Newspapers don’t get much respect.  We use them for bird cage bottoms, to catch paint spills, protective wrapping for delicate items, cleaning windows; but they’ve been with us for a long time, serve a vital service, and will, undoubtedly, be with us for a while longer.

My first newspaper was The Town Talk, the newspaper of Alexandria, Louisiana.  “The Town Talk” is not a very pretentious title: not nearly as pretentious as the Atlanta Constitution, the Baltimore Sun, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Defender, the Detroit Free Press, or the Liberator.   But The Town Talk did live up to its name.  It covered the local news pretty thoroughly.  Oh my gosh, I just remembered the reporting by The Town Talk of the death of the then representative-elect from the great state of Louisiana, Earl Long.  Perhaps they were a little overly thorough in their reporting in this case.  The Town Talk had “strongly opposed” the possible election of Earl and had stringently supported the reelection of Harold McSween to the 8th district congressional seat.  Long beat “Cat Fish Mouth,” the moniker that Earl had hung on his worthy opponent.  Unfortunately for Earl, he died while residing in the Bentley Hotel before the day of his inauguration arrived. The Town Talk joyfully reported his demise by publishing...I can only paraphrase because I can’t find a record of the initial newspaper report, “Earl Long, in the Bentley Hotel with an unknown woman, coughed twice, rolled over and died.”  I’m sure they meant that is the nicest way.

A few years ago, the headline of the local paper, The Burleson County Tribune, was something like this: “Jim Jones Arrested After Police Pursuit.”  I had to laugh.  The headline made me think the Tribune had something personal against old Jim.  Heck, I don’t think anyone in Burleson County had ever heard of old Jim before the headline.  I would have expected the headline to have read “Man Arrested After Police Pursuit.”  I know that it caught my attention: it made me wonder who the heck Jim Jones was.

After graduating from LSU with a degree in English, my ideal job was a job with a small town newspaper.  I had a romantic view of what a hot shot newspaperman I would be.  It didn’t work out; my draft status and 35 years in education diverted me from this dream.

The closest I ever came to working for a newspaper was when I was the managing editor of the Campus Talk, obviously a reflection of the nearby Town Talk.  The Campus Talk was the student newspaper of LSU at Alexandria.  LSU started the branch just south of Alexandria in 1960.  I applied for a job with the new newspaper at the new school.  Of course, I got one: I can’t remember my title for sure.  I think it was managing editor.  I was in charge.  I even got a tiny stipend for my efforts.  This caused a tiny problem during the course of my tenure.  The sports editor apparently didn’t receive a tiny stipend and resented mine when he discovered it.  He didn’t quit.  Instead he sabotaged his reports.  As you can imagine, there wasn’t much for the sports editor to report on at the newly opened two-year branch.  The only “sports” activities I recall that year was an LSUA bowling league.  Fred, yeah, I think that was his name, continued to submit the bowling results each deadline.  Unfortunately, he submitted the same results week after week.  Being that I, along with everyone else enrolled in LSUA, didn’t bother paying much attention to the bowling results, his duplication went unnoticed for a while.  The problem was corrected.

I had absolutely no journalism education before becoming the managing editor, but the principal young lady editor on the staff did.  She had taken a journalism class in high school.  I kept noticing that the end of her articles were often, even usually, cut off in the printed edition before she intended them to end.  The how-to of counting column inches was provided by the printer, a newspaper in a little town south of the campus.  It was good enough for me and seemed to work like a charm for my articles.  I asked the young lady why her articles were always cut off by the printer before the end of the articles.  She said she used the method of counting taught to her in high school.  I explained that the method didn’t work for our printer and that she should use the method provided by the printer.  She continued to count the inches the way she was taught in high school, and her articles continued to be cut off before intended.  When I asked her why she continued to use the method that did not work, she replied that she counts the inches the “correct” way.  This was a good lesson for me about human nature: some folks cannot be saved from themselves.  You must either put up with them or smother them in their sleep.

Curious about my old newspaper, Campus Talk, I looked it up on the internet.  It’s now The Sentry,  a little more pretentious, but, well, that is the nature of the times.


When one thinks about early newspapers in America, James and Benjamin Franklin must immediately come to mine.  James, of course, was the older brother of the more famous Benjamin. James was the owner and editor-in-chief of The New England Courant which only accidentally dealt with mundane news and tended to feature essays and satirical letters.  Benjamin went on to purchase the Universal Instructor in Arts and Sciences (speaking of pretentious titles).  Under Franklin’s direction, the Universal Instructor became The Pennsylvania Gazette and was Ben’s outlet for his satires, play of wit, mischief, and just plain fun.  Needless to say, Ben’s impact on the practical side of journalism was minimal.

