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Decades ago, if you traveled down south Main Street in Jonesboro around 6 a.m. on most days, you might see a youngster sitting alone on the front porch of one of the homes.

That young lad was me, waiting for the morning newspapers to arrive. It was the beginning of a long-term relationship. In those days, I wanted to be the first in our family to get the papers and then tell my parents what was in the news.

Perhaps not to that extent, but, for many, reading the morning paper, often with a cup of coffee, became part of life's rituals.

That relationship has changed or is changing. It is hard to believe that at the time of those front-porch days, we received five daily newspapers at home. We got the Arkansas Gazette and the Memphis Commercial Appeal in the mornings. The Jonesboro Evening Sun (later "Evening" was dropped), the Arkansas Democrat from Little Rock, and the Memphis Press-Scimitar were afternoon papers. And my dad got the Wall Street Journal at his post-office box.

I grew up reading the Gazette's stellar coverage of state, national and international affairs. I followed sports news plus "hard news," and comics, features, etc. I was often frustrated, however, that the morning papers often didn't include sports scores from the previous night because there was an early deadline for the editions we received.

Television, in its early stages when I sat on the front steps, became increasingly instrumental in providing information and entertainment, cutting into newspaper dominance as a news source. Newspapers came to be a part of what we began to call "the media."

When I was 13, I had a bicycle paper route delivering the Jonesboro Sun. At that same time two friends and I published an "unauthorized" paper, The Gab Gazette. Then I wrote for the high school paper.

At age 16, I joined the Sun staff, mostly covering sports, but a bit of everything, including photography. I also was an Arkansas correspondent for the Press-Scimitar. It might be noted that the Press-Scimitar was one of the first in the mainstream media to cover news related to the rise of rock and roll.

I wrote for The Herald at Arkansas State, and then had a remarkable opportunity when I was elected editor of the Daily Texan at the University of Texas. This was a full-fledged daily newspaper and I wrote columns and editorials daily in addition to reporting news and sports. And I had a chance to cover or interview prominent newsmakers such as Martin Luther King Jr., and sports and political luminaries. And there was editorial conflict with the Dallas Morning News.

My first experience teaching journalism was in Nairobi, Kenya, where my work with students included producing a newspaper.

While a graduate student at Vanderbilt, I worked as a researcher/writer for the Southern Education Reporting Service. Part of my job was to read all the major Southern newspapers, focusing on coverage of desegregation and civil rights. I saw courageous and forthright journalism on the one hand, such as the Arkansas Gazette's firm stance against Gov. Orval Faubus' efforts to block desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School. On the other hand, there were weak-kneed and hide-bound editors who preached defiance of the Supreme Court's decision outlawing segregated schools. I wrote my master's thesis on "Little Rock and the Press," exploring and analyzing the coverage and role of the media.

When I worked as U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright's press secretary, it was my responsibility not only to deal with news organizations from all over the world as well as the Arkansas press, but to keep Fulbright informed about what the newspapers were saying. His family owned the Fayetteville newspaper, a predecessor of today's Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and he had a keen interest in newspapers.

Newspapers have personal and public significance. They have been sources of information, entertainment and analysis and a societal link shared by many.

This column you are reading is part of a 20-year string of my opinion writing and commentary for this paper and its predecessors. During most of that period I was also teaching courses dealing with the media and society, including the role of newspapers.

Several factors have intervened to create economic and business hurdles for newspapers. Among these were competition from other media for advertising dollars and the growing significance of television and then online communication.

Newspapers have been the backbone of free societies, and it is important that the press reflects and respects our pluralistic society. We need to be vigilant in assuring that the decline in newspaper circulation isn't accompanied by a decline in democracy. One concern is "news deserts," referring to communities that lack a newspaper presence. Hundreds of newspapers have gone out of business. The recent Gannett-GateHouse merger creates a publishing behemoth, with one in five dailies around the nation under the same ownership.

Newspapers will continue as an important link in my life. It is great to be able to be read the digital editions of "hometown" papers such as the Jonesboro Sun or the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record. And I have online subscriptions to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Baltimore Sun, primarily for specialized baseball coverage.

Although I revere the role of newspapers, printed editions are fading away and the front-porch era and driveway delivery is disappearing. Just last week, McClatchy, the company owning such venerable papers as the Miami Herald and Kansas City Star, filed for bankruptcy

It should be noted that digital subscriptions have soared at the New York Times and Washington Post since the 2016 elections and some of the finest journalism in history has appeared in the replica editions of those papers. I appreciate immediate and extensive access to digital newspapers and information from around the world, a valuable asset when I write and lecture on international relations.

With the decline in the number of newspapers and economic struggles facing many newspaper owners, the Democrat-Gazette is trying something different -- the iPad innovation. Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. plans to provide paying print subscribers with a free iPad tablet for reading each day's digital replica of the paper.

If things go as scheduled, I will have met in Fayetteville today with a representative of the Democrat-Gazette to be "converted." Reminiscent of reading those newspapers on the front porch years ago, I planned to be early, waiting on the front deck or in the driveway when the iPad arrived and the conversion occurs. It exemplifies the dramatic changes occurring in our media landscape as my morning ritual takes a new turn.

Commentary on 02/26/2020

Print Headline: Newspaper links

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