments too — glaring mistakes, hoaxes and lack of diversity in the newsroom. Good and bad, this history is conveyed with a sense of urgency to keep the presses going even, perhaps especially, in an era of shrinking newsrooms and cries of "fake news."

"Fake news is what people say today instead of no comment," says Morrison. And the sentiment behind the statement isn't exclusive to the Trump presidency. Morrison notes Spiro Agnew's description of the press as "nattering nabobs of negativism." That relationship between press and politicians, though, goes back much further in American history. Yet “fake news” may just be a moment. "I think the fake news spike will pass," Morrison says.

Agness Underwood, the first female city editor of a major American paper, ruled the city room of Los Angeles’ Herald- Express with all the vigor the job demands — and the outsized baseball bat that she said she kept on hand to keep Hollywood PR people in line.
Agness Underwood, the first female city editor of a major American paper, ruled the city room of Los Angeles’ Herald- Express with all the vigor the job demands — and the outsized baseball bat that she said she kept on hand to keep Hollywood PR people in line. (Angel City press)

The concern, though, is that it could leave what she calls a "residue of permanent distrust" that affects newspapers going forward. "People used to cancel their newspapers because they were angry about an editorial or a story and then a month later they would re-up with the newspaper," she says. "Now they will get angry and say, I'm not going to read that anymore and retreat into their niche, whether it's a liberal media niche or conservative — I'm talking about talk radio and television — and abandon mainstream sources of news.

"What surprised me in researching the book was the depth of the contentious nature with the press and people in government and official positions," says Morrison. "And yet the founders understood that while they may not have liked what was being said about them, they thought it was vitally important that we have these outlets of discussion."

That's all compounded by a 21st century media landscape that has had trouble adjusting to technological advances like social media. "My concern is that the internet is flat. It has no topography to tell you what's a good source and what's a bad one," says Morrison. "There's no mountain range of truth or Death Valley of lies that will instantly flag to you what's a good source, a solid source, and what isn't."

News of the homefront delivered to the battlefront, and the reverse, became speedier during the Civil War, thanks to reader demands and amped-up technology. Here, a newspaper vendor sells papers from Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore near a Union Army camp.
News of the homefront delivered to the battlefront, and the reverse, became speedier during the Civil War, thanks to reader demands and amped-up technology. Here, a newspaper vendor sells papers from Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore near a Union Army camp. (Angel City Press)

Providing context and deep reporting is important to Morrison. As a teenager, she even recorded her parents and grandparents talking about their lives. "I don't know what made me do it,” she says. “I wasn't smart about those things at 16, but maybe just because I loved hearing stories was why I did it.” Today, with her Los Angeles Times column and podcast "Patt Morrison Asks," the journalist questions subjects about the past and present with emphasis on context.

She brought that same attention to detail to her book. “Don't Stop the Presses!” is also a good foundation for increasing media literacy, a necessary skill to have to build and maintain a democracy with citizens actively engaged in the political processes on both local and national level.

"You can help people take control of their own lives. You can show them the power that they have. You can show them information that gives them power in their own minds," says Morrison of journalism’s influence. "To me, that's quite an important thing. That's, I suppose, why I started and why I'm still here."

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Angel City Press; 176 pp. $40

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