Delivering The Evening Bulletin after school was the first job of many Philadelphia boys, making the newspaper by far the largest employer of teenage boys in the city. Boys picked up their newspapers at a “branch” before delivering them around Philadelphia’s famous neighborhoods, the locale of the “Rocky” movies.
Besides getting entry-level job experience, especially with handling money, becoming a “paperboy” was an introduction to a corrupting sub-culture unlike anything a boy experienced at home, church and school. For the branch was a de facto clubhouse, where boys were introduced to smoking, dirty jokes and the F-word.
Since paperboys delivered The Bulletin door to door, the newspaper was a more intimate part of the neighborhoods than The Inquirer (the morning paper) and The Daily News (the afternoon paper), which were usually bought at newsstands. This made paperboys better known in the neighborhoods than mailmen or milkmen.
On arriving at the branch after school, all paperboys asked the same question: How many in a bundle? That’s because the number of newspapers in a bundle of papers determined the weight of papers a boy had to carry on his back before delivering them along his route.
Sunday, of course, always had the fewest newspapers in a bundle. During weekdays, Tuesday bundles had the fewest papers because of the many pages of advertisements added to the paper on that day. And it was revenue from advertising, not the newsstand price, which made The Bulletin viable financially.
Ditto popular magazines like Time and Newsweek, whose subscription price in 2008 was 58 cents and 47 cents per issue, respectively, and whose cover price of four dollars (US) does not cover the cost of publication.
A steady drop in circulation, and therefore advertising revenue, caused The Bulletin, established in 1847, to cease publication in 1982. Given that the paper was the first employer of so many boys, this was a sad day for old paperboys as well as a harbinger of the fate of other cities’ newspapers.
Today, newspapers from Boston to Seattle, including The Boston Globe and The San Francisco Chronicle, are hemorrhaging money and facing bankruptcy because circulation and advertising revenue are declining.
The so-called white flight from city to suburb began the steady erosion of newspaper readership in the 1960s as people fleeing a city lost their urban identity and cultural habits. Now newspapers, the first mass medium, must contend with the Internet.
Although newspapers are adapting to a wired world by going online, as media institutions that define a city’s character they will become shells of their former selves. Papers are even writing their own obituaries, to wit: the medium in its present form is economically unsustainable and environmentally dubious, it takes a lot of Canadian timber to publish The New York Times, and its future is online because more advertising money is going to Web sites.
In colonial America, newspapers gave developing cities respectability. Boston claimed to be America’s Athens not only because of Harvard University, but also because it had more newspapers than any other city. Benjamin Franklin was first and foremost a Philadelphia newspaperman, publishing The Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanac. And the crusading newspaper editor, who challenges a lawless element in an attempt to clean up some frontier town, is a common theme of the Wild West genre.
One would be hard-pressed to name a famous American writer who has not done a stint as a newspaperman. Walt Whitman, for example, edited a number of New York papers. Samuel Clemens first used his nom de plume Mark Twain while writing for the Territorial Enterprise in Carson City, Nevada. Both O. Henry and H. L. Mencken were Baltimore newspapermen. An 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway started developing his simple literary prose at The Kansas City Star. And no Southern writer worth his salt, including William Faulkner, has not worked in the newsroom of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
American newspapers do have their unique names. My favorite is The Sacramento Bee, whereas Winston Churchill said that The Cleveland Plain Dealer was the best name for a paper. And then there is The Daily Planet, where Clark Kent (a.k.a. Superman) is a mild-mannered reporter.
Common newspapermen, considered by some to be a fraternity of freeloading alcoholics, became respectable journalists after the debacle known as Watergate gave their profession unprecedented power.
Once “All the President’s Men,” a detailed account of events leading up to President Richard Nixon’s ignoble resignation, was made into a Hollywood film, starring Redford & Hoffman as Woodward & Bernstein, The Washington Post rookie investigative reporters who unraveled the whole sordid affair, everyone wanted to be a sexy investigative reporter.
It is hard for this old paperboy to imagine Philadelphia without its own newspapers reporting on tribal news and high-school sports. Yet that’s the specter facing the old town and other cities.
It’s also hard to imagine a literate culture without newspapers. For reading a newspaper at home after work, in a cafe while sipping a latte or on a park bench on a sunny day is a common pastime of any literate society. Anyone walking past King Sejong Cultural Center would notice a lifesized sculpture of a gentleman reading a newspaper on a bench.
Newspaper reading is one of the pleasures of a leisured life, a pleasure that fewer people have the time to enjoy in a hectic wired world, where they gulp down their coffee while busily reading the day’s news online.
The demise of newspapers does not mean the demise of journalism, which is re-inventing itself (think citizen “Minerva”) for the brave new world of the blogsphere, but it does mean fewer Op-Ed pages, allowing the remaining papers to further a partisan political agenda without an opposing opinion from cross-town rivals.
The success of arch-conservative Fox News is due to its appeal to Americans who are tired of the liberal bias of national news programs and who welcome an opposing opinion.
It is incumbent upon newspapers, the Fourth Estate, to be the conscious of society, exposing all forms of governmental, institutional and corporate corruption. They are society’s watchdogs. The more dogs, the better we are watched.
This social responsibility began in the late 19th century, when crusading newspapermen spearheaded an attack on greedy robber barons and corrupt politicians. They targeted monopolies, which had a stranglehold on America, and political machines, which had turned burgeoning cities flooded with immigrants into fiefdoms. Investigative reporters are the heirs to these crusading muckrakers.
Yellow journalism, cheaply sensational practices to sell papers, was the low form of late 19th-century journalism. Newspapers of this era competed fiercely for readership. Those that “scooped” rivals with sensational news sold more papers and stayed in business.
Newspaper wars and the machinations of press barons are popular with Hollywood. In “Citizen Kane,” the best film ever made, Charles Foster Kane begins his career as a young, crusading newspaper owner and dies a compromised megalomaniac, who has crushed rival papers while building a media empire. William Randolph Hearst, the press baron on whom the film is based, was powerful enough to start a war between America and Spain (1898), over Cuba, by screaming “Remember the Maine,” a call to arms, from his New York Tribune newsstands.
Yellow journalism is practiced in Korea anytime there is an incident involving American G.I.s. The accidental death of two girls walking to school along a country road was sensationalized by Korean newspapers, portraying the accident as a wantonly brutal act by a reckless tank driver. This brought anti-Americanism to the fore, leading to nightly protest vigils outside the American Embassy.
By Prof. John Sheridan (Resigned)
Dept. of English Lang. & Lit.
Prof. John Sheridan (Resigned) Dept. of English Lang. & Lit.
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