Little Details (9/24/09)

Chasing dinosaurs

Sept. 24, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

There’s a dinosaur in my mailbox. It’s not a tyrannosaurus rex or a brontosaurus. My dinosaur has grown lighter, smaller over time with less “meat” clinging to its fossilizing bones. Blemishes appear with increasing frequency on its remaining bits of skin. I consider myself a paleontologist among a dying breed. My dinosaur is a printed daily newspaper.

I grew up in a house with limited newsprint. My sisters and I read cereal boxes at the breakfast table. I devoured the scant text, including ingredients, on Cap’n Crunch and Cheerios boxes, scrounging for words long before my bowl emptied. Books were discouraged at the breakfast table.

My dad sometimes bought a Boston Herald at Chet’s Corner Store after church on Sundays. I inhaled the comics — Peanuts was my favorite — along with fresh bulky rolls slathered in butter while “Litwin’s Polka Hour” blared on the AM radio.

In high school, my Contemporary Affairs teacher, Mr. Oleks, collected enormous stacks of tattered Boston Globe newspapers. Each day, upon arriving to class, we received one to read for homework before passing it on to a classmate the next day. “Current news” morphed into “recent history” depending on the age of the copy unearthed from the pile. It didn’t matter. Mr. Oleks simply wanted to get us in the habit of reading a daily newspaper.

I’d skim and zero in on two sections: obituaries and a column penned by Mike Barnicle. Reading obituaries proved a logical extension of my interest in history and biography. Lessons can be culled from other people’s lives. Obituaries offer a snapshot of a life lived — with gentle quietness or extravagance — instructive to readers.

Mike Barnicle drew me in with stories of Bostonians’ struggles to make ends meet. I vividly remember one on the plight of seniors living in a high rise with a broken elevator. Images of elders lugging grocery bags up multiple flights of stairs made a strong impression on me. I felt betrayed when, years later, Barnicle resigned amid charges of plagiarism. My challenge, in writing this column, is to offer words reflecting my honest perception without compromising truth.

By college, newspapers accompanied me on early morning jaunts to the cafeteria. I’d set the morning news aside when later-sleeping dorm mates surfaced for their share of corn flakes and toast. Later, in graduate school, the professor I worked for kept referencing New York Times articles, assuming I read them. I remember thinking, “I guess I should be reading that newspaper.” And so, I did.

My family receives several newspapers, including this one. Breakfast finds us sleepily hunched over weather and world events. Sundays we gather up our stash to linger over in a Burlington coffeehouse after church. I leave out articles or tear out photos that may be of particular interest to my daughter. I remember a story of a young girl in Afghanistan during Taliban rule who dressed as a boy when girls were forbidden to attend school. I want my daughter to learn of such stories.

Early morning, while still in bed, I sometimes listen for the “stop go, stop go” rhythm of our delivery person’s car or the reassuring tap of a Boston Globe landing on my front porch. I creep downstairs and scoop up the tangible time capsule. I like the smell of paper, the newsprint that clings to my fingers. I’m a visual, tactile learner. Interacting with the newspaper and tearing out articles helps me remember. Each edition is like a box of chocolates, each page revealing a new story.

Newspapers are experiencing a major paradigm shift. Some are successfully riding the Internet wave, enhancing online presence as they reach for younger audiences where print newspaper readership has fallen. Others, squeezed by declining advertising revenue, produce smaller, slimmer copy while operating with skeletal staffs.

Ernest Hemingway and Nellie Bly were supported by their editors to engage in time-intensive, costly investigative journalism that revealed deeper truths. Hemingway went to war. Bly checked into an insane asylum, exposing inhumane treatment of the mentally ill that led to reforms. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke Watergate. Will we see less of that over time? I wonder. It’s cheaper to pick up homogenized news from wire services.

As daily newspapers change, enhance online presence and, in some cases, disappear, I fear I’ll be the dinosaur at the breakfast table, reading by the blue glow of my laptop, longing for the spirits of newspapers past.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or