BENNER: Morning daily's losing streak is bad for all of us

June 25, 2011

I know this is a sports column. Allow me to veer somewhat off course.

Holding a daily newspaper in my hands first thing in the morning—or IBJ, first thing on a Saturday after the mail arrives—is an addiction I will never be able to shake.

I love the smell of ink on paper and the sight of the smudge on my fingers.

I love the promise of new content with each turn of the page, with each flip to a different section. I love the revelation and storytelling and oddball features and opinion and perspective and, yes, even the obituaries.

I especially love the local news that comes in the newspaper … coverage of issues that are of here, people that are from here, and events that take place here.

Here being Indianapolis. And Indiana. My home. Our home. Is there anything that should more speak to or be reflective of the fabric of a community than its newspaper?

Some might think that when we read of layoffs at The Indianapolis Star, as we did this past week when more than 60 employees—among them, several former colleagues—were let go, that those in other media, especially print media, might find cause for celebration.

After all, the opposition just got weaker.

Truth is, our entire community just got weaker. And it is happening all over America.

For 33 years, it was my great fortune to live in the intoxicating world of daily print journalism. Being part of what was required to deliver the “morning miracle” to newsstands, doorsteps and mailboxes, not just throughout Indianapolis, but all over the state, provided both a daily rush of adrenalin and a sense of accomplishment.

In the newspaper business back then, there were no long-term goals. Instead, you were consumed by the sense of urgency that came with having to produce a new product every day, 365 days a year.

It was like, “Nice story today, kid. So whatcha got for tomorrow?”

Many also don’t understand that, as a journalist, you are always on call. In the sports world, it seemed like the coach always got fired on your day off.

And that morning miracle was actually a miracle times five, because that’s how many editions there were. Which meant that almost every night—especially Friday and Saturday nights in the sports department because of high school, college and pro sports—was an absolute five-alarm fire drill.

As a writer, you might write a story once, then rewrite it two or three times, depending on the deadline. On the desk, you might tear up a page and re-do it for every edition, depending on breaking news.

Some things you planned for. But other things—say, a no-hitter thrown in a game played on the West Coast that ends at 12:45 a.m.—you could only do the best you could do.

But oh my Lord, it was so much fun.

I was so lucky—my journalism career went from hot type to cold, from Royal typewriters to personal computers, from Western Union teletypes to the Internet. Every day was different, every game was unique, every trip an adventure.

People ask all the time, do I miss it? And the answer is yes, though this space in IBJ has been a lifeline.

But what I don’t miss is what the newspaper business has become, which is, of course, a business. Within days after the Pulliam heirs betrayed a family trust and sold (out) to Gannett in August 2000, I had numerous messages from fellow scribes already working for Gannett who said things never would be the same. They were right. And within seven months, I was blessed to begin a new career.

Even sadder is that daily newspapers are irrelevant to so many. The Keystroke Generation is not interested in lingering over newsprint. No one wants to have to wash the ink smudge from their fingers.

Content can be found anywhere, everywhere. Whether it’s accurate—whether it has been compiled by a trained journalist and vetted by a trained editor—seems to matter not.

When I die, they will have to pry The Star—or the IBJ if I check out on a Saturday after the mail has come—out of my cold, ink-smudged fingers.

That is, if there still is a morning newspaper. If not, America will be poorer for it.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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