In my journalism days, I once heard a story about a small-town newspaper editor in Texas. Or was it Vermont?
Each year, this guy received a new telephone book for his little town. And over the course of the year, as soon as a resident’s name appeared in the paper, the editor put a checkmark by their name in his copy of the phone book.
His goal was for every resident (or at least every adult resident) to appear in the paper at least once per year, as a sign that the paper was tapped into the daily lives of the people it served.
The story is more likely apocryphal than true. But it illustrates the central role newspapers used to play as the documents of record for their communities. If something happened to someone, the paper would have it.
Of course, it was a two-way street. Just as the editor wanted to get everyone’s name in the paper, people wanted to get their names — or their kids’ names — into print for noteworthy deeds. That mythical editor in Brattleboro or Lubbock didn’t have to work too hard to get names into his paper: I’ll bet many of them came in through the front door.
My grandfather was of a generation that had that kind of relationship with his local paper.
And this week’s calendar entries — there are two of them — capture him running a classic parents’ errand, sharing info about his kids, and getting his name checked off in the editor’s phone book.
Births, weddings and deaths — or, as newspaper wags used to call them, “hatched, matched and dispatched” — are three of the most popular features in any paper. They are places where your average Joe Taxpayer will get his name in print no matter what he does with the rest of his life.
The paper referenced above is the Stamford Advocate, which nowadays is one of those part-digital, part-print amalgams, uncomfortable in its own skin, that newspapers have become as they try to catch up with social changes that caught them unprepared.
But in those days, it was a healthy afternoon daily paper in a country full of them, minding its own laundry in Fairfield County as it battled the big New York papers for a share of the ‘burbs’ attention.
(The Advocate was good enough at that errand to win a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor, in 1978 for its reporting on corruption in city government.)
My grandpa had a history with the Advocate that predated both of the wedding announcements mentioned above.
In the Fifties and Sixties, the Advocate used to run reader photography contests on a regular basis. William H. Blumenau of 1107 Hope Street frequently won or placed in those contests, being a photography buff with an urge to experiment.
(One winning photo showed my young Aunt Elaine, looking downcast, sitting by a rain-slicked window. What the Advocate editors didn’t know was that the photo had been faked on a sunny day. Someone — maybe my dad — had been stationed outside the window with a garden hose. That way, my grandpa got the illusion of heavy rain, while still getting enough natural light through the window for a good picture. I hope the Advocate won’t revoke his prize now that this has been revealed.)
Today’s newspapers, bent on the elusive goal of community participation, like to beseech their readers for photos and videos: “Did you see the eclipse/train crash/lightning storm/high school football championship game? Send us your photos!”
I’m old-school. Those entreaties always make me think, “Naw, dude. You’re the newspaper. You provide me with content.”
I think my grandpa would have enjoyed that opportunity, in contrast. I think he would have been glad to submit his photos from around town, just for the pleasure of having a place where his hobby could be seen.
I am sure, to my grandparents, that neither of their kids’ engagements or weddings seemed quite official without an announcement in the Advocate.
That might not be as much of a universal truth today as it was in 1967 or 1973. But I bet there are still quite a few Stamford parents who see an engagement announcement in the Advocate as a must-do.
Today’s newspapers are jangled affairs. They are pressured by declining circulation, getting by with smaller staffs, redesigned to go heavy on graphics, and packed (at least online) with irrelevant celebrity content that is usually forced on them by corporate owners and serves as the journalistic equivalent of empty calories.
Still, their history as institutions of record has not been completely vacated. Births, marriages, deaths and the other highlights of daily life still end up in their pages — and on their websites — with regularity.
The phantom editor with the phone book would still see vestiges of his paper in today’s editions. He’d just have to read around the celebrity photo galleries to get to them.
This probably should have been broken out as a separate follow-up blog post, but I’ll just dump it here.
In a 12-year career as a full-time journalist, I interviewed or covered Fortune 500 CEOs, a major-party Presidential candidate, at least one rock’n’roll legend, roughly a half-dozen current or past state governors, regionally famous sports heroes, and any number of everyday people.
And through all that, one of the proudest moments of my journalism career involved the Stamford Advocate.
I spent my last five years as a journalist working for the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., which in those days was owned by the same company that owned the Advocate.
It was common for Tribune Co. editors to share story budgets, and to pick up stories that seemed interesting from other Tribune papers.
Through Tribune lend-lease, my stories showed up on the websites — and sometimes in the print editions — of some of America’s largest papers. Even today, searches of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday online archives still turn up my stories. (I am fairly sure my stories also appeared on the Baltimore Sun’s website, but an archive search shows no proof.)
As reporters, we used to have Google searches set up for our names, so we knew when our stories had been picked up. I remember the thrill, one day, of getting an alert that my story had appeared in the Stamford Advocate — my grandparents’ and parents’ hometown newspaper, and the paper I still have a copy of from the day I was born.
I never managed to get a hard copy of the issue with my story. I’ve long since lost the Google alert. And the Advocate’s online archives are useless, so it’s impossible to find much of anything there. I don’t expect I’ll ever track the story down.
Still, I do believe it ran. And I am sure my grandpa — all my grandparents, actually — would have been proud of me for getting my name in the Advocate, even if it wasn’t a birth or marriage announcement.