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Stick with newspapers

Citizen Staff Writer
Off the Beat

Newspapers are the first draft of history. The Internet is not. A newspaper told you, and still tells you, that Frank Sinatra died the same day the final episode of “Seinfeld” aired. Ol’ Blue Eyes closed his eyes about an hour or so after Jerry and the gang signed off.

That May 16, 1998, issue of the Los Angeles Times gave nearly as much space to the seven-player trade sending Mike Piazza from the Dodgers to the Florida Marlins, later regarded as the worst deal in Dodger history.

Frank got prime placement on the Saturday front page, another four pages inside, plus six more pages in the Calendar section, and Mike got one column above the fold plus a seven-page Sports Extra.

Seinfeld most likely got bumped off the Calendar front to the second page to make way for the “Requiem for a Saloon Singer,” but he did get a tiny blurb at the bottom of Page One.

The Internet does not easily reveal these parallel happenings that unfold before you when you flip through a yellowing newspaper. Newspapers document a day in history in a way you don’t achieve on the Internet – or if you don’t have newspapers.

Googling “Sinatra death” does not turn up what else happened that day.

“I think the newspaper is the last mass medium that is as encompassing as it is,” said Linda Lumsden, a University of Arizona assistant professor teaching press history. “I think it’s going to be narrowing. People are going to be limiting themselves to a much more finite world.”

The Internet compartmentalizes news. Newspapers set the happenings of the world side by side.

You flip through a newspaper and stumble upon things. The Sinatra issue, in the smallest type, listed the college softball tournament games, where No. 1 seed Arizona (59-3) faced off against Niagara. More relevant to me: No. 3 Cal was playing Cal State Northridge.

The Preakness was that day. Real Quiet, the 5-2 favorite trained by former Tucsonan Bob Baffert, would go on to win.

Volkswagen announced a recall of all the new Beetles soon after reintroducing the Beetle after a 20-year hiatus.

The big “news” that day was the condemnation of nuclear tests in India, with a second story where Pakistan said it was in no rush to test atomic weapons.

“You have a permanent record with newspapers,” said David Gibbs, a UA assistant professor of history and political science. “Things disappear on the Internet all the time.”

Who thoroughly clicks their way through the maze of an online paper? If it’s not on the home page, reader clicks diminish precipitously.

“I will say, too, it is possible to search all these papers (online), but you have to want to,” Lumsden said in defense of the Internet.

I bought the May 16, 1998, L.A. Times for a single reason: Sinatra’s death.

I’ve had a 30-plus-year fascination with going through old papers and being surprised to find something familiar but entirely unrelated in the same issue.

Such as the day Grace Kelly died as covered by the L.A. Times on Sept. 15, 1982. That front page also reported the first day of USA Today publication and Ted Turner announcing his TNT network, but for Angelenos the dominant headline went to the bus driver strike that stranded 1.2 million riders.

TV anchor Jessica Savitch’s death hit a rare double newsworthy days. She shared the front page with 186 Marines getting killed in Beirut in the Oct. 24, 1983, issue, and the next day a second-day Savitch story shared an issue with the U.S. invading Grenada and the shooting of legendary L.A. news anchor Jerry Dunphy, who always opened his newscasts with “From the desert to the sea to all of Southern California . . .”

For those who think newspapers have no value in preserving history, bookstores are selling the New York Times from the day President Obama was elected for $14.95.

“That’s very telling,” Lumsden said. “When something big happens, people want to save the paper.”

For the record: Lumsden couldn’t find the Nov. 5, 2008, full print edition online.

Teya Vitu was a history major at UC Berkeley (Go Bears!) and for the time being covers downtown for the Tucson Citizen.

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