Newspapers And Me: A Brief History
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 2 May 2009)

Much has been written in recent months about the future of newspapers. In a week-long series, we asked our opinion-makers what newspapers mean to them and how they have affected their lives.

Newspapers were essential to my life before I was born. My father was an editor at the Canadian Press wire service for all his adult years, so his four children depended through childhood on the business of news. He's far from the only journalist in my family's history. My great-grandfather on my mother's side edited the London, Ont., Advertiser and his son worked for American dailies. My first wife, her mother, father and uncle were all newspaper people. My wife of 38 years writes for magazines and newspapers. The next generation includes an eminent columnist, a first-class magazine editor and a much-published freelance writer.

The family trade covers 150 years, from the middle of the 19th century to the 21st.

Several of the writers in this week's Post series became journalists partly by accident. For me it seemed inevitable. What else would one do? I left high school, worked on The Globe and Mail as a copy boy, then a sports writer, then a news reporter. I've since worked in magazines, radio and TV but never quite left newspapers and ended up happily in my all-time favourite job, National Post columnist.

Through some 59 years, I've been an eager consumer of journalism as well as a practitioner. When I was 20, I had a subscription to the New York Herald-Tribune, now long dead but remembered by its readers as the best-written newspaper on this continent. The London Observer became another favourite. Every Sunday in the 1950s and 1960s, it gave a dazzling performance, with stars like Malcolm Muggeridge, Kingsley Amis and Kenneth Tynan. I read it faithfully for years, but always two weeks late: It came to Canada by sea.

Around the same time I followed the Village Voice, a then-great weekly from New York. Norman Mailer was a founder, and briefly a columnist. In the 1960s, it was the free-wheeling, experimental voice of the youth movement. It was also quite mad: For a while it published a dance columnist who didn't believe in capital letters, commas, paragraphing -- or writing about dance. For a while, I got the New York Post every day so that I could read Murray Kempton, the prince of American columnists.

I was earning my living from journalism for years before I studied its history and realized that we journalists (and readers) owe everything to one magic period in the 19th century. That was when millions of people decided they wanted to read, every morning, an account of what had happened the day before.

This was something new, a pressing need that no one had experienced before. It wasn't a spontaneous desire. Newspaper buyers responded to the appeals of journalism's pioneer entrepreneurs, who were in turn responding to newly available print technology.

This first great period of daily journalism was the beginning of the information age, the key event that led to news magazines, radio, television and now Web news.

And it created a ritual that still persists. Reading the paper at breakfast became an addiction. Sharing the news was absorbed into family life. Reading involved learning certain skills. The papers contained so many stories that everyone had to become an editor, sifting through the news, reading one story with fascination, ignoring another.

The front page became a peculiar little art form of its own. So many events competed for prominence that editors displayed six or eight of them side by side. The latest news from Russia might appear between a story about potholes on local streets and a piece about a fresh Ottawa scandal.

Diverse topics mingled unexpectedly, like phrases in an avant-garde poem. That's what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said the front page of a newspaper was like a surrealist poem. It was a poem that carried a powerful unspoken message: All of humanity is connected. Readers became, before they knew it, internationalists, even if the editor of the paper was an isolationist.

Recently the Internet has undercut the business structure of newspapers. Looked at another way, however, it's also a miraculous opportunity for journalism. While many of us will want to keep reading the news on paper, online journalism eliminates heavy costs -- paper, ink, printing and distribution. It also expands enormously the potential reach of journalists. If newspapers or writers are good enough, they can speak to the world -- and, as usual, the other media will continue to copy what they say.

It seems likely to me that newspapers will solve their financial problems and survive. They've become too central a part of public life to disappear.

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