Surveys say fewer and fewer Americans read newspapers (if we can believe what we read in the newspapers). And no wonder.

Last year, The Kalamazoo Gazette published a series on heavy drinking by college kids. Imagine that! College kids! Heavy drinking! Who knew? A staff writer and photographer went to observe a game of “beer pong” (investigative journalism at its finest) then later confessed (when put to the stake) that whilst observing said “beer pong” they had a glass or two of the stuff that made Milwaukee famous. The editor and the publisher— let’s call them Cotton and Increase Mather— fired the miscreants.

Naturally, this got me thinking about the sorry state of the Fourth Estate. At the first daily newspaper I worked for, The Central Maine Morning Sentinel, all hands drank— and often— on the job, with the exception of the wire editor, an old man who had come to us after many years in the vineyards of The Christian Science Monitor. We thought him strange.

The composing room was right out of the Barbary Coast in the days of ’49. A seasoned Linotype operator could sprint down two flights of stairs, cross Silver Street, dash into the Pine Tree Tap, drink two glasses of Rheingold Extra Dry and return to the office in 10 minutes flat (a legal union break called “a ten”). Several of “the Olympians” in our midst could run to the Bob Inn— a distance of four football fields— and return in similar time. And these yeomen smoked two packs of Chesterfields in a shift! Skeptics may scoff, but I have seen such wonders with my own eyes.

Yes, giants once walked the earth. When I joined the Associated Press in 1977, being drunk was not a disgrace but an achievement. At the AP in Hartford, Conn., the nearest bar to the Statehouse was a greasy boite called Mr. Kenny’s. In those pre-cell-phone days, the clerks at the legislature would call Mr. Kenny’s and the bartender would turn down the jukebox and bellow, ROOOOOOLL CALL. And the bar would empty as the scribes and Pharisees returned to their labors.

Indeed, in the Statehouse pressroom, any occasion was occasion for the cup that cheers. During the high holidays, Groundhog Day and St. Patrick’s Day, many could not walk, much less type, by mid-afternoon. An ancient Scotsman who represented the fabled New Haven Register, kept a flagon of powerful rail scotch called Highland Fling in his desk— made in the highlands of Peoria, Ill., by elves. The reporters called him Old Mr. Boston, but not to his face. At 5 o’clock in the afternoon, Mr. Boston would distribute a paper cone (from the water cooler) of Highland Fling, for those in need. Many were.

At the AP in Baltimore during Preakness Week, when the nation’s sportswriters— journalism’s pirates— visited, it was not uncommon to bail a hack out of jail. And it was standard practice to squire pilgrims to The Block to experience its charms. A tender maid sent to us by a journalism school as an intern wrote on her evaluation that she’d never heard fouler language than in our office. Flattered, we posted her encomium on the bulletin board for all to see.

Alas, today there are greater problems besetting Grub Street, as George Gissing called it, than the fatal glass of beer taken at Kalamazoo. After World War II, the press critic for The New Yorker—A.J. Liebling— forecast the coming of what he called “a one-newspaper town.” He was thought quite mad, but he was right. Mr. Liebling also observed that freedom of the press belongs to whoever owns the press. He was right about that, too.

Competition between newspapers has all but disappeared. Circulation is in free fall. Ditto advertising revenues. Most cities— like Baltimore— are onenewspaper towns and that newspaper also owns the weekly newspapers that encircle the city. Add to this the disappearance of the afternoon newspaper— Charm City had two PMers, as they were called, 25 years ago and they were once the dominant fish wrappers. Blame TV. The “alternative press” of the toomuch- vaunted 1960s and early 1970s has long ceased to be alternative and are now just chain-owned throwaways full of apocryphal sex advice columns.

Most newspapers, owned by chains, are bland, timid and predictable. Witness The Sun, which, at a speed that would have impressed Dale Earnhardt, went from “Light for All” to “Lite for All.”

We’ve lived to see “the Stoufferization” of the newspaper. Like frozen food, you just pop it in the microwave. It’s the same tasteless mush with no nutritive value in Sarasota as in Spokane: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onion, et cetera.

But the prigs and mewlers who now run this sorry business wag their little fingers over two rookies having a couple of beers. If I were doing life without parole in Kalamazoo, I might take the stirrup cup, too.

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