The incredible vanishing newspapers 

The death last week of the Rocky Mountain News hit like a heavy left hook to the stomach, a violent punch that leaves you gasping for breath. I had not experienced this feeling since my wife asked if the pants she was wearing made her rump look big.

(I still don't know the right answer. Among the wrong answers, I found out, is "Compared to what?")

Anyway, as you are sadly aware, my life has long involved newspapers. The final edition of the Rocky, where I worked for a time, and the painful death march of so many other papers across the nation has, in truth, left my heart broken.

So I'd like to tell you about my life and newspapers and why I am forlorn.

It began with my father, the editor of a newspaper in Massachusetts for most of his life. He still reads several newspapers, including the Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal. (I got him a WSJ subscription so he can see, every day, in marvelously well-written detail, how his mutual fund has turned to dog poop.)

My first job, at the age of 8, was scraping sticky paste-up paper off the composing room floor of my father's newspaper. In the newsroom he watched over a group that included Ged Smith, a lifelong bachelor who washed his socks in the bathroom sink and hung them to dry in the photo darkroom. And Darby Gaskill, who ended a feud with another reporter over whether the newsroom window would be open or closed by pulling out a hammer one morning and nailing the window shut with a pair of five-inch spikes.

My dad and I would take winter trips to New Hampshire, and at the end of an ice-fishing day we'd find a village and he'd grab the local newspaper, and at night in a cheap motel room he'd read out loud how Mary Schmidlap of Oak Street returned from a visit with her mother in Maine, where they'd made a blueberry pie together.

"Stop the goddamn presses!" my father would roar, and we'd laugh ourselves silly.

There was the paper route, too, a Sunday morning ritual that began with a gentle 6 a.m. awakening ("GET UP, GODDAMMIT!"). We'd pick up 150 Boston Globes and Boston Heralds and Worcester Telegrams and stack them in the car, and he'd drive and I'd shuffle from door to door with an armload, dropping papers between the screen doors and the heavy wooden doors of the old New England houses.

I worked for tips. The Globe and Herald each cost 30 cents. Most people left two quarters. John Lynch at 144 Main St. got the Telegram, which cost 28 cents. Each Sunday, with no exception, for six years, he left a quarter and three pennies. You don't forget a thing like that.

My dad would bump the car forward a hundred feet at a time, so when I dropped my last paper between the doors, the car and the next load of newspapers would be waiting. He was behind the wheel, reading the paper. He'd give me highlights.

"Red Sox won. Goddamn Yankees won, too," was a common refrain.

And in 1968 I was 13, and he read out loud the stories of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and a few months later Bobby Kennedy, and both times his voice got soft and his eyes filled with tears.

So I went to Marquette University and studied journalism and landed my first real writing job in Los Angeles with the wire service United Press International. In the first month, I hung up on a caller who said he was John Wayne; I figured he was a nut. Turns out it was John Wayne, and the bureau manager put me on the overnight shift for three months.

I worked at the Los Angeles Times, too. And then when the kids came and L.A. seemed a bit too wacky, I ended up here, at the Gazette, where it was good for a while. I worked at the Rocky and at the Denver Post.

And someday soon, maybe in a year or two, they might all be gone, all the daily newspapers, and I wonder what on Earth I will do. And I wonder what my father will do.



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