BUT SERIOUSLY, FOLKS! The Highly Exaggerated Death of Newspapers

Mark Twain once said, “The reports of my death have been highly exaggerated.” In the aftermath of the recent sale of The Washington Post to Amazon.com king Jeff Bezos and the sale of The Boston Globe to Red Sox owner John Henry, nervous journalists around the country are writing obits for daily newspapers. But these reports, like the premature accounts of Mark Twain’s passing, have been highly exaggerated.

The First Amendment is not dead. It is not even sick. It is robust and healthy (not to be confused with the law firm by the same name, Robust & Healthy PLLC).

Make no mistake, the traditional folded newspaper at the edge of your driveway may go the way of rabbit-ears TV sets. Evening newspapers folded about 20 years ago. But to paraphrase Faulkner’s great line, newspapers will not merely survive; they will prevail, albeit in an evolving, different format.

I love newspapers. I loved them even before I could read them.

My earliest memories are of sitting on my father’s lap, looking at the comic strips, as he read the captions out loud. Charlie Brown was a friend of mine even before I could read the words “Good grief!”

When I was in the first grade, there were three sources that taught me to read: Dick & Jane, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis’ morning paper), and The Press Scimitar (Memphis’ evening paper).

Again, my role model as a reader was my father. He got all of his news from newspapers. Dad didn’t watch Walter Cronkite or Huntley Brinkley. He read The Commercial Appeal in the morning and The Press Scimitar at night.

And by the second grade, I was doing the same thing. I would begin each day at the kitchen table looking at The Commercial Appeal sports page while I ate a bowl of Rice Krispies. I have in fact done this every day now for the past 55 years. I still begin each day by looking at The Commercial Appeal sports page. Even if the front page has a screaming headline that says “NUCLEAR WAR ABOUT TO START,” I’ll check the sports page first to see how the Cardinals did last night.

When I was in the third grade, I actually started my own paper, Our Third Grade News. I didn’t even type it. I wrote it out on a stencil pad and then ran it off in blue ink on a mimeograph machine. I still remember how it looked and smelled.

In 1963, at the age of 11, I got my first job in the newspaper business when I went to work in the circulation department of The Press Scimitar.

I was a paperboy.

Six afternoons a week (The Press Scimitar did not have a Sunday edition), I would pick up 83 copies of The Press Scimitar and deliver them throughout the neighborhood. I was quite proud of my job. I was an 11-year-old Walter Cronkite, literally bringing the news to my neighbors.

Thursday night was “collection night.” That’s when I would go to 83 homes, knock on the doors, and get paid for my deliveries.

I have never been wealthier. Most of my customers paid me in loose change, and I would fill up my pants pockets with coins until I ran a serious risk that my pants would drop and I would moon readers of The Press Scimitar.

I was ahead of my time in fashion, since I now see so many young men walking around with their trousers hanging half-way down to their ankles. (I’m afraid they’re not paper boys.)

My job with The Press Scimitar ended when I headed off to college, but my work in the newspaper field did not end. I became a columnist for what was then and remains to this day the finest newspaper in the State of Tennessee — The University of Tennessee Daily Beacon.

I was no longer a paperboy. I was … a writer! It was the first time I ever saw the words “By Bill Haltom” in print, and it was an awesome experience.

After four years with the Beacon, I made a terrible mistake. I went to law school where I discovered to my disappointment that they did not need a humor columnist for the law review.

I tried to become Perry Mason rather than Clark Kent. But my heart wasn’t in the courtroom. I wanted to be in the newsroom of the Daily Planet with Clark and Lois and Jimmy.

And so I kept writing and submitting my work to newspapers, magazines, and church bulletins, hoping to find publishers with incredibly low journalistic standards.

I was turned down more times than a bed sheet.

It took me 20 years to become an overnight journalist sensation, but miraculously, in the decade of the 1990s, I found myself writing a monthly column for the Tennessee Bar Journal, and a weekly column for The Commercial Appeal. I couldn’t believe my luck.

On Saturday mornings, after reading the sports page, I could turn to the Op-Ed page and actually read my own words, and yes, see my cool by-line.

I put the vanity in “vanity press.”

I wasn’t getting paid much. In fact, I was making a lot less money as a columnist than I had made as a paperboy. When I complained about this to The Commercial Appeal’s editor, a wonderful man named Lionel Linder, he calmly responded, “You were worth more when you were a paperboy.”

He was right.

After four wonderful years with The Commercial Appeal, my career as a newspaper columnist came to an abrupt halt. A new editor arrived at The Commercial Appeal, and he promptly made several changes to the paper. I was one of those changes, as he dropped my column. Fortunately, the Tennessee Bar Journal kept me as a non-compensated columnist, but only to give some counterpoint to the scholarship of Don Paine.

And then, Al Gore invented the internet. Suddenly every idiot with a computer could start a blog and become a columnist.

I know this, because I am one of those idiots

It may be the First Amendment gone wild, but the truth is, there is now more journalism than ever. Is it all first-rate, Pulitzer Prize winning stuff? No, but it never was, even in the “good old days” when my father read two newspapers a day.

I no longer have a Press Scimitar to throw at night, and in a few years, I may not have a folded Commercial Appeal at the edge of my driveway. But I believe the Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Commercial Appeal, the Tennessee Bar Journal and … yes! ... The University of Tennessee Daily Beacon will all survive, although in a few years, you will no longer be able to wrap a fish in them.

I intend to keep writing for anybody willing to read a counterpoint to “Paine on Procedure” or totally waste time reading my blog. The reports of my death as a journalist have been highly exaggerated.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.