When a newspaper was more than news

Published 1:29 pm Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Everywhere I go on book tour these days someone asks about the future of newspapers. I hem and haw, and say young folks interested in the journalism business should learn to write a short, declarative sentence and let technology take care of itself.

I want to cry, but avoid it. I want to recount my own memories of newspapers, back when photos were black and white, broadsheets were wide and tabloids thick, and there was enough editorial space to run long stories and dozens of features designed to sell newspapers.

When I was a child, for example, there was “Ask Andy,” a science feature I read religiously. One lucky kid’s question would be accepted weekly, and Andy would expound on why ants lived in hills or why the moon was not full each and every night.

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I always thought the question I had submitted was better than the winner’s, certainly less obvious, but that didn’t stop me from reading Andy. Maybe next week I’d win the set of encyclopedias.

The comic strips were large enough to see in my youth, and I read the Sunday funnies with an exhaustive eye for detail. My favorite was a soap-opera comic with women protagonists, sisters, and was called “The Heart of Juliet Jones.” Juliet’s younger sister, Eve, pranced around in her slip almost every Sunday, which seemed to result in a long line of eager, comic-strip suitors.

When I’d visit my grandparents in South Georgia, my grandfather would drive into Colquitt to buy the Sunday Atlanta newspaper. It was an amazingly important paper and had enough words to keep you reading all week long.

The best thing about the Atlanta paper was a single column of newsprint with a familiar face in a mug shot at the top. Celestine Sibley wrote about down-and-outers, movie stars, everyone in between. She wrote about her garden, her children, books she had read, relatives she missed. The columns were never saccharine or heavy-handed — Celestine had paid her reporting dues covering murder trials and statehouse shenanigans — but always beautiful. It wasn’t what she wrote about so much as the graceful way she did it, crafting short but eloquent essays day after day after day.

When my grandmother died in 1980, they found Celestine Sibley columns from years past cut out with pinking shears and tucked inside the bible. Celestine never won the Pulitzer, but her worked was saved in many a granny’s bible, a higher honor. She wrote until she died, for more than 60 years.

Almost every newspaper had its own editorial cartoonist, and I grew up on those master works of art, too. As a small child I didn’t understand all the issues, but early on admired the fact that someone was paid to poke merciless fun at politicians using their goofy looks or unfortunate features.

The letters to the editor ran for pages, and arguments could rage for weeks. Sometimes nuanced religious differences dominated discussion for weeks, and letter-writers would take turns slicing one another to bits. It was great.

My family’s newspaper often had more holes in it than Augusta. I clipped horse pictures; my mother cut out recipes and brides; a sister would need a story on England for her current-events class. We recycled the paper in a whole other sense.

It was a time when people read more than a lousy paragraph at a time, and refrigerator doors were an archive of newsprint.