It’s hardly news that print media has been in steady decline ever since the moment that the ball came down in Times Square on December 31, 1999, and the world realized that these newfangled computers were not going to all crash and were here to stay. This morning, further proof arrived when Mort Zuckerman’s US News And World Report, always the straggler in circulation among the three newsweeklies, announced that it was switching to monthly publication to better focus on its more popular features such as its college ratings.
But today also saw a moment – perhaps not a defining moment of the kind our President-elect likes to mention, but a moment nonetheless – when that decline was reversed, if only for a day.
Usually, when I stop at the 7-11 or proceed to the snack room adjoining the cafeteria at my place of work to pick up the Washington Post or Washington Times, there are plenty of papers to be had – and in the case of the 7-11, that includes the Baltimore Sun and New York Times or News or Post and the Wall Street Journal and USA Today too. But this morning all the papers were gone. Every one. “The Post said they might bring some more,” the clerk said.
So I walked a block to the Tastee Diner, where vending machines outside stock most of these papers as well as the Washington Post’s giveaway daily Express and the DC edition of Philip Anshutz’s Examiner. But again, there were no papers to be had – except one single copy of the Examiner.
What all these newspapers had in common this morning was that the face of President-elect Obama was on the front page. And, according to the New York Times website today, millions of people across the country were buying a paper – any paper, as long as Obama was on it – and taking it home to put in a plastic bag, much as many people did when JFK or Bobby Kennedy or Martin Luther King died or, in fewer numbers, when Elvis moved on to the Promised Land – or when President Nixon resigned.
According to the Times article, the Washington Post anticipated extra demand today and printed 30,000 copies to supplement the 100,000 normally circulated. These were all gone by mid-morning, and lines started forming at the door of the Post building and stretching for blocks as people sought a newspaper. So the Post printed a special edition in 100,000 copies, selling it for $1.50 instead of the usual 50 cents. That flew out of the newsstands and grocery stores as well. By afternoon the paper was ordering another 350,000 copies.
Brian Williams noted on NBC tonight that the demand for newspapers today is of a scale not seen since the day following 9/11 – but, as he pointed out, for a much happier reason.
It’s hard to picture a situation where this phenomenon will be repeated – for one thing it seems pretty unlikely that huge numbers of Americans will put a newspaper announcing the election of the first female President (whether Gov. or perhaps Sen. Sarah Palin, ex-Justice Hillary Clinton, or someone else) into baggies to keep in the attic. But at least for today, the newspaper, as the old riddle has it, was black and white and, if not re(a)d, at least in demand all over.