BOSTON, a city long celebrated for the peculiarities of its newspapers, was forced to sample living without them for some weeks recently, during a labor dispute. The effect was not altogether what some readers might have expected, especially those who had felt that the papers were indeed so peculiar as to be just about dispensable. This group may have entered the period of the shutdown with almost a sense of relief: there would be the New York Times to fall back on, and the daily irritations at the inanities of the local press would cease for the time being. But one doubts that even the most captious readers continued for very long in that frame of mind, for the interests of the Times proved, reasonably enough, to reside more in the Giants than the Red Sox, while the inanities of the press were promptly replaced by the equally inane and considerably more pompous activities of radio and television news bureaus.
The Boston newspaper reader has experienced much over the years to toughen his sensibilities. He may recall the time when the lead story in the Sunday Herald was “Dog Bites Quincy Man” or when the now defunct Post conjured up its biggest and blackest type to report “3 Boys Found — Lost All Night.” It was the American, if I remember correctly, that published so many false alarms in advance of the Normandy invasion that it could only headline the event itself with “This Is It!” If a laborer narrowly escapes, uninjured, being buried in a pile of coal, the Boston papers are likely to make a sizable story out of it and to back the whole thing with a three-column picture of the coal pile and an arrow pointing to where the accident almost occurred. Any sort of fire is high-style news (“33 Routed by South End Blaze”), and the shot of the lodginghouse with a few wisps of smoke visible at its windows is almost as durable a cliché as the picture of the big player towering over the little player, captioned “The Long and the Short of It on the B.U. Football Squad.”
With these and many other habits, Boston papers combine a great preoccupation with the weather, a willingness to carry display advertisingon page one, and a tireless interest in publishing the names and addresses of nonentities. They are probably not so bad as visitors from other places profess to find them at first sight, but they are hardly the city’s proudest boast. The prospect of being without them for a while seemed a novelty and little else.
Radio and TV stations were prompt to announce that their own news programs during the strike would be expanded “as a public service.” What this boiled down to in most cases was simply more brief broadcasts of bulletins supplied by the press associations, sandwiched between the standard juke-box output and countless commercials that dominate the Boston air at all hours. By omitting one popular recording, the station announcer or disc jockey gained time to read — with frequent mispronunciations of place names which he was obviously confronting for the first time in his life — a few extra squibs from the news machines. The extra squibs usually proved to include our old friend, the lodginghouse fire, and a host of petty crimes and traffic accidents. Most painful of all was the “story for today” as it went out from a dozen or more microphones — a humorous trifle supplied by the wire services, with the disc jockey-journalist in each case appropriating the witticism as his own, heedless of the fact that his competitors were doing the same.
The larger frustrations caused by the newspaper shutdown were more complex. It was at once apparent that the newscasters recruited for the emergency were not only baffled by place names in far-off New Jersey but that they lacked, also, the faintest idea of what set a big story apart from a little one. One theory advanced on this deficiency was that local newscasters ordinarily depend on newspaper headlines for guidance in priorities, and with no newspapers at hand everything came out in the same tone of voice (portentous) and in the same dimension (dinky). The lodginghouse fire and the tot uninjured in a thirty-foot fall sat down, above the salt, with the intercontinental missile and the labor rackets. Everything was above the salt, giant and pygmy items alike.
Few Bostonians might have thought to find themselves hymning the Boston sports pages, for years the stronghold of the Elongated Yellow Fruit school of reportage, but radio and TV were all but useless by comparison. The Williams-Mantle competition was at its height, yet most local news announcers gave the time to “other scores” in both leagues rather than change the formula sufficiently to keep the Williams status up to date. During the week of the National Doubles at Longwood, one had to await the next morning’s New York papers, for all the attention a day’s play got from the newscasters. The entire entertainment field remained in a news blackout, save for sporadic paid commercial announcements, probably because both radio and TV regard all other pastimes as menacing their own wellbeing. So there were no reviews, no stage or film news, no book page, and even when the broadcasters tried to fill in some of these vacancies, the audience had no published radio and TV programs to indicate when and where the substitutes were to be found. Ironically, one of the features most sorely missed during the strike was the daily paper’s schedule of radio and TV programs.
The networks have long since developed first-rate national news programs with an identity of their own, which the listener can tolerate comfortably in fifteen-minute chunks, but few local stations seemed to harbor any such journalistic competence. So it was in the very nature of the medium that the listener had to attend the entire dreary, halting, uninformed news broadcast of local origin, in the hope that it might contain an item or two worth hearing. The idea that an editorial attitude of any consequence might supplement such a broadcast would have been laughable, had it occurred to anyone. A certain amount of retail advertising which would have gone into the papers was shifted to radio spot announcements, but here again it was all or nothing, and the listener had no way of finding the advertiser he might want to hear.
Nothing in the nature of a mass celebration greeted the newspapers on their return, but one fact did emerge from their suspension: the newspapers may not do much, but they do it a lot better than radio and TV can.