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Maybe I was just in the right mood for a metaphor, or maybe the girl on the swing was just a girl on a swing.
But she bolstered my faith in the resurgence of newspapers.
On a chilly Saturday morning, as my wife, Sharon, and I walked past a park, we saw a 12-year-old whirling on the kind of swing set we remembered from our childhoods.
Later, as we passed in the opposite direction, the girl still was flying.
“Notice,” I said to Sharon, “no cellphone, no texting, no earbuds. She’s just swinging.”
When we were her age, the Cold War was raging, so all we had to worry about was nuclear holocaust; she is facing something much more perilous: social media.
Watching her, I thought: Maybe 1950s’ passions – swings and Elvis and TV dinners and newspapers – are making comebacks.
(Oops. Sorry, Elvis.)
It was a Saturday in the school year, so the girl had the day to herself. She could have stayed inside, warm and connected electronically to her friends, even her president.
Instead, she sought the yesteryear thrill of the swing.
It’s a metaphor for newspapers’ future.
First, a young person disdains social media in favor of real life.
Second, reading isn’t easy. Unlike zombieing in front of TV or YouTube, reading requires the mental labor of processing words arrayed in sentences, paragraphs and stories. Similarly, swinging requires arm strength, leg push, weight shift, balance and, that morning, a sweater.
The internet requires one finger’s movement.
Third, the girl’s swinging illustrates the line from the “Casablanca” song: “The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”
Take macaroni and cheese, long derided as the nutritional equivalent of cigarettes. Today even the most protective parents and renowned chefs are serving it, hoping arteries won’t notice.
Or records. Despite modern listening methods, music on vinyl, declared dead decades ago, is reviving. Magazines and newspapers say so.
And baseball. Prehistorically crowned “the national pastime,” baseball, we constantly hear, is archaic: too slow, too static, too Nixonian.
But we just had a second consecutive compelling World Series, as the Dodgers and Astros awakened the nation’s enthusiasm.
Newspapers are next.
Today a “newspaper” is not necessarily printed on paper. Although I personally despise reading the news on electronic screens, I’m 70, so my three-dailies-tossed-onto-the-driveway addiction will end someday (not soon, I hope).
But in some form – electronics, Morse Code, skywriting – aggressive, credible news reporting will not die with me. In the age of President Trump, it should thrive.
Already a Trump Bump is fueling circulation growth of large newspapers covering national politics.
They’re next. Trump’s electoral success will encourage local candidates to adopt his tactics. Not all will be Republicans; anyone with a political itch might conclude that boisterous name-calling and abstract vows to “Make (whatever) great again” can win.
(Although Virginia voters rejected Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, who acted like Trump, that won’t stop others from trying.)
More than ever, voters need sober coverage that cuts bombast down to size.
Why didn’t the coverage of candidate Trump thwart him?
At least in part because journalists didn’t know how to handle him. First they made fun of him, laughed at him. Later, they labeled him a sure loser. Recognize that millions of Americans are resentful because they’ve been laughed at, dismissed as losers, and you grasp why some identified with Trump.
But here’s one Trump loss: His excoriation of serious news organizations is fueling their revival. Voters are hungry for the very journalistic traits that would starve social media: care, substance, integrity, responsibility.
And no laughing.
Thoughtful local election coverage will attract thoughtful voters. When they come for the candidate stories, we woo them with the nonpolitical: creative features, analytical government stories, investigative projects. We expose local Harvey Weinsteins, the bullies and abusers.
But there’s more to my faith in newspapers than that.
Journalists see themselves as gritty realists and the rest of the population as delusional dreamers.
That’s so wrong. All of us, all Americans, are an illogical amalgam of trusting no one, yet trusting in a brighter future.
And that’s why readers are poised to come back to us.
You see, along with being skeptics, journalists are optimists. We are convinced our every story about social ills will cure them; convinced our every story about corruption will eradicate it; convinced our every story about decaying roads, bridges and utilities will repair them.
Even without immediate results, we persist, convinced our next stories, more powerful than those preceding, will make all the difference. Such displays of optimism and activism appeal to Americans, who know they want more but don’t always know what.
We fulfill the role of pointing them toward the what.
We owe such diligent coverage to all potential readers, and especially to one inspiring girl on a swing.
THE FINAL WORD: I once asked a crusty copy editor to help me come up with a fitting metaphor. “Metaphors?” he growled. “I don’t believe in them.”