Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

August 13, 2012

Headline news has special meaning in the lyrics of a Chi-Lites song

There is a line in the Chi-Lites song, “Write a letter to Myself,” that goes: “With a little, Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Sugar and spice; Makes me feel kinda nice,” reminiscent of a time when newspaper hawkers stood on city street corners and earned a few pennies for every paper they sold. The Chi-Lites were among the groups that performed at the May 4, 1973, “Peace Tour” concert at the National Guard Armory in Brushfork. We have a copy of the last extra edition of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, framed and hanging on the wall in the newsroom. It recently occurred to me that the Sept. 11, 2001, “Extra” edition of the paper will most likely be the last of its kind.

Extra editions are an expensive proposition for newspapers. Just 11 years ago in 2001, this paper was able to assign eight staff writers to author locally-generated and locally-connected stories about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon and a reclaimed coal mine site in southwestern Pennsylvania. The staff members all worked hard on the project, but no amount of hard work could change the absolute reality that our world had changed that morning, and changed forever.

No private sector business has had an easy go of it since 9/11. Federal stimulus money helped state and local governments with public paving projects, but that horse vacated the barn long before the door slammed shut on the regional economy. The divisive political acrimony that existed before the 9/11 attacks is back with all of its ignominious fury, and national pundits seem only to fan the flames of indignation on all sides of the political football by telling people what they want to hear.

The Chi-Lites were familiar with the line that newspaper hawkers used to peddle papers, but soon, the general public won’t have a clue about the origins of that phrase. Still, opening a newspaper remains as an important part of a physical process that is tied to maturation. People who want to be informed still look inside a newspaper, even when the news isn’t what they want to see. If we all wrote ourselves a letter like the Chi-Lites, we would all, always read what we wanted to hear.

It would be incorrect to attribute the changing climate for newspapers only to the 9/11 attacks. I should have known that major change was at hand in January 1993 when I wrote my first story about the Internet — a subject I knew nothing at all about. After my first story on the workings of the Worldwide Web appeared, the person I interviewed became so upset because I had gotten so much wrong. Even as she tried to explain what my errors were, it was like we were speaking different languages. The world was preparing to undergo major change.

In a way, I feel a stronger kinship to the pre-Norman conquest scops of Anglo-Saxon times who memorized runic rhymes to tell and re-tell the old, old stories so they would not be forgotten. I also feel a certain kinship to the medieval era monastic scribes, who hand-copied religious manuscripts to preserve the message for future generations before Gutenberg used movable type to publish the Bible. Those guys — the poets and the scribes — were out of work before they knew it, but people still write poetry and scribes still enter data.

As I visited with Keith Circle last week during the Mercer County Fair, we talked about the fact that we both grew up on farms, and both of us have enjoyed the pleasure of planting a seed in the soil that would soon grow into a radish that a young person could wretch from the earth, wipe off and eat. Keith and I both lamented that with the passing of our generation, that kind of understanding may simply vanish from common knowledge.

When the Chi-Lites recorded “Write a Letter to Myself,” everyone who heard the phrase: “Extra! Extra! Read all about it,” likely knew exactly what the phrase meant. The understanding of that meaning hasn’t vanished, even though there are now new ways of delivering information to fit a competitive 24-hour news cycle.

Great changes in the world of communications have taken place in less than a quarter of a century, as in all things, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” to quote Bon Jovi.

Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

 

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