Suzanne Fields

Newspapermen (the term includes both sexes) have fewer bad habits today - booze, cigarettes and cigars have been banished along with the clatter of typewriters and teletype machines, replaced by politically correct attitudes and the "civilizing" influence of women. But newspaper reporters continue to regard themselves as uniquely authentic. "What has often infuriated newspapermen is that television news couldn't exist without newspapers," writes Wesley Pruden, editor-in-chief of the Washington Times, "since the newspaper is where the television producers not only clip most of their news, but where they go to find out what's news and what's not." But newspaper readership, like television news audiences, is down, and growing numbers of Americans grow up bereft of the morning newspaper with the first cup of coffee.

If they want to see what their grandfathers and grandmothers missed they can soon log onto old newspapers preserved in the National Digital Newspaper Program, a joint project of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress. Eventually 30 million pages of newspapers will be digitally preserved. Bruce Cole, director of NEH, is fond of reciting the colorful newspaper names of an era not so far behind us, such as The Cain Country Razooper, The Daily Unterrified Democrat, The Castigator.

"Anyone who's interested - students, historians, lawyers, politicians and even newspaper reporters - will be able to go to their computer at home or at work and at the click of a mouse get immediate access to the greatest source of our history," he says. "You will be able to search in day-to-day accounts in these old newspapers." He particularly relishes a headline in the Tulsa Daily World of November 16, 1907, the day Oklahoma became a state: "Roosevelt to shove the quill at nine." (That was Teddy, not Franklin.)

Surveys of our past in newspapers naturally raise questions about what kind of influence the Internet will have on the new democracy of unfiltered bloggers. "Are they our Tom Paines and the pamphleteers of our digital revolution?" asks Bruce Cole.

Tom Paine in pajamas? Perish the thought.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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