The recent death of Chuck Rightmire, a reporter and editor at The Gazette many long years ago, got me thinking about changes in newspaper fashion.
Over the years, Chuck and I had a few friendly arguments about whether this newspaper was better or worse in recent times than it was when he was editing it in the 1960s.
Chuck maintained that it was a much better paper back when. And me? I’m something of a relativist.
Rather than make a case for the newspapers of today, I believe that newspapers generally meet the needs of their readers, and those needs are always changing. Thinking over our occasional debates, I decided last week to look at the front page of the Feb. 5 Gazette every 10 years, starting in 1912.
One general conclusion is that newspaper fashions change at least as often as fashions in clothes, and few things date faster than the look of a daily newspaper.
The biggest difference by far is how broadly “news” was defined in the early days. But that was probably inevitable at a time when the newspaper was the only game in town and had to be a combination of police blotter, People magazine, Wikipedia, public crier and the Nancy Grace show.
All hail Dickens
The first front page I looked at, Feb. 5, 1912, carried a big story on plans to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, and another big story on the homecoming of the king and queen of England after a trip to India.
A rather lurid story described a double suicide of a New York woman and her lover, a plumber. The story was news because the woman supposedly left her millionaire husband for the lowly plumber.
Ten years later, there were two Hollywood trials on the front page, one involving a “motion picture actress” and the other the sensational manslaughter trial of silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Also, a Supreme Court justice was reported as saying that the Prohibition amendment had put respect for law under a “demoralizing strain.”
In 1932, China and Japan were at war, 200 people were marooned by a snowstorm in California and a kidnapped Tucson banker was found alive in a 75-foot-deep well. Also on Page One, inexplicably, was a story about a woman in Canton, Ill., who was dealt 13 spades in a game of bridge. Seriously.
All the news that fits
Because newspapers tried to be all things to all people in those early days, there were often 20 or 25 stories on the front page. It was a magnificent jumble of news, gossip, trivia and sensationalism.
On Feb. 5, 1942, 13 of the 17 stories on Page One were about some aspect of the raging world war, and there was a photo of a diving team working on the USS Arizona, sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor two months earlier.
Ten years later, in 1952, the big headline was on a story that President Truman had decided to allow his name to appear on the ballot of the New Hampshire primary. Earlier, he had referred to “such preferential primaries” as “eyewash.” You tell ‘em, Harry.
My favorite front-page story in 100 years consisted of a one-word headline and a two-sentence narrative, published on Feb. 5, 1962. The headline was “Education.”
The entire story, datelined Milwaukee, was this: “Richard R. Horn, a University of Wisconsin student, hiked 80 miles from Madison, Wis., to Milwaukee over the weekend to win a $5 bet. Of his trip he said Sunday, ‘I guess this was kind of stupid.’”
Crime was big in 1972. The Gazette ran the concluding story in a series about violent crime in Billings, and down at the bottom of the page there was a story about the apparent success of the drug war on our southern border. That so-called war, I have to say, continues to exert a demoralizing strain on the respect for law.
And so it went. A flooded Sheraton Hotel in 1982, a fire that shut down most state government computers in 1992 and a budget of $2.13 trillion, proposed by the second President Bush, in 2002. For appearances, he called on Congress to rein in “insurgent deficits.”
Newspapers mostly change to cover the recurring stories in new ways. The raw materials — sex and money, Hollywood scandal and the doings of royalty, suicides and crime, so many things that are “kind of stupid” — don’t really change much at all.