So, I was binge watching M*A*S*H the other night (don’t judge me, Jack. I know what YOU watch in the wee small hours) and I happened upon an episode called “Communication Breakdown.” 

In this one, the men and women of the 4077th were disgruntled and depressed because no second class mail was coming through — no newspapers for anyone, in other words, and that meant significant pain and suffering. 

And I mean there was real agony. Crusty Col. Potter was distraught because he had been following the torrid romance of Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae in the comic section. 

“For all I know,” Potter crabbed, “they’re already postnuptializing at the honeymoon suite of the Dogpatch Hilton.” 

Hawkeye was desperate for the sports section. B.J. Hunnicutt craved the the crossword puzzle. Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, meanwhile, was hot after the fashion section, and about a hundred surly G.I’s just wanted some news from home. 

Here were a bunch of men and women enduring hell in the Korean war zone, but what upset them the most was the absence of a news periodical, constructed entirely of paper, that kept them connected them to the world beyond their small corner of Korea. 

Tempers flared. Fights broke out. Many a scheme was hatched to pilfer the handful of newspapers known to be hidden away by the pompous and greedy Major Charles Emerson Winchester III. 

But Winchester was unyielding.  

“Gentlemen,” he declared all lofty-like, “tea and an unthumbed newspaper are among the few remnants of civilization left that allow me to face the day.” 

Things got unruly. By the end of the episode, even the camp priest wasn’t above swiping a few pages of newspaper copy he spotted laying on another man’s bunk. 

It used to be that way, you know. The physical newspaper, folded into its familiar and comforting square, used to be a highly coveted thing. It was the only source of up-to-date news, after all, that could be examined anywhere, at any time of day or night, at the reader’s leisure.  

You’d see entire families scrapping over different sections around the breakfast table. Dad wanted to catch up on the sports scores and woe unto he who tried to stop him. Mom wanted to scan the headlines and maybe check out the day’s specials at the market. The teens were after the movie listings while older in-laws would tear lustily into the obituaries to see which of their friends they had outlasted. 

Just like we saw at the 4077th, there would be bickering over the comics section, the crossword puzzle, the classifieds. Whether you were at home, in an airport terminal or at the dentist’s office, an intact newspaper was a rare find, and if you happened to get your hands on one, brother, you were the champ for a little while. 

The newspaper was a vital ingredient in the day-to-day routines of millions of people. If a paper carrier failed to deliver the day’s news to a doorstep on even just a single morning, there would be hell to pay. Complaints would be lodged. Voices would be raised and heads would roll. It’s still like that, somewhat, for folks who prefer to get their news in paper form, but back in the day when newspapers were king, a botched delivery meant real calamity. 

And it wasn’t just the news, you’d miss, it was more than that. A newspaper was something with which a person could have an intimate relationship. Maybe you’d spread the whole thing out across your knees while you were still burrowed under your bed blankets first thing in the morning. Maybe you preferred to take in the news section-by-section while sitting in your easy chair after a long day at the office. There was something ritualistic about the way people approached their newspaper. Something sacred. 

“I grew up with inky elbows,” says my wife, who began reading the paper, leaning-in style, as soon as she was old enough to read.

Me, I always took to the floor to read my news. I’d spread the entire paper in front of me, sitting cross-legged and spending an hour or more reading every single item from front to back while sipping coffee or beer, depending on the time of day. By the time I was done, I’d feel stuffed full, as though I’d just eaten a giant meal.  

But it wasn’t food that fulfilled me, it was information. After one floor session with the day’s rag, I’d know who had been arrested in my little city and who had died. I’d have a better understanding of what was going on in the atrociously boring world of politics, I’d know how close to the bottom the Kansas City Royals were on that particular day, I’d find out what Calvin and Hobbes were up to and I’d get the delight of finding out why a certain former mayor was not allowed to write letters to the editor anymore. 

All of that in one long gulp. Reading the newspaper was an enriching time out. One didn’t just glance at the headlines or scroll through the bullet points of a story; one indulged completely, engaging in an unrestrained orgy of news and entertainment in his own personal way. 

Newspapers aren’t dead yet, it’s true. The Sun Journal, for one, still has plenty of subscribers who prefer newsprint to the ePaper. I hear from them now and then, and God bless these people. They still take the time to scissor out stories that they liked or didn’t like. They’ll still snip out comic strips that tickled them and hang them on their refrigerators. They still do the crossword puzzle with a pen, occasionally poking the tip right through the paper when they get overly excited about a breakthrough. 

But the all out passion for papers, the kind seen over there at the 4077th in Korea when deliveries were halted, isn’t what it once was. You probably won’t see many fistfights break out over a sports section at the pub. Why get to brawling over something, after all, that you can easily find on your phone, tablet or office PC? 

Me, I stopped getting a newspaper on my doorstep three or four years ago. These days, I get my daily news condensed through an impersonal feed reader that thinks it knows better than I do what I want to read first. And maybe it does, which is just downright creepy. 

Reading news through a digital medium is long on efficiency but short on charm. There’s a certain just-the-facts discipline about it that discourages dawdling when dawdling was always the kind of fun of reading a newspaper. 

And to those of you who are still doing it old-style, my paper hat is off to you. I guess the rest of us will learn the error of our ways when the grid goes down and there’s no longer an internet to churn out the chunks of information we’ve all come to rely on. 

When that happens, we’ll all go running back to paper with desperation in our hearts and the Charles Emerson Winchesters of the world will be on top again. 

I call dibs on the funnies. 

When he’s not busy missing the 1900s, Mark LaFlamme is the crime reporter for the Sun Journal.


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