Scratch a speechwriter and you'll find a newspaper reader.
That thought occurred to me after Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post, stunning and scaring the media world.
The news took me back to age 10, when I got a job delivering the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Patriot and Evening News. It was the most important moment of my youth. The second-most important was when I bought my first Mad magazine, but I digress.
It was an afternoon paper -- remember those? -- with weekend morning editions. I would wake up early with my dad to put those Sunday supplements together on the redwood bench on our carport. Everything from Elvis's death to Princess Diana's wedding passed through my ink-smudged shoulder-slung gray canvas bag.
Sure, I learned about work and commitment and money. Above all, I read. And I learned. The newspaper gave me nosebleed seats to world history, from the Carter malaise through the Reagan recovery. Great opinion voices like Mike Royko and George Will and Georgie Anne Geyer and Molly Ivins taught me how the world worked. When the Three Mile Island accident closed our school, I simply got off the bus, walked to my corner by the 7-Eleven, snipped the white plastic cord, and loaded my bag with the news.
Later, in college, newspapers would steer me toward a career in politics. They would hone my sense of humor thanks to legends like Dave Barry and Berkeley Breathed. And they would teach me how to report and write my own bylined stories as a sleepy summer intern for the now-forgotten Washington Inquirer.
After serving on the Bush-Quayle presidential campaign in 1988, I interviewed for a position in the White House Press Office. My future boss asked my former boss if I was a news junkie. "Well, I don't know," he said, "but every time he picked me up for work he was reading The Washington Post while he drove."
I got the job.
I smile when I remember the nights I would arrive at the Post building on 15th, pop a quarter in the machine, pull out the bulldog edition, and walk across Lafayette Park to summarize the news for the president. In the wee hours I would sift through a dozen newspapers and yards of wire copy (AP, UPI, Reuters, Knight-Ridder) to make my 6:00 a.m. deadline. If I missed by even five minutes I would face the specter of an impeccably dressed Ed Rogers, deputy to the chief of staff, reading his own copy of the Post, looking at his watch and shaking his head.
The habit of reading newspapers lasts a lifetime, even if the newspapers do not. The afternoon edition of my hometown paper folded years ago. The Patriot-News, which broke the Jerry Sandusky story, now publishes three times a week. Tweens carrying canvas bags have been replaced by middle-aged men dumping papers off trucks.
The Washington Post has shed nearly 40 percent of its daily print readers since 2000. And yet people like me read more than ever. It's just in a different format.
The death of the newspaper had been predicted before. Many people felt that TV would do it in. The year that All the President's Men lionized Woodward, Bernstein, and Bradlee of the Post, another movie, Network, satirized a boob tube-blighted future where suicidal kooks would lead us to ruin.
Funny that another electronic box, one known at the time for printing paychecks and playing Pong, would do the deed. Massive masthead mastodons now stumble to keep up with fleet basement bloggers. Internet publications like Politico create most of the buzz in this town; just read This Town. Hell, this piece took only an hour to write, because I looked up the facts online.
But a newspaper remains, to this moment, the single best way you can spend a quarter (okay, 75 cents, shut up). Much better than spending it on those video games I once played at the 7-Eleven, but I digress again.
As the Post changed hands to a computer king, its ink-stained wretches, past and present, shed a virtual tear. Although I never worked in its newsroom, one of those ink-stained wretches was me.