How I Learned to Read
November 2008

by Ron Steinman

As more newspapers collapse, shrink and disappear, I thought I would take a few minutes of your time and regale you with a tale about newspapers, and how I learned to read them when I was a boy. It is the reason why reading a newspaper in its printed form on paper is still important to me. This is not about the failing economics of the news business as it relates to the printed word, a story that gets worse by the day. It is a personal story about my father, something of the life he had, the newspapers he read every day and the effect that had on me.

My father was a salesman. He sold general insurance. The Great Depression clouded his entire life as it did for many of his generation. My father worked long hours to insure that his family was never hungry. Usually he saw many of his clients seven days a week. They were tough days for him. He survived the 1930s, and then the 1940s through World War II. The need to keep bread on the table was ceaseless. My father worked hard and did not have an easy time in the only profession he knew.

We lived in Brooklyn. The apartments were small. The one where I lived with my mother and younger sister through World War II was modest in a modest neighborhood. My father, up at dawn every day, made his usual breakfast of one fried egg, toast and instant coffee with a dab of milk. He smoked his first cigarette of the day, an unfiltered Philip Morris, packed a light lunch of a single sandwich, put it in a brown bag and then into his sturdy, yet worn leather brief case. He dressed in a suit and starched white shirt, tied his tie tightly, brushed his shoes, and in all weather put on his fedora. At 6:30 each morning, he left for the day only to return usually some 12 hours later.

He traveled New York to at least three of its boroughs – Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx – every day by subway, bus, trolley, and once off public transportation, by foot. We did not own a car. On his journey through the city visiting his old clients and in his search of new ones, he always had time to spare. He did not read books. He left that to my mother who read piles of popular fiction.

Radio was king. Newsreels in theaters were where the people saw and heard about the news that they mostly saw and read about in their newspaper. Do not forget, this was before television, before the age of the Internet. And, my, there were newspapers aplenty.

On any given day, if one was of a mood, in New York you could buy for only a few cents each, one of the following papers: Journal American, Herald Tribune, Evening Sun, World Telegram, The Daily News, Daily Mirror, The New York Post, The New York Times, Brooklyn Eagle, and PM. These newspapers had everything from opinion in their editorials and columns as well as gossip and wonderful crime reporting. They had photos, reviews of movies, theater and books. Most had a page of funnies and tons of classified advertisements. You name it and the newspaper had it. My father bought all of them. Yes, all. They were his constant companions as he made his way through the city on his daily rounds. It was his only indulgence other than his daily package of cigarettes.

Sitting on the subway train, the bus or the trolley, he would read his newspapers. He read them from top to bottom, from beginning to end, from start to finish. He read every word of every newspaper he carried with him. It was only when he approached his next client that he would take a 3" x 5" card from his briefcase to refresh his mind about that person's needs. He would carefully fold the unread newspaper and place it in a section of his leather brief case devoted to carrying them. He never read his newspapers in the same order. One day he might start with a tabloid like the Daily Mirror and move onto one of the others, such as the Journal American, that he carried with him. When he finished reading a paper, he carefully discarded it in the nearest trashcan. Those he still had left to read, he brought home. I know this because there were times I accompanied him on his travels through the city.

When my father trudged home after his long day around town and in his office on John Street in lower Manhattan he carefully unloaded his briefcase and placed the papers he still had to read at the side table in our living room. This is where I come in. This is where and how I learned to read and understand the importance of newspapers. Where I learned to appreciate the power and need of newspapers in my daily life.

My father was a strict man who wanted everything in its place and a place for everything. His neat pile of unread papers fit the way he saw his life. However, because education, and mine in particular, was one of the more important parts of his ethic, he allowed me access to the newspapers he had brought home. In many ways, that was when my life after school, after play, and homework, after religious school, and after piano lessons took on a vibrant meaning for me. Under the watchful eye of my father, I learned to read a newspaper. It seemed to make my usually reticent father pleased with me. My reading started to give me a view of the world I could not duplicate anywhere else. I learned to read because, as with any child, I wanted to emulate my father. That lesson stuck with me and has been a part of me ever since.

I could read as many of the papers as I wanted. Sprawled on the coarse living room carpet, the yellow light from the floor lamp covering only enough of the paper that I needed to see, I surrounded myself with a different paper each night. My father's lone proviso was when I finished a paper, I had to fold it neatly and return it to the pile in the order where it originated. Do not forget, I was a small boy just learning to read. The discipline was new to me. Despite some difficulties I read as much as I could, devouring the sports pages, the front pages with their sometimes-lurid headlines, business, the funny pages, and entertainment. Each newspaper used a different and distinctive typeface. Photos played different roles in different papers. It took me a while to figure out how to read baseball box scores; I have been a devotee ever since. I learned to read movie reviews, though we hardly ever went to the movies. Even then, they were too expensive. I even learned how to read stock tables, though I rarely understood them. Today, in some ways they remain a mystery. I learned how to read the racing form, even more arcane than stock tables, because I had an uncle who bet on the horses.

To this day, as you the reader can understand, reading a newspaper has a special meaning for me. My father died a decade ago at the age of 96. Almost to the end of his life, he read The New York Times every day from cover to cover. He particularly read the want ads and the classifieds because he said you can tell the direction of the economy from the number and tenor of pages the paper devoted to those small, tightly woven bits of information. And he was right.

I learned to dig deeply into each story I read, unlike too many of today's readers on the Web who mostly graze on one site or another or who depend on aggregators to guide them to stories someone else says they should read. Yes, the Internet is special and more far ranging than any newspaper ever was. The latest surveys show that one-third of those who use the Internet do so for news. That is all to the good. I have trouble believing those people ever really get a sense of the depth and breadth of many stories. Theirs is a skin-deep experience with usually only the start and maybe the middle of the journey but rarely with a satisfying finish.

I will never trade how I learned to read. I still do so with a daily paper every day. All the surfing one can do on the Web will not replace the feel of newsprint in my hands and the black ink on my fingers. I certainly do my share of whipping around the Internet. However, the reader today should envy my experience, not the other way around. This, though, is not a plea for a return to yesteryear. I mourn the passing of the years when I became educated, and, yes, even addicted, to the way of the world by peeking, then delving deeply into some of the newspapers my father carried with him on his daily rounds. I also mourn the passing of newspapers in general for the particular role they played in my life, a role I know they will never play in the life of anyone else.

blog comments powered by Disqus

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.