Outside column: Why I love the print media

Posted: Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ink has been running like tears lately, splashing onto the opinion pages of our nation's newspapers. Editors and commentators, worried about their jobs, write one earnest column after another pleading the case for print journalism.

As the daughter of a newspaper editor and an occasional guest columnist myself, I share their angst. I'm old enough for that angst to be rooted in a stubborn resistance to change - but not so fast, sonny boy.

Stashed in my purse this very moment is a state-of-the-art BlackBerry. I own a desktop, a laptop, an iPod, and I'm flirting with the idea of a Kindle. I go knocking on Google's door at godawful hours, asking for the exact height of Mount Kilimanjaro or the meaning of the word "oneiric." The instantaneous accessibility of the Internet delights me.

But I love newspapers more. Why?

Say a Hurricane Katrina smacks your city right in the kisser. Calamity, chaos and death strut the streets. The power is out for days, weeks. Your TV and computer stare back at you, mute. After a few days, the batteries in your portable radio die. Then your BlackBerry runs out of juice.

How are you gonna find out what's up, sonny?

When Katrina slammed New Orleans on August 29, 2005, the Times-Picayune missed only three days of publication.

According to general manager Ray Massett, 90 to 95 percent of the staff showed up to put together the first issue published post-Katrina. The paper was printed on presses in Houma, La., for two weeks, then in Mobile, Ala., for three more weeks.

When the world around us falls apart, we go home to mama - our old reliable, crackling, ink-reeky newspaper. Good thing the presses in Houma and Mobile hadn't been melted down to make computers.

There's another, more subtle reason I love newspapers.

A few weeks ago, I embarked on a road trip from Savannah to Pensacola. Because of a late start, I checked in to the Tarrer Inn in tiny Colquitt, Ga., for the night. The next morning as I walked across the town square to get an early lunch, I plunked two quarters into a newspaper machine and extracted the latest issue of the Miller County Liberal.

The Captain's Cup café was already crowded when I walked in. Eyes flicked in my direction, lingered a moment, then flicked away.

I was a stranger. I took a seat, ordered, then snapped open my newspaper, folding it back to the opinion pages. Editor Terry Toole was heaping scorn on the Miller County Board of Commissioners for recent actions they had taken. "As Ma always said, 'You can't make a racehorse out of a jackass,'" he wrote.

Letter writer Keith smirked that he voted Democrat "because I believe liberal judges need to rewrite The Constitution every few days to suit some fringe kooks who would never get their agendas past the voters." Columnist Katie Smith mused upon the strange fog that lingered till noon on the Sunday past and congratulated Mrs. Ozzie B. Roberts on celebrating another birthday.

Munching my salad, I perused the nursing home news, studied a photo of the bass tournament winner, and lingered over a list of 911 calls: 2-18 Rescue kitten; 2-19 School bus in ditch; 2-22 Donkeys out.

I looked up from the paper and gazed out at the small gathering again. I was still a stranger, just passing through, but I had the advantage on them now.

I had glimpsed their soul. I was holding a piece of it in my hand.

• Carol Megathlin is a writer living in Savannah, Ga.



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