January 2015

Stopping the presses

By Gail Binkly

In the 1980s, there was a short-lived television show called “Lou Grant,” about a fictitious Los Angeles newspaper. I was fond of the opening credits, which started with a shot of a bird singing in a tree, then showed the tree being cut down and processed into newsprint. Images followed of newspapers rolling off a press, papers being hurled one by one onto front porches, and someone reading the front page.

The final image was of a pet bird chirping as a newspaper was slid into the bottom of its cage.

The sequence succinctly captured the contradictory nature of newspapers – both mighty and humble. They’ve changed history, righting wrongs and sometimes creating wrongs: The Washington Post was largely responsible for ending the presidency of Richard Nixon. William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal played a key role in pushing the United States into the Spanish- American War.

Yet in the end, there is nothing so old as yesterday’s paper. It becomes fire-starter, birdcage-liner, wrapper for coffee grounds.

All this flashed through my mind recently when I heard that the Cortez Journal, our hometown newspaper, was shutting down its presses and transferring its printing to the Daily Times in New Mexico.

I’ve spent my entire adult life in print journalism – starting in high school, when I penned some rather unobjective coverage of my beloved Elbert High basketball for the Elbert County News (which still is published on Colorado’s Eastern Plains). I covered sports for the Colorado Springs Gazette, taught journalism for a decade at the college level, then moved to Cortez and worked for what was at the time the Montezuma Valley Journal/Cortez Sentinel. Eventually a colleague and I left and started our own monthly publication, the Four Corners Free Press.

Few people outside the industry appreciate the complexity and scope of the effort it takes to bring a rolled-up paper to your front door in the morning. The photographers rushing to accidents, reporters doing interviews or yawning through board meetings, editors perusing articles and crafting headlines. Then “pasteup” (once, not so long ago, done with waxed strips of paper on light tables, now done electronically). The making of “plates,” and finally the pages rolling out, freshly inked with words and images that constitute the latest edition.

Even after more than 30 years in the field, I still feel a quiver of excitement when I hear the presses warming up with a low rumble that swells into an ear-filling racket.

When I started in the business, people were still souping black-and-white film in darkrooms and clacking out articles on typewriters. All that became computerized, but the actual papers continued to be churned out in the same old way. Now, even that may change. For decades, futurists have predicted the end of printed newspapers, and this vision finally may come to pass. Many great papers have closed their doors or slashed staff; some are becoming digital-only publications. (Changing technology isn’t the only reason for these happenings, of course. Newspapers fell into trouble when they became the province of bean-counters and mega-corporations rather than people who loved publishing papers. But that’s another story.)

There are many pluses, of course, to electronic media, but if print publications – newspapers, magazines, books – really do go the way of the passenger pigeon, some things will certainly be very different:

Obituaries, for example. Is an electronic obituary really as satisfying a memento as a newspaper clipping? Comics, editorial cartoons, crossword puzzles. Yes, you can find them online, but does anyone actually do that?

A “front page.” A “banner headline.” Getting your picture in the paper.

And the entire concept of being “published.” It’s becoming meaningless, because anyone can “publish” anything now on Facebook or a million other venues.

Printed forms of communication have been with us since Gutenberg (and, of course, well before that). They don’t blink at you or flash or sing or talk or whistle, but I remain convinced that print is the best medium for encouraging slower, deeper thought. It allows you to absorb information entirely at your own speed, to read and re-read a single passage, to pause and look up, to reflect.

And, no, I don’t believe that e-readers entirely duplicate that experience. The medium is the message, remember. The size of an electronic screen tends to dictate content to some degree. As books and newspapers start to be written specifically for electronic dissemination, they will become shorter and more dumbed-down to fit the capabilities of the device and the ever- shortening attention span of the public. Not to mention that electronic media allow everything you read and look at to be recorded and tracked.

Of course, I recognize that my personal preferences will have little effect on the future of media in general and the news in particular. All I know is, I still love newspapers, and I’m pleased that this issue of the Free Press was the last thing to roll off the Cortez Journal’s presses. (Thanks, Sam and Donovan, Sheila and Brenda, Larry and Patrick, and everyone else who ever worked in that pressroom!)

A couple of years ago I stayed in a motel on a business trip. When I rose in the morning, I was absurdly delighted to find a free USA Today outside my door – far more delighted than I would have been by free wi-fi that allowed me Internet access. Here, in one neat package, already in hard copy, was a collection of what some editors had decided were the most significant and most interesting stories of the day. No scrolling, no clicking, no giant banner ads occluding my view, no apps to download. I happily snatched up the paper and read it over my free continental breakfast.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Four Corners Free Press.