I grew up in a home that smelled of space, books and newspapers. The scent, not the kind to be bottled was in every nook of the ancient bungalow but it all came together in the living room with its high ceiling and cavernous shelves of hardbound encyclopaedia and vintage editions. It was here that the most important ritual of the day unfolded, that of reading a newspaper.
If we woke up early enough there was a glimpse of the unruffled stack: ideology, leanings, vernacular, sports, all converged in a precarious heap on the ageing maroon Afghan carpet like a gift waiting to be unwrapped every morning. There were not many takers for business news though, three generations of journalists lived and breathed passionate politics.
The silence was comfortable yet unbroken as my grandfather and father read each paper without breaking thought or sharing one. Occasionally there was a slight ruffle from behind a newspaper as a hand came out to sip from a glass of morning tea. Among the pile on the carpet was also the family Hindi newspaper Pratap, once also published in Urdu.
Changing landscape of newspapers
As the day broke, other family members bustled in making their way and finding a spot. No one questioned what the other was reading, so long as a newspaper was picked up.
Legacies are not just from historical events or famous names; an environment where reading and questioning are encouraged is no less an inheritance. In our family shop talk was taken along to the dining table where newspaper headlines were dissected, and politics debated. It is no different today.
Simmering hot or brutally cold - Punjab flirts with everything but spring - the living room stoically withstood the daily rhythm. When we chased the sun, the stack could be found on an antique wooden table on the veranda, the chairs around it becoming an ever-expanding circle.
When I first gave into the inevitable, I read the paper backwards. Sports was my first love, and I was in it for the scores and everything that the three sports magazines that were delivered home weekly didn’t tell me. But it was only a matter of time.
My first piece in a newspaper was published when I as a 17-year old had already seen terrorism knocking on our doors in Punjab. One day hand-written, I put it all on paper with a hastily scribbled address of an editor gleaned from the bottom column of a national daily. Then I forgot about it. It made the middle.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
Nostalgia. It is that place where good memories stay, often making an entry much before we would like them to. They say it is now time for newspapers to find their corner for print is slowly dying. ‘They’ are probably right, and Tennyson’s words ring true, ‘The old order changeth yielding place to new,’ he didn’t mention that we had to like it though, ‘Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?’
In recent times the writing on the wall has been more than the fine print, it has almost been the screaming headline. Newspapers survived the entry of broadcast media and its inflated paycheck but the reader has let it down. Commercialisation was the first body blow, journalism for passion’s sake was no longer absolute.
Pratap folded up after a 98- year luminous journey that began in Lahore in pre-partition India, the world’s oldest newspaper, the 319-year-old Austrian Wiener Zeitung is ceasing its print edition.
The daily began publication in 1703 and was as much a part of history as the history it covered for its readers. Recently, Gulf News has been unfortunately forced to stop printing its weekend edition.
So much will be lost with the phasing out of newspapers. Communities were built over a daily, whether it was the animated chatter at the local barber shop or the retired getting together on the bench in the park. Local editions allowed for a shared experience, today we are more isolated, reading in silos on our tablets and phones. Social ties are tenuous and our connections, feeble.
Digital is the new frontier; the option is to either swim in the unknown waters or sink. It satiates the craving fuelled by social media of instant turnaround and could eventually fix the broken business model for journalists too need to feed families. Whether it allows for ownership of stories the way a newspaper reporter fought for his byline is too early to say.
As global discourse nosedives, from now on how news craving is satisfied is a personal challenge. You can click to enter but in the vast expanse on offer, only the discerning will double click to exit. Loyalty without the pull of misinformation is yet to be tested and not just on the younger generations.
Will long format survive?
My childhood was not just the newspapers, every weekly magazine that hit the shelves also made its way home. From Time, Newsweek to Reader’s Digest the latest cover was grabbed with excitement. Will long format survive a generation that gets its news from Instagram and medical advice from TikTok?
India’s independence was also fought through its newspapers, a majority of which were published in Urdu. The language faces an existential crisis, many of those papers are part of a bygone era and the story of freedom is itself shaky, pushed and nudged in a political endgame.
History like India’s though was universal, its tumultuous period shared globally through striking mastheads and stark headlines. It is this mantle that the digital inherits.
Loyal readers will reminisce about how easily and forever they have been losing themselves in a newspaper or how the morning begins only with one in hand.
From its obituary columns to matrimonial classifieds, it is a destination in itself, transcending from the sombre to the absurd in the turn of a page.
An obituary of the newspaper would be the unkindest cut of all.