Pictures and printed words are lasting

Published 10:50 pm Friday, March 23, 2012

The cardboard box landed on the floor with a loud thud. Within minutes of its opening, photographs were strewn across the empty desk, as plundering staff members picked them up curiously.

“Is this Tonya Terry, in her engagement announcement?”

“Look at this one. It’s Jason and Elly Reeves.”

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“And look at Chancellor Hawkins. Look how little his girls were …”

The innocuous box was simply labeled “Prints and Negatives: Prior to 2004”, but inside it held a treasure trove of history – prints, negatives, even screen prints with wax still on the back from the “good ol’ paste-up days” of newspaper production.

Most of the staff members looking through the photos were young – some not even born – when the images were captured. Only Jaine Treadwell and I can tell the stories of those paste-up days spent with X-Acto knives and a waxer, painstakingly parsing together the words and images that would become the daily miracle of a newspaper.

The next day, Johnny Green brought a present to the office. “I thought you might like to have this,” he said, holding out a yellowed copy of the May 19, 1959, Messenger.

As Johnny flipped through the pages, he took delight in pointing out people I’d recognize.

“This is Mrs. Avis Synco, and Mrs. Avis Burnette,” he said, pointing to a photograph. “That’s Barney Burnett’s mom … and here in the back, there’s an ad telling about Barney’s dad joining the sales staff at Mary Chevrolet Co.,” he said. “I showed that to Barney just a little while ago.”

We chatted for a while about the old paper and how remarkable it is that people hold on to newspapers for 60-plus years.

But really, we shouldn’t be surprised. There’s a permanency, a tangible importance to the printed newspaper. It’s clipped for baby books, slipped into family Bibles, and cut and posted on refrigerators every day.  My father still saves pages from our hometown newspaper and mails them to me, with his notes handwritten in the margins. Friends ask for copies of the newspaper with a child’s photograph or an important announcement. And if you’ve hosted a garage sale and found yourself face-to-face with early bird shoppers before the crack of dawn, you know how truly effective classified advertising can be.

According to Editor and Publisher International Yearbook, 1,397 daily and 919 Sunday newspapers were published in the United States in 2010, circulating more than 46.3 million copies every weekday (and more than 46.9 million on Sundays).

Nearly 103 million U.S. adults read a newspaper or visit a newspaper website on an average weekday. And, according to a survey of how Americans shop and spend, more than one-third of those who say they don’t read the printed newspaper report “using” the newspaper in a typical week to check sales in local stores (13 percent), clip coupons (11 percent) and compare prices (8 percent), among other things.

John Mann, an intern studying journalism at Troy University, interviewed me this week for a class assignment about the future of journalism and newspapers. “How has technology changed journalism?” he wanted to know.

“Easy,” I answered, directing him to the box of photographs and negatives as I explained the hours spent just 20 years ago on the production of the newspaper. “Now we can invest our time and energy on gathering the news and reporting it, on producing better papers and products, and on telling the stories across multiple platforms – printed word, photographs, video and more.”

“And what about the future?” he asked, seeking reassurance perhaps that the field he has chosen to pursue will be a lasting one.

“Easy,” I answered holding out the yellowed copy of the 1959 newspaper. “We’ll still be here.”

When all those Tweets and Facebook posts roll off timelines and into Internet oblivion, the printed newspapers will still be around to chronicle our lives and our history in a way nothing else can.

Stacy G. Graning is publisher of The Messenger. E-mail her at