The Universal Notebook: Black and white and dead all over

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Everyone knows that newspapers are in decline. You’d think that would make the surviving papers work harder to serve readers, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case.

On Christmas Day, the first thing I did was drive down to the gas station to pick up The New York Times and Boston Herald. That’s because the Portland Press Herald did not print a paper Christmas Day. My lovely wife Carolyn thinks it’s unreasonable of me to expect a newspaper to be delivered come rain or snow, Christmas or New Year, but we pay $500 a year for the subscriptions, so, yes, I do expect a newspaper on Christmas.

Edgar Allen BeemVirtually every Monday, when the Portland Press Herald also fails to deliver, I go down to the corner for a bagel and a Boston paper. Sure, I can read newspapers online, but I’m an old-fashioned ink-stained wretch. I want a newspaper with my morning tea and toast. I also want the crossword, Jumble, and Cryptoquip every night in bed. At least the Press Herald gives you the funnies and the word games in Sunday’s paper when they don’t print Mondays. Priorities.

Lately, it seems as though the Press Herald is getting lazier and lazier about delivering papers. If it looks as though it might snow, they’ll even let you know the day before that they might call off deliveries. Then there are the occasional technical problems that result in no paper showing up in the driveway; I’m sure labor shortages will soon be another no-show excuse.

I view newspapers as essential services, like police and fire and medical care. You don’t stop reporting the facts just because the weather is lousy. Heck, I even begrudge the newspaper not holding the presses for late sports scores. 

What you are doing is either important or it’s not. Failing to report Red Sox scores the next morning says it’s not important. Actually, of course, what it says is that there are a lot of other ways to get information these days.

That’s why newspapers are dying. 

In 2021 alone, 100-120 local newspapers closed up shop. The U.S. has lost more than 500 dailies since 1970. In 2020, weekday newspaper circulation was 24.3 million and Sunday circulation 25.8 million, both down 6 percent over the previous year. In 1990, weekday newspaper circulation was 63.2 million and Sunday circulation 62.6 million.

Newspaper readership, print advertising, publishing revenues, and newsroom staffing are all way down. That’s largely because most people are getting their news from television, radio, social media, and citizen journalists. And as a result, the quality of said “news” is dependably poor. 

We used to all get the same news and then develop different opinions about what it all meant. In post-truth American society, we often just get “news” that supports our biases. That results in people believing utter nonsense like the Big Republican Lie that the 2020 election was stolen and the QAnon conspiracy craziness that Tom Hanks eats babies (or something like that).

I admit I believe Donald Trump to be a thoroughly despicable human being (as are Republican lawmakers like Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert, and Thomas “Machine Gun” Massie), but I don’t think Trump eats babies. I’m pretty sure The New York Times and Washington Post would let me know if he did. So would the Portland Press Herald.

Unless, of course, it was Christmas Day, Monday, or snowing.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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