Top Ten Things You Won’t Find in Today’s Local Newspaper

Working in local history, I spend a lot of face to face time with our microfilm machine. We have reels for papers as far back as the mid-1800s, and there’s no decade in the 20th century I haven’t spent weeks in, looking for obituaries and specific articles.  This is an absorbing experience, one which makes the past more personable:  my mind is taking in the same material as readers decades before me, though in a different form.   While the basic experience doesn’t change, the kinds of things newspapers report on has.

1. Society gossip

In contemporary papers, social reporting is limited to wedding announcements — but in older papers, even tea parties register entries.

2.  Serial Stories

Readers may be aware that a lot of “novels” were originally published as newspaper  or magazine serials. A lot of authors like Dickens and Asimov got their starts writing serialized novels or short stories for literary magazines.

3. Train and Ship schedules

I don’t know if cities in Europe with train service still carry timetables, or if the internet has taken over the role. These are a treasure for realizing how dominant trains once were, though. (Steam boats were still offering twice-weekly passage from Selma in 1906:  the Nettie Quill upriver to Montgomery and the Queen Mary  downriver to Mobile.)

Care for a tren ride down to old Mexico?

4, Radio logs

When I first started visiting radio websites in the early 2000s, I thought finding lists of the music played during a given hour was an innovation. Nope — that was  being done in the 1930s, by my local paper.

5. World News

When I first began looking through the local newspapers of 1906, attempting to establish when my hometown trolley system ended service (1926),  I discovered that local news was buried within the pages, with national and global news taking priority. This continued at least through the 1970s. There are even weekly quizzes to see how many news stories from around the world the reader recognizes — as he ought, if he is a daily reader of the paper. Today, national news rarely appears, except in the case of disasters and presidential elections;  radio, television, and the internet  provide all of the general news, and the newspaper is left to fill a local niche. Opinion pieces on the news still provide a glimpse of what’s going on outside, however.

6. Discretion

Take a look at this political cartoon of FDR. By 1940 it was known that Roosevelt was partially paralyzed, but the cartoonist doesn’t dwell on it. These days, every detail about people’s personal lives becomes a national obsession if they become newsworthy.

7. Girls Only

Look at that, ladies, your very own page!

8.  Personal Ads

I’d give her a call, but she probably found a beau by now. I don’t know if I’m cut out to be a step-great-great-grandfather. 
9. Yesterday’s News

Perhaps the oddest consistency in the papers I’ve surveyed is that until the 1970s or so, they feature — on a daily basis — tidbits from the news thirty years ago. (Except the one I discovered below, which was thirty-one years ago.)

10. The use of “solons” to refer to legislators

Solon derives from an ancient Greek lawgiver who is remembered for beginning democratic reform in Athens.  Ah, for the days of literacy, when casual references like this were normal. (I’ve seen this use as far as the 1970s.)

I hope you enjoyed these little looks back in time — and here’s a few extras. 
Giant airships!
…bank deposits? Sure, why not?
Where’s Hoffa nowadays? Nobody knows…

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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13 Responses to Top Ten Things You Won’t Find in Today’s Local Newspaper

  1. R.T. says:

    Egads! You put me into a time machine and sent me back to my days as a reporter for a small town newspaper in Pennsylvania in the mid-60s. Among other pieces, I did the society notes, the today in history piece, and a few others. Thanks for making me feel really old! 🙂

  2. Stephen says:

    Did you enjoy that work? You must have had a writing itch even then!

  3. R.T. says:

    Stephen, I neither enjoyed nor did well at that job. I was assigned to a separate office in a small coal mining town (shared with a job printer for the area), and I had little — make that no — supervision or guidance; I was supposed to supply copy to the main office, ten miles away, in time for the weekly column (Boswell Notes) for one issue of the daily (Somerset Daily American). I was hired by the editor/publisher/owner as a favor to his friend to whom I was related. I didn't last long in that job — probably two months — and went instead to work at the hotel of a nearby ski resort (Seven Springs). That lasted until I received a draft notice from the U.S. government. I traded civilian life for a Navy uniform. Onward!

  4. Mudpuddle says:

    interesting and bemusing post… the “tren” reminds me of taking the train from El Paso to Chihuahua: it went about 25 mph and stopped dead every hour or so and all the passengers detrained and walked around in the desert for a while for no obvious reason that i could discern… this kept up for about 20 hours until we reached Chihuahua…

  5. Brian Joseph says:

    This is a fascinating post. Thanks for sharing.

    Newspapers have changed a lot over the years. Delving though old editions sounds so interesting.

    I do not thing that I have heard the word “Solon” before.


  6. Stephen says:

    Well, at least you found your calling! I considered journalism in high school, but wasn't very good at talking to people back then.

  7. Stephen says:

    These days I would suspect the train was being searched. What year did that happen?

  8. Stephen says:

    It's easy to get distracted — I'm usually looking for an obituary, but wind up reading the classifieds and learning that there used to be a horse stable right behind the present location of City Hall.

  9. R.T. says:

    Hmmmm. Sometimes, as I recall from train trips in rural areas way back in the dark ages, trains had to stop in the middle of nowhere because of switches/changes in tracks (i.e., it's best to avoid head on collisions of trains). Hey, it's a theory about your experience, Mudpuddle.

  10. James says:

    Your inclusion of train timetables and radio logs reminded me that our local paper no longer publishes most movie times. All of these may be easily obtained via the internet along with news (both fake and real). One wonders how long newspapers will last.

  11. Stephen says:

    I don't know about the 'national' newspapers like USA Today and the NY Times, but the impression I've gotten from eavesdropping on facebook friends who are journalists is that local newspapers have to command a hyper-local niche for themselves, being almost a community forum as opposed to a distributor of “The News” from on high. Take politics, for instance…people may get their political news from facebook, but odds are they only follow politicians they personally support. A local paper allows state senators or represenatives to write editorials and such that will be read by a larger audience than their facebook devoted. I know many people who will read a piece in the paper, even if they don't know or faintly dislike the author. (I read one fellow just to marvel at how horrible he writes given his occupation and education.)

  12. R.T. says:

    Stephen, I think you're right. The newspapers in my borderland neck of the woods (two cities in two separate states) have over the past ten years shifted to more (almost exclusively) state and local news. That might be their pathway to survival. Well, maybe.

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