The Detroit Free Press, the newspaper for which I work, celebrated a birthday this weekend. It is 170 years old.
You don’t find many things that old in America. Buildings get torn down. Neighborhoods are razed. Dot-coms go boom one year, bust the next.
But newspapers go on. The Hartford Courant dates back to 1764, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette to 1819.
Sure. They have changed names. Changed owners. Changed technology. (You can now get a newspaper “delivered” in cyberspace, a concept that still throws me.) But essentially, the product remains the same. Something happens. Someone writes it down. Someone prints it. And you read it.
Not tricky. Not complex.
Why then, are newspapers so durable? Because in a world that is growing more and more fractured, where doors are locking shut, where town squares are disappearing, where the glue is drying up everywhere you look, newspapers perform a dying art.
The famous headlines
They connect a son to his father. The first thing I ever shared on an equal level with my dad was a newspaper. He reached for the business section. I reached for the sports section. I watched him scan the headlines and tried to mimic him with my box scores. We sat there, at the kitchen table, for the first time, eating from the same literary plate. Connected.
They connect a lost soul with his hometown. I cannot tell you over the years how many people say their parents sent them columns while they were in the military, or on overseas assignment, or stuck in the hospital, and how happy they were to receive word from home. Connected.
Newspapers bring a city together under the inky umbrella of a headline, whether through sports (“WE WIN!”), through politics (“MAYOR DECLARES NEW ERA”) or through death (“CITY MOURNS A HERO”).
And newspapers — in so many small ways that are often overlooked — connect people by telling them who’s getting married, what jobs are available, what time the movie starts or when the zoning board meets.
Although television has usurped audience, it is newspapers that hold up the news business. Most TV outlets get their stories from print. And almost all major investigative reporting — from Watergate to Pardongate — is still done by newspapers.
No matter how elaborate TV gets, newspapers still let you start a story, skip to another, jump to the comics, scan the sports, read the Sunday magazine, go back to the first story, fall asleep and finish when you wake.
And when you get your picture in the newspaper for something, anything, admit it, you still cut it out.
On guard forever
Now, I was never a sentimental person toward a workplace. As a teenager, I looked cynically at adults who retired at 65 to a gold watch.
“How pathetic,” I thought back then. “You give a company all those years, they give you a trinket.”
Well. I have been in newspapers now for 19 years. If I were to quit today, and live to be 80, I’d still have spent a third of my adult life here.
And what I realize, more and more, is that the gold watch in newspapers isn’t for the finality of your efforts, but for the continuance. I wasn’t the first reporter or columnist at the Free Press. I won’t be the last. But for a while, my colleagues and I held watch.
And — cover your ears now if you’re not into a sappy sentence — it is still an honor to serve on the post.
No, you do not make history, but you are privileged enough to chronicle it. No, you may not sink the ship, put out the fire or hit the home run, but you tell the people who did. This particular newspaper has done it now for 170 years, more than half of America’s life as a nation.
And one day, 170 years from now, some kid may be doing a research project for school, and he will punch up on his eyeball-scanning mircochip a story I wrote in 1986.
And we will be connected.
And that’s why you do this job.
And why every birthday for an American newspaper should be celebrated. Because it’s not our world that survived one more year. It’s yours.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.