Editor's Views: If papers fade away, so will part of history

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Scott Angus
Saturday, November 23, 2013

The old newspapers are yellowed; some are falling apart. Age and deterioration, however, haven't diminished their impact.

They themselves are history. They record history. Their screaming headlines and faded pictures take me back to important days and times—to the deaths of presidents, to critical developments in world wars, to monumental victories for the home team.

 The news media have been called the first draft of history, and that's especially true for print newspapers.

Two events in the past few weeks prompted me to think about the importance of print papers and front pages as drafts of history and how the world will be different if the electronic media ever squeeze out the print press entirely.

We got a new furnace at our house, and that meant I had to lug a bunch of boxes out of the back room in the basement to make way for workers. Amid the antiques, dishes and old holiday decorations was a box of my dad's stuff.

My dad was a newspaper editor for nearly 40 years, and he was old school in the truest sense. He loved most everything about the business, but he especially loved the look and feel of newspapers and the records they provided of important and historic events.

The box of his old stuff contained mementoes of various kinds, but—not surprisingly— the newspapers grabbed my attention. I knew he had saved them, and I knew I had them somewhere. My dad grew up in Madison and once worked at the Wisconsin State Journal, so most are from that paper.

One of the earliest carries a lead headline 4 inches tall, “INVASION.” A smaller headline underneath adds: “Chutes, ships storm France.” It is dated June 6, 1944. D-Day. You talk about history. A map shows the English Channel and routes of the Allied forces, and various bulletins and accounts fill the rest of the page.

Another paper is topped with “President Roosevelt Dies at Warm Springs.” The date is April 12, 1945, and it tells of FDR's sudden death at age 63.

Like me, my dad was a sports nut, and he was a big fan of the Wisconsin Badgers football team. He graduated from the UW and was a manager on the famed 1942 team. He was also a huge Packer backer, especially during the Lombardi years.

So, understandably, his collection includes many papers from the best days of the Badgers and Packers. One records a 35-7 victory by that '42 UW team, led by Dave Schreiner and Jack Wink, over Marquette. Others cover big victories leading up to the 1953 and 1963 Rose Bowls and the tough losses to USC in Pasadena.

The Packers are covered in a handful of editions from the State Journal's “Sports Peach,” which described the section's special color in those days, but the best are marked by these headlines: “Packers Flatten Browns, 23-12; Take Record Ninth NFL Crown” from Jan. 2, 1966, and “Packers Trample Chiefs; Starr's Magic Touch Upholds NFL Honor” from Jan. 16, 1967.

I remember those Packer wins, and I heard many stories about those great Badger teams. The papers, though, offer a touch and feel from a bygone era and preserve otherwise long-lost details that keep history alive.

My dad's collection does not include any papers from late November 1963, when President Kennedy was killed, but I've seen many front pages in the past week that documented the assassination in Dallas and the tragic and somber days that followed. The Janesville Daily Gazette's headline from Nov. 22, 1963, read “President Kennedy slain in Texas!; Johnson to take helm.”

The galleries of front pages from across the country that I saw on the anniversary of Kennedy's slaying reinforced that notion of newspapers as critical first drafts of history. People talk about what would be lost if newspapers fade away. Certainly, this is among the most significant.

Until last week, my dad's old papers sat uncovered and unprotected in a broken cardboard box. I've moved them to a sealed plastic bin. That's the least I can do to preserve this little part of history.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is sangus@gazettextra.com. You can follow him Twitter at @sangus_.

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