AUGUST 8, 2018
JOURNALISM HAS an important rule of punctuation: don’t use exclamation marks. They are the cheap tools of romance novels, tabloid headlines, emoji badges, and other outposts of purple prose. Journalistic sentences are supposed to be measured, objective observations, not excited calls to action. If you haven’t managed to convey the urgency or drama of a statement without topping the period with a vertical eruption, then it’s probably time to rewrite.
Of course, all writing rules should be judiciously and strategically broken. Patt Morrison, one of Los Angeles’s most storied living journalists, ends the title of her new book with an exclamation mark: Don’t Stop the Presses!
She may have earned this indiscretion, for she is scarcely an unbiased party in the current war against the fourth estate. The veteran of the Los Angeles Times, PBS, and KPCC has won Pulitzers, Emmys, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Press Club. Sporting her distinctive hats and auburn hair, Morrison is a Southland treasure, our own Molly Ivins. With this well-researched, colorfully illustrated, and unabashedly partisan coffee-table book, she mounts a virtuosic defense of the newspaper, from the magnates of the board rooms to the newsies on the streets.
Don’t Stop the Presses! tells the story of a mandate. Morrison explains how newspapers are interwoven into the fabric of American culture, society, and politics. Freedom of the press is, of course, consecrated in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Our founding fathers were also publishers: Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton. Small frontier towns set up newspapers as quickly as they incorporated, bringing in and operating prized presses in ingenious ways. “Any new settlement of a few hundred people didn’t consider itself a real town until someone had lugged a printing press over mountains or across deserts to print a newspaper,” she notes. Cheyenne, Wyoming, had four papers and 1,000 people in 1867. In Quilcene, Washington, a water wheel powered the Megaphone.
Morrison bangs the point home with numerous photos — a dog carrying the paper, a baby “reading” the headlines — that document the quotidian essentialness of the news. “The newspaper was at the common core of public life,” she writes. “People went to different churches and different schools, worked at different jobs and read different books, but high and lowly, man and woman, they usually read the same newspapers.”
Morrison organizes Don’t Stop the Presses! in thematic chapters, around subjects such as reporters (both heroes and villains), publishing dynasties, media about the media, sports and comics, and technology. Thus, it’s not just a narrative about the great men and women of American journalism; it’s also a cultural and social history. Yes, we are reminded of the importance of Ernie Pyle and Nellie Bly as leaders of American letters, and of Pulitzer and Hearst as publishers. Morrison also tells lesser-known stories, such as that of the Cherokee Phoenix, published in Georgia in 1828 using special plates with indigenous type. In Mears, Michigan, Swift Lathers printed the Mears Newz for 56 years with a press operated by a pedal. The book also documents the ongoing struggles journalism has faced: over and over, long before Twitter trolls crawled out of the muck, journalists pay the price for speaking truth to power. The Georgia guard destroyed the Phoenix’s unique type plates. An irate reader punched Lathers in the face.
Morrison writes like the big city columnist that she is: her style is glib, easy, humorous, anchored in anecdotes, and never mired in (or outwardly cognizant of) critical theory. Don’t Stop the Presses! would make an excellent gift book for that relative who keeps watching Fox News and ranting about the liberal media, or a textbook for a high school journalism class. Seth MacFarlane should buy a copy for every library in the land. Even if you’ve already read Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism, Christopher Daly’s comprehensive tome, you can glean gems from Morrison’s text. I was struck by the photo of Carrie Ingalls, sister of Laura Ingalls Wilder, scrivening at a desk, presumably for one of the three South Dakota newspapers she worked for.
The book includes sections on ethnic media and the African-American press, although not in the same chapter, which is a bit of an odd decision. Morrison is generally democratic about including most of the desks of a newsroom, including war reporting, features, sports, and “the funnies.” However, she leaves out arts and entertainment reporting and criticism — an odd omission for a Los Angeles–based writer. She also shows her mainstream bias in her glancing coverage of the alternative press; for instance, she states that The Village Voice carries on the work of 1960s underground papers, when in fact the Voice launched in the postwar climate of the 1950s — but now, I’m showing my own biases.
Morrison does not venture much through the Great Wall that divides the newsroom from advertising, which makes her argument somewhat idealistic. Speaking from the trenches rather than outside them, she forgoes theoretical analysis of the fate of a civic venture rooted in terrestrial properties in a global economy.
And yet this is precisely the current troubled moment that Morrison’s anecdotes of the past lead up to. In the final chapter, “The American Press: An Epilogue?” she enumerates the onslaught of crises that prompted her to fight back the way she knows best — with ink and paper. Newspapers have been folding in big cities and especially in small towns. The ones that survive have laid off thousands of skilled journalists while bogus sites spread propaganda and lies, or feed our appetite for cheap, quick buzzes. The president of the country has declared journalists enemies of the people and written off thousands of inches of careful, honest reporting with nine characters: “#FakeNews.”
The press is at a precipice. And, as this book makes clear, if the watchdog of our political and economic system gets thrown over the edge, the very fabric of our nation goes with it. “Democracy dies in darkness,” warns the Washington Post’s recently coined motto — even our most venerable institutions are speaking in exclamations these days. Don’t Stop the Presses! is a cri de coeur written with a sense of urgency, even emergency. “A newspaper folding isn’t just some business going to the grave, but another hole in the safety net of neighborhood and community and governance, of facts and accountability,” Morrison writes.
Perhaps the news media is finding its footing, moving through the point of reckoning to a resurgence. Here’s another rule of journalism: measure your press in column inches. Trump’s many attacks on the media have in some ways been good for business. Subscriptions to the national papers, such as The New York Times and the Washington Post, have gotten a healthy boost. Everyone knows how riveted we all are by the train wreck that is our current government: all those eyeballs mean dollars for online media. The Southland’s own daily newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, seems to have caught a Hail Mary pass from the kind of civic-minded hometown tycoon who just could be the next Hearst — minus the zebras, we hope. At Loyola Marymount University, where I teach, we are launching a journalism major for the first time in our century-plus history, in part in response to students who see it as not just a possible career but a vital calling. In the foreword, The New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet says 2017 may “be seen as the year a settling wind set in.”
Morrison proves herself a terrific defender of her life’s calling. Newspapers, she writes, “are the record of our national life, and their stalwart existence is daily proof, to ourselves and to the world, that the remarkable American democratic undertaking still works.” Run that on A-1!
Evelyn McDonnell is an associate professor of English and directs the journalism program at Loyola Marymount University. Her next book is Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, to be published by Black Dog & Leventhal in October.