News You Can Use

My dad wouldn’t have been caught dead reading The New York Times. “The paper for eggheads,” is about as printable a comment as I can reproduce here. But there were culturally sound reasons behind his distaste.

The Times didn’t cover Dad’s New York. It’s famous for having a blind spot about working-class New Yorkers, really. I do think they’ve tried to rectify that in recent years. But to this day, it’s possible to read unintentionally amusing pieces wherein an earnest Times writer takes a trip to a place like Queens or Staten Island, and carries on as if they’ve just been to Mars.

My purpose is not solely to make fun of the Times (no! not solely!). The more important point is that I belong to a Daily News family as far as death notices go. In the more distant past, we were of course a Brooklyn Eagle family, but one branch seems to have been staunchly Brooklyn Standard Union.

We know from any basic research guide that newspapers are valuable sources for genealogists. Obituaries and birth announcements are only the most obvious benefit. Society meetings, town government, charity balls, who was visiting whom and who had just come home from the hospital — all this was fodder for news once upon a time, and a good thing, too.

But we must pay attention to who our ancestors were, to use newspapers effectively. Because once upon a time, the paper you read was a bit like where you worshiped. You just didn’t read some papers because they were edited by those [expletive] dirty [political/economic/religious enemies]. You would never, ever insert a notice about a loved one’s birth or death in that [expletive] paper. After all, you’d want your friends to read it, wouldn’t you?

And don’t think you’re off the hook in small towns. For an example, consider this episode in Terry Ryan’s affecting memoir, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. At one point young Terry and her mother make a nostalgic visit to Mom’s small Midwestern hometown. Here’s what newspaper consumerism was like there, circa 1915:

The seven papers Mom’s uncle Frank and aunt Clara read were mostly Republican-owned, but they subscribed to a few Democrat newspapers, too. “Not to mention,” Mom said, “a German-language paper for immigrants like my grandparents, and a Whig paper.”

“Wig?” I said …

“No, Whig with an h, like the political party of the same name,” she said.  … “The party died out in the mid-1800s, but it still had its followers. According to Uncle Frank, people had to have a variety of news sources to be well-rounded … “

I grew up long past the time when it was possible to subscribe to seven newspapers! Consolidation and corporate ownership meant, even by the 1970s, that relatively few large towns in the U.S. had more than one daily. Today, there is much talk about the death of the printed newspaper, but re-reading this passage, it occurs that we’re experiencing not a death, but a restoration of diverse opinions and themes. If Uncle Frank were alive today, I’m convinced, his Google Reader would be working overtime.

As it is, it helps to be aware of this vanished and complex world of print news, when we’re using it to track our ancestors.


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