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Hoping my first newspaper lives to be 100

My high school yearbook had a section devoted to predictions on the future of graduating seniors — who would be president or maybe a star of stage, screen and radio. Mine predicted I would be “bylining in the Daily News.”

It didn’t happen, but I truly would have welcomed the experience. The Daily News was the paper I grew up with, the first paper I read or had read to me, starting with my grandfather reading the Sunday funnies, as the comic strips were then known, somewhere around 1937.

So, when the announcement came the other day that Tronc, the paper’s owner, would be cutting the staff in half in anticipation of ending the print edition, I took it personally.

Like many families in the Depression years, we lived near our grandparents, on the same street in North Bergen, N.J., and we had dinner with them every Sunday. Next to my grandmother’s leg of lamb and red cabbage or pot roast with macaroni and cheese, the major Sunday event for my brother and me was having the Sunday funnies read to us.

And what funnies they were. Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Harold Teen, Moon Mullins, Smokey Stover, Winnie Winkle, the Breadwinner, Smitty, the office boy, Gasoline Alley, Smilin’ Jack, the aviator and Andy Gump, “the well known chinless wonder,” as the song said. 

Most of the News funnies and I came along about the same time, in the early ’30s, although some, like Andy Gump and Gasoline Alley, first  appeared in the News’ sister paper, the Chicago Tribune, before the News appeared in 1919 as the nation’s first tabloid.  

But all of the funnies owed their success to one man, the paper’s founder Joseph Patterson, the Groton- and Yale-educated newspaperman with an understanding and appreciation of his audience, hard–working, not well–educated, new Americans because, as Lincoln said, God “made so many of them.”  Patterson had Lincoln’s words carved over the entrance of the News building as a tribute to those readers. And more than 70 percent of them read the funnies — even more on Sundays. 

Telling a story with a series of pictures is said to have originated with the Bayeux tapestries in the Middle Ages and newspaper funnies date back at least to The Yellow Kid in 1890. The kid was so popular, Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s Journal ran competing versions of the cartoon as the first volley in a circulation war that inspired the term “yellow journalism” and helped start the 1898 war with Spain.

But it was Patterson who developed the comics page and section into a circulation driver. The Sunday funnies became so important that newspaper dealers customarily folded the main section of the paper into the funnies section, leaving Dick Tracy as the main attraction for buyers.

Young readers like me moved from reading the funnies to reading the sports pages and then, some of us went to other papers. My father brought home the World-Telegram every night and I was introduced to more news, discovered the great war correspondent Ernie Pyle and became a newspaper addict.

But the News prospered without me. Its letters to the editor section, known as the Voice of the People, became a regular feature on late night television with Steve Allen joyfully reading the News readers’ more outrageous observations. By the ’50s, the paper was even being sung about, in the title song of the popular musical, “Guys and Dolls”:

“What’s in the Daily News? 

I’ll tell you what’s in the Daily News. 

Story about a man bought his wife a small ruby 

With what otherwise would have been his union dues. 

That’s what’s in the Daily News.”

But the song also contained ominous lines about the future, with: 

“What’s happening all over? 

I’ll tell you what’s happening all over. 

Guy sitting home by a television set 

That used to be something of a rover.”

That guy and too many others like him soon found his television set provided much of the entertainment and juicy news he had come to expect from his favorite newspaper and newspaper reading began to drop, especially at the Daily News. The paper had reached a peak of more than 2 million in 1947 — 4 million on Sunday, up from 200,000 in its first year.

In 1920, there were a dozen or so daily newspapers in the city, today there are three: the News, Times and Post and the News circulation has dropped back to what it was in 1919-20, 207,000. The Post is barely ahead of the News at 230,000.  

The “failing” New York Times is down to 551,000 readers of its daily print edition but it has a thriving digital edition of 2.6 million digital only readers and growing, giving it the largest combination of print and digital readers of any American paper.  

Daily newspapers are heading in the all digital direction; the question is only when. Sentimentally, I hope the print edition of my first newspaper makes it to its 100th anniversary in 2019.

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.