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July 22, 2009

And That's the Way It Was ... Slow and Seldom

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

"And that's the way it is" was the phrase the recently late Walter Cronkite used to sign off his evening newscast on CBS. Some of you are too young to remember that. Even more of you don't remember how news was delivered back around 1950, long before Cronkite became a news anchorman.

I bring this up because Uncle Walter's death has triggered a good deal of reminiscing in various media about the Good Old Days of journalism, and who am I to stick up my nose and not join in. What I won't do is write about Cronkite, even though I saw him a lot even in the days before his newsreading gig. As hinted above, I think it might be interesting to sketch news delivery in the United States as it was around 1950.

Compared to today, as the title of this piece says, it was slow and seldom. At the time, it seemed perfectly fine, and an improvement over news delivery in, say, 1920. Of course it's helpful to remind ourselves that the 19th century experienced a huge improvement in the delivery of news. Aside from semaphore systems in parts of Europe, news traveled at the speed of horse and sailing ship in 1800. By 1900, telegraph systems using a combination of overhead wires and undersea cables fed spread news around the world in minutes.

That's not quite right. News could flash from an origin point to a receiving point, but it required further processing to deliver it to the population at large. That processing mechanism was the newspaper. At best, given the required processes of typesetting and printing (not to mention rewriting and editing), it might take a hour or more before even an "extra" edition with a new front page wrapper with a big headline and a few paragraphs of detail could hit the streets of a city.

This system prevailed during the last decades of the 1800s and into the 1920s. Radio news took a while to develop, but was in place in time for World War 2. Television news was emerging by 1950, though in general was little more that a televised version of a radio news program.

Here is how it was in 1950 for a typical moderate-to-large American city. There was more than one daily newspaper -- at least one each readied for delivery in the morning and evening. In Seattle, the morning paper was the Post-Intelligencer and the evening paper was the Times, which had a larger circulation. Back in those days, evening papers sometimes were dominant: I'm also thinking of the Bulletin in Philadelphia. Most papers had multiple editions that could be identified by a tag-line or a telltale (a number of black stars, say) atop the front page. Most of the content of the various editions was identical. What varied would be one or two sets of frontpage-endpage wrappers on the main news section and perhaps the sports section. These few pages could be changed fairly quickly and easily to update major news events and sports scores.

Thanks to those multiple editions, the coverage of morning and evening papers overlapped at the news stand level where news-hungry bypassers could hand over a nickle to keep well-informed. In Seattle, the evening Times would have its earliest edition on the streets by early afternoon. In New York, the morning Times would start appearing on Times Square news stands by 10 in the evening (that was the case in the early 1960s, anyway). The largest editions were geared for home delivery and issued according to a production schedule rather than a breaking-news basis.

Radio was far different than it is now. The most listened-to stations were usually network affiliates that were fed soap operas and game shows daytime, kiddie shows in after-school hours and comedy or drama programs in the evening. And the news? As I recall it, the pattern was three main 15-minute newscasts a day by the local station, usually at seven in the morning, noon, and around six in the evening. There were news/commentaries (Gabriel Heatter, Fulton Lewis, Jr. etc.) from the radio networks as well, also at scheduled times. In other words, there typically was no on-the-hour news summary and there were no all-news radio stations (that came in the 1960s).

Breaking news of real importance did occur and was quickly reported even in the 1930s, something Orson Welles took advantage of when crafting his famous War of the Worlds Halloween broadcast in 1938.

So news around 1950 was normally parcelled out at a few scheduled times a day by newspapers and broadcast media -- the exception being major breaking news. This meant that news-hungry people had to wait as patiently as they could until 6 p.m. or whenever the paper boy got around to tossing the evening paper on the front porch.

Needless to say, I much prefer the news delivery systems we have today.



posted by Donald at July 22, 2009


"Needless to say, I much prefer the news delivery systems we have today."

I don't know...I'd much rather sacrifice a lot of immediate access and abundance of what passes for 'news' today for the kind of quality journalism of days gone by. I've given up almost entirely on any television news, and I'm even losing patience with the Lehrer News Hour. I'm a little tired of the 'equal time' squaring off of a talking head on the right with another on the left, and no real digging for the underlying truth between them.

Posted by: KR on July 22, 2009 5:04 PM

A couple of years ago there was a discussion on a movie-blooper site I occasionally visited, involving a scene from The Godfather in which Michael Corleone, exiting a movie theater with his date, sees a newspaper headline reporting his father's shooting. It had to be a blooper, some people claimed, because the scene could not have occurred more than a few hours after the shooting. Others pointed out that in the movie's 1945 timeframe New York newspapers came out often enough that the scenario was quite possible. The screenwriters knew what they were doing.

Posted by: Peter on July 22, 2009 11:26 PM

The proliferation of news has had an even more insidious effect on society: the mistaken belief that "things were better in the old days". These codgers will point to the shootings in Columbine and Virginia Tech as evidence of our declining and more violent society. When, in fact, these are just evidence of our more prevalent access to distant news. The fact is, violent crime has been on a dramatic decline for decades.

It's an interesting twist that in a world with quick access to facts, disinformation spreads much, much faster.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on July 23, 2009 10:06 AM

Upstate Guy, I'm TOTALLY with you. I can't tell you how many times I've encountered parents who will not let their kids play outside alone for fear of kidnapping or some other such thing, and I tell them just what you mentioned. It was actually MORE dangerous to play outside when I was a kid in the 70s, when all we did was run wild from sun up until sundown. And this fear is absolutely due to the constant barrage of sensationistic "news" stories from the 24/7 grind of the news cycle. Have to fill up all that air time with something.

Posted by: JV on July 23, 2009 3:04 PM

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