The Middle Ages: A toast to a small morning pleasure, and a toast to you for reading it
Another Saturday morning. Spilling coffee on my Sports section. Blotting it up with my sleeve. One sacred thing meets another: a great newspaper, a cup of coffee.
Lord, let us pray …
To me a newspaper is a sacred thing. I remember lying on my belly as a 10-year-old, Sunday paper spread around the carpet like a quilt, and wondering, “How do they make it all fit?”
To me it seemed a marvel of literary architecture.
There was this big story of a corrupt Illinois governor right next to a small story about the number of turkeys sold that Thanksgiving.
It was the late-’60s, the days when a newspaper was a more whimsical thing, and difficult to measure and plan on the fly.
When a story came up short on deadline, they would plug the hole with “fillers,” short items about turkey sales or a capsized ferry near Katmandu. Often, they were quirky little stories about an alligator found in a Florida toilet or Elvis’ visage showing up on a refrigerator door.
“Hey, Martha stories,” editors used to call them. As in, “Hey, Martha, did you see this story about the headless corpse found in a topless bar?”
You get the idea.
These days, we can measure a story more deftly and accommodate miscalculations by expanding a photo or adjusting a headline. Those little filler stories, and the sense of whimsy, are mostly gone. And with them a small joy in reading a daily newspaper.
The stock tables are gone too. Editors keep trying to erase the TV listing as well, but readers always threaten to storm the place when we try that. Comics. Box scores. Obits. Crosswords. It’s the little things that keep a newspaper breathing.
A great newspaper makes you late for work. It rests on the counter with its own kinetic energy. You can almost hear it wiggle and throb.
And I’m lucky they do, because for 35 years newspapers have kept shoes on my children’s feet and Pop-Tarts on their table. In my lifetime, newspapers have also helped end unjust wars, brought down bad presidents, nailed despots, shamed crackpots and entertained us just enough to keep us coming back every day.
Mike Royko. Jim Murray. Herb Caen. Mark Twain. William Faulkner. They all wrote furiously for newspapers. They all kept us coming back.
“On some great and glorious day,” alpha-columnist H.L. Mencken once predicted, “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Well, no more than 14 times.
A great newspaper makes you late for work. It rests on the counter with its own kinetic energy. You can almost hear it wiggle and throb. Like a turkey, a newspaper bastes in its own juices. We devour it with our eyes.
Yeah, it can make you late for work. “Just one more story,” you tell yourself. Just one more movie review or comic strip or football roundup. “Hey, Martha!”
These days, you can read the paper on your phone, follow it on your laptop and probably someday soon scan it on your digital fingernails.
Those of a certain age, 40 and up, tell me they prefer the rattle of newsprint and the feel of history against their flesh. It is ritual. It is sacred.
I suspect that most publishers can’t wait to rid you of that paper pleasure, not that they are cruel, but because they are businesspeople trying to stay alive. Newsprint is hugely expensive, and running a giant press has always challenged the laws of physics and the economies of scale.
Ever seen a newspaper press in action? It’s like printing a Picasso on damp toilet paper running at 80 miles per hour.
Most college papers aren’t even papers anymore, they have moved online.
We will too. Not tomorrow, not next year, but eventually.
What a sad day that will be. But I’m too Irish to pre-mourn anything. I prefer to wait till things die, then I over-mourn. But I refuse to mourn them in advance.
Yet in this season of thanks, it seems right to pass along a bit of gratitude for keeping this fine communal feast going each day, as you do.
Newspapers aren’t cheap, and they’re certainly not easy. Sometimes they land in your sprinklers or the bougainvillea bush or under your neighbor’s Accord.
Newspapers: black and white and wet all over.
Imagine delivering 600,000 different pizzas to 600,000 different homes by 7 a.m. every single morning — in rain, in snow — and you have only the barest understanding of what it takes to produce a major American metro.
Like life itself, newspapers have never been easy.
So thank you.
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