YESTERDAY, for one day at least, everybody had to have a copy of their newspaper. People waited in long lines to buy them, newsstands ran out of copies early in the morning, and subscribers had their papers stolen from their doorsteps. Everybody had to have a memento from this historic election — proof that it indeed happened, proof that they were there when it happened.
It was a reminder to me of what newspapers mean to people, and of what they really do best — document in words and pictures the history of our world, the history of what happened the day before. They are a daily souvenir of our life. And when our favorite team wins a championship, when the nation is attacked by terrorists, when voters elect their first nonwhite president, we want the hard evidence in the form of a newspaper. DVR’d newscasts and Web printouts won’t do.
Newspapers are the greatest medium for recording this incremental history as it happens, day by day. But, for some reason, the executives running newspapers decided a while back that people already know what happened yesterday and don’t need to read all about it, and that they would rather have a daily crystal ball that tells them what’s gonna happen next. (I’ve written about this upsetting trend before.)
At The Hartford Courant, where I worked for nearly 10 years, we couldn’t write headlines or stories that told people what actually happened. We had to be “forward-looking” and stir up emotions with overblown, melodramatic and preferably alliterative headlines. The argument was that “readers already know what happened by the time the paper comes out, so you have to tell them something new.”
Therefore, “8 Die In Mall Shooting” is an unacceptable headline, but “Mall Massacre” is great, as is “Could It Happen At Your Mall?” I remember the day of the Madrid train bombing in 2004 — another historic day. I wasn’t allowed to write the headline “191 Killed In Train Bombings.” The front-page banner headline we used was “Al-Qaida Or ETA?” Huh? ETA? What did the train’s arrival time have to do with anything? Oh, ETA was a terrorist group suspected in the bombings. So, we went with a screaming question head that told readers little, even if they knew what ETA was. I asked then and I ask now: What is wrong with documenting, for history’s sake, exactly what happened yesterday?
I haven’t seen yesterday’s Courant (I still haven’t looked at a Courant since its redesign), but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a headline like “2012 Campaign Gets Underway” or “Is America Now Ready For A Latino President?”
I remember finding old, yellowed newspapers in a bedroom closet when I was a little boy. I vaguely remember them, but I think they were about Kennedy’s election or his assassination. In any case, they were historical records of historic days, saved by my parents for posterity.
That is what newspapers are to people. Unfortunately for newspaper publishers, every day isn’t as monumental as this Tuesday was. But that’s the cool thing about documenting history — you never know when the next monumental day is coming. Newspapers have to be ready, with the best writers and editors and photographers on hand, because history can happen at any time. And what happened yesterday can really matter to people.