All I know is what I read in the papers.”— Will Rogers
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“Newspapers aren’t what they used to be,” I was challenged last week.
“You’re absolutely right,” I countered. “But your implications are way off target. Show me some part of life that hasn’t changed with time. Newspapers have changed to survive radio, television, and whatever else that has come down the pike since that copy of our local newspaper you’re holding started publishing in 1877.”
That chat while preparing stories for the first edition of 2023 this week started me thinking about just how newspapers really have changed, in looks and content, and how news reporting has changed.
While older editions can be found online, the oldest “paper” copy of a Center newspaper on file in our office is a Thursday, March 7, 1940, edition of The Champion. Laid beside last week’s print edition, there’s no denying it’s changed. The most eye-catching difference was current use of color compared to all black and white in decades past. Like they were when I spent my first week in a newspaper office at The Monitor in Naples in 1974.
Also noticeable was how newspapers use larger photos and liberal doses of white space. The Plaquemine Parish Post in South Louisiana sported that airy look when I went down to The Sabine News in Many, Louisiana, in about 1976.
The mid-70s also saw the use of just one single “spot color” on a page adding eye appeal to community newspapers. The first full-color photo in a paper I published was The Boerne Star sown in the Hill Country in 1995. Heady stuff almost 30 years ago.
Eighty-three years ago, however, newspapers lacked photos of any kind. Life magazine’s use of printed pictures in 1936 had only recently revolutionized news reporting. Without pictures, stories in 1940 started at the upper left and ran down the page, then back to the top of the next column for the next story. And so on across the page.
“Bigger” stories, often state or national in those days, might get three or four columns of display at the top. For example, that top story in March of 1940 was headlined, “Jerry Sadler Gets In Race For Governor; Promises That He Will Wage Active Campaign.”
In local news, the top story was, “Fox Hunters Board Will Meet March 20 To Decide On Site For 1940 Meet.” East Texas Fox Hunters Association President Bibb Samford was quoted as saying the meeting at Boles Field would be followed by mulligan stew and a night fox hunt. Important was selecting Boles Field in Shelby County as the permanent headquarters for the East Texas Association.
Also news was expanded rural electrification. “25 Miles of More Line Added To East Texas. Subscribers from Tenaha to Huber Now Enjoy Service,” the headline proclaimed. “The latest addition to the service this cooperative is rendering in East Texas territory is a line from Tenaha to Bobo, Tennessee, New Prospect, and Huber, serving 51 subscribers.”
It was also reported that week that “Miss Richards Club Speaker – Tells Rotarians Of Home Economic Work In School.” As the story was written, “At Tuesday’s Rotary luncheon Miss Catherine Richards, of the home economics department of Center High School, gave an interesting and enlightening talk on the work of this department of Center High School. Dr. Spencer Warren was in charge of the program.”
Other front-page news that week included the “Everybody’s Banquet” at the Shelbyville High School Friday night. While the story failed to report what the banquet was all about, tickets were 50¢ a plate and promised to be “one of the most enjoyable of the season.” And if that wasn’t exciting enough, a box supper at the Stockman School was taking place Thursday night. Everyone was invited.
Seems journalists 83 years ago also took on the responsibility of reporting the prognosis of the ill and injured. Imagine reading today, a story like this 1940 news item: “Information reached Center relatives Thursday afternoon that a former Center resident and prominent educator, injured in Austin some weeks ago, was sinking and hope for his recovery practically abandoned.”
Then there was the story of Mrs. J.M. O’Banion of Jasper visiting with relatives. “Sees Fire That Isn’t Fire But It Scares Her,” said the headline. Mrs. O’Banion reportedly awakened during the night to see what she thought were “flames eating through the floor under her dresser. Petrified for the moment,” the absence of odor or smoke led her to investigate, whereupon she discovered the source of light was not fire at all but a flashlight in a dresser drawer that “in some manner had snapped on.”
So, yes, newspapers are not what they used to be. They’ve changed just in the years I’ve been plying my skills in the trade. In looks, in reporting style, and most recently in methods of delivery.
I ended my ‘newspapers aren’t what they used to be’ conversation last week with a smile by telling my naysayer, “All I offer is this. By whatever means or methods, newspapers will remain as a most trusted medium long after both of our obituaries are read — in a newspaper.”
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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune, the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.
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