Newspapers: History Will Always Need Its First Draft

This is a column written this week by Beth Grace, the executive director of the North Carolina Press Association. A former bureau chief for the Associated Press, Beth has spent 30 years in the newspaper business.


On Nov. 5, I remembered all over again why I love newspapers.

As fast as presses around the world could crank them out, newspapers trumpeted in the largest possible font the outcome of the most historic presidential election of our lifetime – of any lifetime, perhaps.

Everyone, everywhere wanted to share and remember this moment. They talked, phoned, e-mailed, watched TV and listened to the radio. But those who wanted to keep the memory close did what most of us do in times of national trouble or triumph.

They bought the newspaper.

Actually, they bought hundreds of thousands of newspapers.

In North Carolina alone, weekly and daily newspapers produced a few hundred to almost 40,000 extra copies that day when people – subscribers, mingling with those who rarely or never read the paper — began streaming into their lobbies seeking souvenir editions.

Newspapers broke speed records that day to produce more copies (sold at the regular price – no mark-up, mind you) to anyone and everyone who wanted one.

Let me tell you — the crowds that day, that rare chance to order a second press run, the outpouring from subscribers and those who haven’t touched a page of recycled newsprint in years warmed a lot of ink-stained hearts in the newspaper industry.

It’s not every day we are reminded that no matter how hard the economy has hit us, no matter what anyone says about the future of print, no matter what else is happening in the world, newspapers matter.

Newspapers are important.

Newspapers are vital to our collective memory and history.

Newspapers are what publisher Philip Graham once called the “first rough draft of history,” the first place we turn – even now, even with an ocean of information just a mouse click or two away – to learn, to understand, to remember.

They’re the destination of choice for people anxious to read the whole story — and the story behind that story.

Newspapers are a sort of “everyman’s souvenir” of the moments that change our world.

There are some who believe that the electronic media – TV, satellite radio, web sites — will one day erase the need for the printed word and newspapers will cease to exist.

I don’t believe it.

And, I suspect, neither do the thousands and thousands of people who bought those extra papers on Nov. 5.

Nor do those who saved the paper the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the day after man first walked on the moon, the day after Sept. 11, 2001.

Nor do the many, many people who still subscribe faithfully, who know and savor the joy of reading the paper cover to cover with their morning coffee.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t save a clip from TV, snatch a screen-shot off the web or download a podcast to your MP3 player.

Gosh, you’ll be able to enjoy those for historical e-moments for … what? About an hour and a half — right up to the moment that technology is wiped out by the next new thing, which based on my on experience will be completely incompatible with whatever you already have in your home.

Newspapers don’t have that problem.

We are the ultimate user-friendly software.

No download instructions needed.

No switch. No mouse. No card. No cord.

Just open your eyes, read and remember.

And here’s the really interesting thing: Newspapers do this every time they publish.

The history of our own lives, our own communities, our own world is reported with the same vigor and dedication every day, every week of the year.

As avidly as we gathered up those Nov. 5 editions, we save and tuck away, safely encased in plastic and secured in a drawer or memory box, the papers that carry the major headlines of our lives: our graduations, our weddings, the birth of our kids, the deaths of our loved ones, the big award our son just won, the job promotion our daughter landed.

For just pocket change, we hold the first draft of our own history, our own life story in our hands.

This is why I don’t believe those who say newspapers won’t always be with us.

Of course they will.

History will always need its first draft.


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