Friday, January 21, 2011

Of Newspapers And Sunsets (But Mostly Newspapers)

I try to read my local newspaper every morning.

I also try to watch the sunset every evening.

After having done this for quite some time now, I've come to the conclusion that newspapers and sunsets are very different things.

The difference that intrigues me the most today is this: Sunsets change minute by minute, but not very much from year to year; newspapers change hardly at all minute to minute, but can change a great deal over the course of a few decades.

I was reminded of just how radically newspapers can change when I recently read quite a few old newspapers while trying to learn more about the places and people I grew up with.

Here are some of the changes I noticed:

----- The print quality used to be truly awful. The ink seems to have been spotty, the lines often crooked, and the font hard on the eyes. Deterioration associated with the passage of time hasn't helped, but it doesn't seem to be responsible for the majority of the ugliness that I'm finding. Even the artwork and graphics used in the ads seem relatively childish and unsophisticated compared to what we see today in high school publications. For what it's worth, it seems to me that things got significantly better after 1970.

----- There seems to have been a much greater emphasis on local news in prior decades. Chatty, even gossipy accounts of who was having dinner with whom seem to have been a regular feature. Coverage of a wide variety of social organizations and clubs seems to have been far more extensive than it is today. Local bowling leagues seem to have merited headlines on a par with those given nationally famous baseball and football teams. Even local miniature golf tournaments were accorded star treatment. National and international news, on the other hand, often seems to have been something of an afterthought.

----- Married women didn't just lose their maiden names when they married - they also lost their first names. Virtually every reference to a married woman that I came across referred to her as "Mrs. George Smith" or "Mrs. Thomas Jones" (or whatever). Makes me wonder if they all had tags around their necks so people would know who to return them to if they ever got lost.

----- Racism was pervasive and practiced without apology. Want ads commonly specified "White girl wanted for sales work" or "White cook wanted for cafe" or "White female offers babysitting in her home." Rental ads often emphasized "Whites only" or made sure prospective tenants knew that the landlord was white. People of color rarely, if ever, appeared in ads or news photos. The next time you hear Tom Brokaw prattle on about "The Greatest Generation", you might want to ask him about this.

----- Heat waves were big news in the days before air conditioning. The main story on one front page I found from the 1930s gave an hour-by-hour breakdown of the previous day's temperatures. Another story on the same front page told the story of one woman whom the heat had allegedly driven to murder her family with an ax. A third story told how a local man had allegedly been driven by the heat to commit suicide by climbing to the top of a huge oil tank, open the access door on top, then jump in. (What we today might dismiss as sensational tabloid journalism seems to have been mainstream journalism for many years.)

----- Polio was big news, too. Waves of illness apparently would sweep across America every year during Polio Season (which ran from July to November). When the first week of July 1954 came and went without a single case of polio being reported in the city of Toledo, it merited a special story. (That story ended by reminding mothers that they could help keep their children safe by discouraging them from swimming in muddy streams. Gee, who knew?)

----- Gambling was covered as a major vice. I repeatedly came across stories detailing raids on clubs and restaurants equipped with illegal slot machines. (One raid was trumpeted with huge page one headlines.) When three men were caught playing cards in a house on the block I grew up on, that merited a story, too. These stories seem to have disappeared by the time Ohio launched a lottery in the early 1970s. Now that Ohio has just approved the building of four casinos (including one in Toledo), such stories read like dispatches from another planet.

----- Almost completely absent from the old newspapers that I've examined: Reports of scientific and sociological studies. The local anecdote seems to have always had the power to trump even the broadest and most meticulous research generated by distant experts, but before the 1960s the local anecdote doesn't seem to have had any real competition.

----- Alas, what doesn't seem to have changed much at all are the daily accounts of the carnage generated by cars and guns. I don't think I've ever come across a single issue of a Toledo newspaper that doesn't contain a story or two about young lives lost in a midnight crash or a pedestrian mowed down after not looking both ways or about a man with a revolver making a felon of himself after sending a fellow human being (or three) to an early grave. I think it was on the very day that the terrible news out of Tucson started dominating the evening news broadcasts that I happened upon a 1933 story detailing how a man went to the old Moose Lodge at 316 Cherry Street to request placement in a Moose Retirement Home and how, upon being refused, the man whipped out a pistol and started firing. Why does this quintessential American "solution" to problems continue to surprise us in the least? How many times does even the slowest child have to touch a hot stove before he or she stops being shocked by its ability to burn and perhaps actually does something besides crying in response?

----- Of course some things really *do* get better with time (though you might have to stand back and look hard to see it). A 1965 ad for a simple AM transistor radio told me that it cost $18. According to the online Inflation Calculator that I was just able to check for free, that's the equivalent of $121 today. (And batteries weren't included!)

I suppose I could list many other differences I've noticed between old newspapers and new ones, but I'm afraid I don't have the time.

Instead, I'll end this entry by quickly mentioning one other difference between newspapers in general and today's sunset in particular: I'm never sure what time my next newspaper will come, but today's sunset will occur at 5:37 PM.

That's according to today's newspaper, anyway.

I plan on fact-checking it at my earliest opportunity.


  1. Very interesting! This perspective makes it seem like newspapers have vastly improved over the decades!

    But how to reconcile that possibility, when newspapers may be encountering the biggest change of all as many of them disappear or become online-only entities? Count me old-fashioned, but I still prefer portable media (and I don't mean iPads or iPods) which can be taken anywhere, and you don't have to worry about power supply or internet capacity, and you don't miss out on proprietary articles or features that require additional subscriptions in order to gain access... It makes me wonder if old newspapers should be hoarded for their potential future value in light of their impending scarcity?

    Our skies sometimes are so gray that they preclude seeing the sunset... but it's nice to know it's still out there, somewhere...

  2. My mother used to sign my father's name on papers and checks and I always thought that was weird.
    When I was getting divorced, my lawyer told me it was OK to open postal mail addressed to my wife. I thought that was weird, too.

  3. My iPod has a transistor radio and the battery WAS included, but the damb battery is wearing out after two years. It's so much trouble to replace the battery that I'll probably just get another iPod instead. A new iPod would cost about $120 except, you know, it's from Apple.
    On the other hand, the transistors are smaller than microscopic and the thing has more RAM and processing power than the computer that helped Neil Armstrong pilot the LEM from Apollo 11 to the moon and back.