You might ask why early newspapers had so little news and so much invented prose.  Well, when a newspaperman was limited to the sources he personally knew and  those who were within walking distance or dependent on a primitive postal system, the newspaperman had space to fill and he filled it with “news” conjured up in his own mind.

The state of newspapers in the Colonial period suited perfectly the needs of revolutionaries such as Tom Paine and his Common Sense and later by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay  with their Federalists essays.  Folks after 1800 came to believe that they had a right to the information contained in newspapers without paying for it.  The public subverted the cash meant for the newspapers in every way possible, but advertising saved the newspapers.  Newspapers were extremely important to the young country; Thomas Jefferson stated, ”Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” As the political party system took shape, the parties formed their own newspapers.  The number of newspapers grew rapidly; by 1810 there were 366.  Still, actual news was hard to come by; in 1848 several newspapers formed the Associated Press to obtain news for the members jointly.  The other development which assisted in the gathering of news was the telegraph. 

Two terms associated with newspapers with which you might be familiar are “muckraking” and “yellow journalism.”  “Muckraking” is a positive term which refers to journalists who investigate and expose issues of corruption.  The Watergate investigation by Woodward and Bernstein is a good example.  “Yellow journalism” is a negative term referring to journalists who present no legitimate well-researched news and instead use eye-catching headlines, fraudulent or exaggerated news or sources (See any big time newspaper today for an example.).

Because of muckraking and yellow journalism, the newspaper business can be a pretty rough affair.  I am reminded of Mark Twain’s short story “Journalism in Tennessee” which recounts the misadventures of a journalist who travels South because of health reasons to go to work for the Morning Glory and Johnson County War-Whoop as an associate editor.  The journalist removes himself from his position as associate editor after receiving the following instructions from the editor, "Jones will be here at three--cowhide him. Gillespie will call earlier, perhaps--throw him out of the window. Ferguson will be along about four--kill him. That is all for today, I believe. If you have any odd time, you may write a blistering article on the police--give the chief inspector rats. The cowhides are under the table; weapons in the drawer--ammunition there in the corner--lint and bandages up there in the pigeonholes. In case of accident, go to Lancet, the surgeon, down-stairs. He advertises--we take it out in trade."

There are approximately 1,500 daily newspapers in the United States today.  Since the advent of television, the number of and circulation of newspapers and their importance in our lives have declined.  Not many large towns have competing newspapers today.  I recall when the Houston Post closed its door a few years ago leaving only the Houston Chronicle as the major newspaper in a town with a population of over 2 million.  Things were bad for newspapers, but then along came the internet.  Many newspapers have gotten on the internet band wagon by publishing at least partial editions on the net.  In the face of all the declining numbers related to daily newspapers, small town newspapers are flourishing.  Small town newspapers often only publish once a week.  My small town newspaper, The Burleson County Tribune, actually covers the news of a county with only about 25,000 folks living in a handful of small towns,  and the surrounding country side.

The local paper doesn’t seem to be much into muckraking or yellow journalism, limiting itself to actual news derived from the county’s environs.  When the schools are in session, the sports section bulges.  The obituaries are a pretty dependable feature each week.  Being a rural area, 4-H and FFA activities are big in the paper.  Of course, in political seasons, the advertising in the paper bloats.  The biggest headlines are probably produced by the occasional wrong doing (arrests of unlucky miscreants), the occasional accident (usually automotive or farm equipment related), and the occasional fire (usually grass).  The closest thing to yellow journalism or muckraking is the occasional poor judgment submitted in letters to the editor.  The Tribune reports on what the citizens’ lives are about; what more can you ask for?

When Linda and I first married, I was the big newspaper reader.  Linda didn’t show much interest, but this changed; one summer while desperately trying to complete the remodel of one of our home’s rooms, I asked Linda to keep up with the news.  She read the newspaper each day and gave me a briefing.  Before long she was the avid newspaper reader, and I got my news the old fashioned way, from my wife.

Newspapers are notorious for getting the facts wrong.  It’s just the nature of the beast.  Dailies require rapid fire gathering, writing, and setting into print the stories of the day.  Almost any article read by someone familiar with the facts aforehand, know the stories printed only loosely resemble the facts.  Probably the most famous erroneous headline was “Dewey Defeats Truman” which appeared on the front page of  the Chicago Tribune in 1948 the day the newspaper headline should have read “Truman Defeats Dewey.”  Oops.   Obituaries, not a good thing to get wrong, are, unbelievably, often wrong: George H. W. Bush was reported to have thrown up, collapsed, and died while visiting Japan.  It was partially correct: he did throw up.  As Mark Twain said of the erroneous report of his own death, “The Report of my death was an exaggeration.”

In spite of yellow journalism, numerous inaccuracies, biased points-of-view, competition from television and the internet, the newspaper is alive and well.  Really, what’s better than reading the newspaper and chuckling at the comic strips on a quiet Sunday morning while drinking a warm cup of coffee?


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