Lily Tomlin, a Detroit native who adopted New York, once suggested in jest that she’d be a lot more comfortable on the streets of the City if all the people talking to themselves could be paired off so that it looks like they’re having a conversation.
She made that remark long before the advent of the cellphone, the tablet, and the myriad other devices that have turned us into a nation of disengaged strollers — even when traversing the holiday-clogged streets of Times Square.
Gone are the days when posture mattered more than patter. Virtually everyone, it seems, walks with their heads down, buried deep into messages that meander aimlessly, like the Mississippi at flood stage.
Personal electronic devices are not only dangerous while driving but also while walking. Staring at a screen instead of a sidewalk can result in a fall or — even worse — an unwanted encounter with a canine calling-card. The same law-breakers who text while driving can’t be bothered to pick up too, can they?
A few Sundays ago, my copy of the The New York Times failed to show up on my front step. Several calls to the home delivery department produced the same response: “You can read today’s paper online.”
What the agent failed to realize was that I’m an Old School guy who grew up loving newspapers and never stopped. I like the feeling of holding the paper in my hands, folding it as needed, and cutting out articles of interest. I also like the paper to be crisp, clean, neatly folded, and still full of that unmistakable and undeniably delicious aroma only newsprint can provide.
I completely understand why Moe Berg, a scholarly catcher who played for the New York Giants in the ‘30s, marched daily to the biggest newsstand he could find, purchased every local and out-of-town paper plus a few foreign ones, and neatly stacked the pile in his hotel room. If anyone touched even one of his papers, Berg went ballistic, proclaimed the paper “dead,” and proceeded to replace it.
It was said of Berg that he could speak 16 languages but couldn’t hit in any of them.
Best-known as the subject of an intriguing book called Athlete, Scholar, Spy, he was instrumental in the early success of the OSS, the American spy agency that preceded the CIA, and was a true behind-the-scenes war hero. But he was cantankerous, at best, when it came to his newspapers.
I still want my newspapers to be as perfectly made as my Army bunk in basic training. If not for the fire hazard, I would sooner iron a newspaper than a shirt. Talk about pressing engagements!
As a kid growing up in Greater New York, I couldn’t wait for my dad to get home from work because I knew he’d pick up a copy of The New York Post on the way. It was the progressive paper then, during the stewardship of Dorothy Schiff, and I enjoyed reading the political columns as well as the baseball news.
My family read The Post during the week, The Times on weekends, and The Herald-News, the Passaic, NJ daily where I began my journalism career as a college intern after freshman year in 1966 — the same year they had a college intern named Jay Horwitz, now media relations director of the New York Mets.
I was certainly aware of the other New York papers: the tabloid Daily News was at the opposite end of the political spectrum from The Post, while the Herald-Tribune was to The New York Times what Avis is to Hertz — always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
There were plenty of other papers around too. In fact, New York City once had more than a dozen dailies, including the American, Globe, Herald, Journal, Mirror, PM, Post, News, Sun, Telegram, Telegraph, Times, Tribune, and World.
During my lifetime, mergers, acquisitions, and economic realities gradually whittled the list. Although the News, Post, and Times survived into the 21st century, the Journal-American joined hands with the already-merged Herald-Tribune, absorbed the World, and became the World Journal Tribune. The Daily Mirror, where horrific headlines and front-page photos gave the Daily News considerable competition, eventually followed the progressive PM, plus the Globe, Sun, and Telegraph, into the dustbin of history.
PM lasted only eight years, disappearing the year I was born, 1948. Financed by Chicago-based millionaire Marshall Fields, the paper took pride in publishing pictures, stapling copies, and eschewing advertising — ostensibly to avoid pressure from special interests. But its concept of copying a weekly magazine format in a daily newspaper lasted only eight years. A successor, The New York Star, lasted only a year.
The plethora of papers was great while it lasted. Consumed by competition, tabloids paid bonuses to headline writers and sold copies for less than a nickel. Only the Times, using a traditional spreadsheet of eight columns, remained above the fray.
To be sure, some of the headlines were memorable — and visible from a distance so that people approaching subway kiosks could buy and grab on the go.
Famous front pages, both from New York and around the nation, are on display at The Newseum, the Gannett-funded museum of news not far from the Capitol Building in Washington. Also on display there are front pages from the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks that struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
As an old newspaper guy myself, I not only loved writing headlines but reading them. Somehow, it’s not the same on the internet.
For all the plusses that computers and similar modern marvels have brought to society, they have also been responsible for a big minus: the death of the American newspaper.
Advertisers are shifting their support from print to online and broadcast outlets. With less income from ad revenue, newspapers and magazines are suffering more severe shrinkage than George Costanza.
New York may be the City that never sleeps, but it is also in danger of becoming the City that never reads. With just three dailies left, it’s painfully apparent that most people are getting their news electronically — if they are getting it at all.
As the holiday season approaches, I want to make room on my bookshelves for new tomes on baseball, history, and politics. They will find an honored place right next to my books of famous front pages.
Whether at home or on the road, I’m happy to start my day with a mug of OJ, a copy of USA TODAY, and the local paper.
That’s not only how I learned to read but also how I learned to write. For that, I am forever grateful — in this holiday season and into the New Year beyond.