The More Things Change

I once got to spend a year reading 100-year old newspapers. Things haven’t changed as much as you think they have.

Sure, now we’ve got the Internet and cable television and pictures of the Earth from the Moon, but as far as human nature goes, not to mention the things considered “newsworthy,” we’re pretty much the same as we ever have been.

Stupid wars are the same— the justifications for getting into the Spanish American War sound an awful lot like the justifications for invading Iraq. They had patent medicine ads— we have weight loss tips. As far as celebrity gossip goes, only the names have changed. Political partisanship was just as rancorous— the other party’s candidate was always a lying cur and untrustworthy jackanape. If you had more than one paper in town, one would be the Democratic paper, the other the Republican one, and they’d have flame wars like you wouldn’t believe. Sensationalism sold, especially in crime stories— a ghastly murder on the other side of the country was always going to get published.

A surprising amount of the news back then was very local. On a typical day there would be an announcement that Miss So-and-so has returned from visiting her aunt in Chicago. I always wondered how that got in there— did the newspapers employ roving gossip-teers to fill those column inches, or did Miss So-and-so visit the newspaper office herself to tell them? Was this the early 20th century equivalent of a Facebook update? Was the entire town on her friends list? Sometimes the newspaper would reprint parts of letters sent home from those who were traveling abroad, describing their adventures; a form of early blogging. I remember seeing ads placed by manufactured gas companies, saying that if enough households in town pledged to become customers, they would build a gas plant and bring modern heat and lighting to town— Kickstarter for the analog era. A major factory might have a daily or weekly column devoted to it, describing how good their business was and telling stories about the workers, announcing hiring or layoffs as appropriate. And you know how Facebook likes to sneak ads into your newsfeed? Newspapers would do the same, publish ads that looked like news until you read it closely.

Things changed during WWI, though. The war news, the national news, began to crowd out the local news. The Associated Press and other news services had been around for fifty years, but now the invention of the teletype put news items into local newsrooms in almost real time. Soon there was usually only one newspaper per town, often only one per county. You couldn’t become a newspaperman by buying a secondhand press and a barrel of ink anymore. The local gossip stayed around for quite a while (you can sometimes still find it in rural small-town weeklies), but by the 1950s, the papers were more “professional,” more worldly, and much more staid. Syndicated columns by “experts” replaced locally sourced, seat of your pants content. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was almost no local content at all.

Today hometown newspapers are going back to their roots and finding stories in the communities where they live. They’re also writing in a folksier, less polished voice. In an era where everybody knows what’s happening around the world in real time, the local stuff is what is unique and interesting again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.