Newspapers with real reporters and editors matter
By Frank Queen • Guest Columnist
I was surrounded by newspapers growing up. Dad worked for the government in the 1960s and we lived in Alexandria, a suburb of D.C. Every day we had five newspapers delivered to the house.
Dad started reading when he got home and only stopped to eat supper. You could try to talk to him when he was reading, but he didn’t hear you unless you could get him to lower the paper. If you wanted to hang around with him, you might as well sit down and pick up a paper yourself.
By reading all these papers, all of us in the family learned to detect the slants of the different papers. The Washington Post and Washington Star were pretty consistent; the Wall Street Journal ignored Washington unless there was a dollar sign in the story; the Raleigh, Alexandria and Waynesville papers ignored Washington news completely.
“News” was defined by what the papers covered: if they covered the story, it was news; if they didn’t, it wasn’t. There were reporters and editors in every paper making the decisions. The papers competed with each other, both for new stories and new details on old stories.
Washington was filled with people in government who wanted to get things in the papers, to promote their issues and themselves. “Gossip” columnists at the papers (Drew Pearson at the Washington Post was the most famous) made it their business to publish embarrassing stories every day.
All of this history reads now like — well — history.
News comes to us now as a firehose of information, we are told. Some folks put “news” in quotations. Newspapers, and editors, we are told, are obsolete, since facts are what the speaker says they are. Lies, referred to as “alternate facts” by the liars, are not apologized for.
Well, not so fast.
My need for context, and editing, and questioning is more important now than ever. So long as the editors and the reporters take their jobs seriously then they have me — and an audience — reading them. I don’t need someone to think for me: I need someone to ask questions for me and to remember what this guy said back when he was running for office, as well as what he is saying now that he’s in. It is useful for me to read the words of a reporter who knows her beat and who reports not just the words, but the look on the speaker’s face and what the listeners said too.
The value of a newspaper (or magazine or scripted media) is not in getting the simple facts — the value comes when the writer and editor are serious about doing their jobs to question sources and recite context. A newspaper doesn’t need to check its website for “hits” and then report the stories that get more hits: if it does that, then the stories will be exactly what you hear at a barbershop and a beauty salon and will have exactly that much importance and value.
My Dad talked back to his newspapers, but his only real dispute with a paper involved Curtis Russ, the long-time editor of The Mountaineer, sometime back in the 1960s. No one remembers what the row was about, but after Pop sent a letter to the editor to Mr. Russ, Pop quit the exchange, repeating to me an old Washington adage: “Never argue with a man who buys his ink by the barrel.”