In 1951 I first became aware of newspapers—the “funny pages” anyway—and fell in love with them, over time adding the news and editorial pages to my regular reading of the comics. Eventually, after a decade at two “alternative” newspapers, I took jobs with dailies in Colorado and California. For a bit over 30 years—as reporter, editor, editorialist, and publisher—my jobs mandated that I read several newspapers a day. I still do. But like so many Americans, I read them online. Only when I travel do I read hard-copy papers. I miss them. And not out of mere nostalgia.
Every time I pick up a copy at a hotel or airport, I reconnect with the familiar sensory impact of those print newspapers. Online reading serves me better in many ways—access to a diversity of sources, for instance. But reading a hard-copy newspaper just feels different, more satisfying, and, because newspapers post only a fraction on line of what they publish in print, more informative. I suspect the sensory aspect of my love of newspapers is enhanced by having worked for three years as a printer. If this all sounds like my brittle, old, buggy-whip brain is rationalizing, so be it. Knowing that the fate of most newspapers is oblivion is disconcerting even though I’ll be long gone before the last of them publishes its final issue.
In ‘51, that mid-century year so long ago when I was five, 1,772 newspapers were published every day in the United States, according to the Newspaper Association of America, which had just begun the previous year keeping track of industry data. There were about 50,000 employees in the newsrooms of daily newspapers. Statistics show that 123 percent of U.S. households bought newspapers every day then, meaning many of them bought more than one. The vast bulk of the nation’s advertising at the time could be found in newspapers.
By 1989, when I signed on as an editor at the Los Angeles Times, the number of dailies had fallen to 1,611. And even though America’s population had grown by 23 percent since 1970, nationwide daily circulation had plateaued, newsroom staffs had grown to 57,000, and many papers, including the Times, were earning record profits.
With a weekday circulation of 1.25 million and 1.5 million on Sunday, the Times was the largest circulation metropolitan daily in the country. It had 29 foreign bureaus, mostly one- or two-person operations, but still. More than 1,000 newsroom employees worked from the paper’s downtown headquarters. The Sunday edition was so fat with advertising, it was jokingly called the “cat killer” for the damage its five pounds of paper and ink presumably could wreak when thrown onto a patron’s porch, or more usually, the lawn. Sunday editions contained hundreds of pages, much of it pure advertising.
The future looked promising. Not just for the Los Angeles Times, but for most of the nation’s big papers. However, the future had a surprise. The same year I began editing at the Times, a guy named Tim Berners-Lee invented the WorldWideWeb, the first internet browser, later named Nexus. Then came the deluge.