Wednesday, April 01, 2009

An ode to ink on my fingers

Stored inside a cabinet in my basement office are acid-free boxes designed to preserve history. If you believe everything that's been written and said lately about the demise of newspapers, the boxes protect living fossils.

Alongside clips of stories I've written resides my personal collection of historic newspapers.

One features the complete text of Abraham Lincoln's second annual message to the nation from December 1862, taking up one-third of the front and back pages.

Another from 1796 discusses the transfer of land which would one day become Dayton, Ohio, signed in text by then-President of the United States George Washington.

I have Civil War papers, World War II papers, sports pages from the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's, a Washington Times that tells the story of Babe Ruth's "called shot" in the 1932 World Series -- although Grantland Rice's tome doesn't mention that Ruth called the shot -- and an 1870 New York Times that recaps a game involving the Cincinnati Red Stockings of George and Harry Wright fame.

This is history, my friends.

Newspaper printed pre-1900 was composed of a mixture of cotton and linen making it virtually indestructible. A 1916 New York Times crumbles at the slightest touch, while papers from the 1700's are as prestine as the moment they were being read by Revolutionaries.

At my fingertips are moments in time captured in ink. Everything from the weather, to various aspects of daily life including classified ads, which most often are entertaining.

Some have fingerprints, coffee stains, cigarette or cigar burns. On December 2, 1862, who was reading the paper that I hold in my hands nearly 150 years later?

As I ponder the so-called "death" of newspapers, I often consider the journalistic loss, the disappearance of our last great democratic watch-dog. But, I also think about the romance that will be lost, the romance which drew me into this business in the first place.

Perhaps in a past life I sat on a train alongside Rice, Red Smith or Ring Lardner, in a smoke-filled cabin en route to the next town where I'll wax poetic in type-set about war, politics, or Ty Cobb.

Despite our difficult economic times, the historical significance of newspapers still is valued in this country.

When Obama was elected President, newspapers flew off the racks and from newstands throughout the country as citizens horded them as keepsakes. We didn't print off web pages and race to Hobby Lobby to have them framed.

From the Titanic to Pearl Harbor to 9/11, newspapers were our window to the world and its most tragic and celebratory stories.

I eat lunch in Downtown Cincinnati most days, and I always take a moment to scan my surroundings to see how many people are reading newspapers. In short, a lot.

USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Cincinnati Enquirer are the most popular.

The internet is the future, and newspapers are scrambing to keep up. There are many difficult challenges ahead. But, as we look forward to the future of newspapers and consider their value in present society, let's not forget what they've meant to us all along.

When my son, Benjamin, was born on March 3, 2009, I made sure to keep a copy of the Enquirer from that date. It's in an acid-free box in my office, not far from Abraham Lincoln.

No comments: