I don't recall seeing either of my parents ever reading a book. I'm pretty sure they didn't even own any, except for a Bible, which, bless their hearts, they also didn't read. But every morning my father would buy a Milwaukee Sentinel (he always left for work by 5:30 a.m., before the paper would have been delivered) and every afternoon the Milwaukee Journal arrived at our door. They read those papers front to back. I grew up reading them, too.
At 13, I got my first of several paper routes. Through college and afterward, I worked for the Milwaukee Journal's circulation department, delivering papers to carriers and vendors, collecting money, keeping the books. In 1982 I co-founded a Milwaukee newspaper called The Crazy Shepherd, now the weekly Shepherd Express. Four years later I landed my first and only fulltime job, here at Isthmus.
Newspapers are a huge part of my life, part of who I am. I've always considered them essential. The idea of not reading a daily newspaper strikes me as a dereliction of my duty as an informed citizen.
A few months ago, on the final season of HBO's The Wire, a character recalls being a kid watching his dad peruse the paper each morning. That's why he became a journalist: He wanted to be part of something that important.
The fictional newsroom in the show is, like most real newsrooms these days, in crisis. The industry is reeling from drops in circulation, revenue, investor confidence and public regard.
Papers from The New York Times to Isthmus are cutting staff. The Wall Street Journal was sold to Rupert Murdoch. The Capital Times and now the Daily Telegram of Superior have ceased daily print publication. The price of stock in Lee Enterprises, half-owner of the Cap Times and Wisconsin State Journal, has fallen from nearly $50 a share in 2004 to barely more than $3 a share today.
As Mia Farrow says in Rosemary's Baby, when she wakes up and realizes she's being raped by the Devil: "This is not a dream. This is really happening!"
That many newspaper companies remain highly profitable seems not to matter. They are seen as anachronistic, a throwback to an earlier age, unsustainable.
But what most goads me is the public's increasingly supercilious attitude. It's become fashionable to bash the print media as unreliable, at a time when newspapers are a beacon of credibility compared to the blowhards on cable TV and the bloviators of the blogosphere.
The other day I gave a talk to a local Rotary chapter. I made some point about excessive government secrecy, and one of the gentlemen in attendance opined that it was perfectly understandable, given the media's predilection to get things wrong.
I was of course gracious and politic in my response, but I think this fellow is full of it. Of course the media make mistakes, and I would never defend everything my colleagues do, especially at the national level.
But the truth is that newspapers get an amazing number of things right. Numbers, dates, names, context, nuance - we check and double check. We don't go all viral spreading ridiculous lies, like that Barack Obama is a Muslim. We publish corrections when we're wrong. How many doctors or lawyers or politicians do that?
I once had an editorial intern break into tears over an error so inconsequential I can no longer recall it. He hated getting something wrong, as does every reporter I know. (Again, I flash to The Wire, where a reporter makes an early-morning call to the copy desk to make sure he hadn't misstated a statistic. Waking up in cold sweats is part of this job.)
As I told the Rotarians, there's a simple way to educate yourself about what it takes to be a reporter:
Go to any event in your community that you know will be covered in the press. It can be a debate, a day of court testimony, a press conference, an appearance by a visiting newsmaker, even a baseball game. Pay close attention and take copious notes. Then go home and write up a story about what you've just seen.
The next day, compare what you've written to the story that appears in the paper. I guarantee you won't look down your nose at newspaper reporters ever again.
And covering events is just a small part of what newspapers do. The job gets a lot tougher. Enterprise stories, analytical stories, stories that require special expertise. Long hours. Low pay. And for what? So people can cluck about how irrelevant newspapers have become - as irrelevant as whether the things politicians and pundits say are true?
If it sounds like I'm angry, I guess I am. I'm angry that newspapers are falling into disrepute. I'm angry that people don't respect the quality control that goes into news reporting; they seem to think any idiot with Internet access is worth listening to.
I'm angry that some young people feel they don't need newspapers - nor, apparently, anything else in the way of information about their community. I recently spoke to a student who had no idea an arrest has been made in the murder of Joel Marino; this student lives less than a mile from where this apparent stranger-murder occurred.
I submit that those of us who care about newspapers and the quality information they provide ought to help ensure their continued existence. That may mean subscribing instead of reading them free at work or online. It may mean placing ads in papers instead of some online service. It certainly should mean recognizing that ads are what make papers possible, and that newspaper advertisers deserve support.
It's not enough to hope that newspapers stick around. We need to fight for them.