There was a time if you saw “Breaking News” flash across your television screen, the words meant hold onto your hat. Something big has happened. Think Kennedy assassination. The first one. Disrupting American life in the middle of the afternoon. JFK’s death in 1963 was my introduction to breaking news and that news came via television. I had no smart phone to receive the information. No one did. Big stories broke on television.
During the weekend of the Kennedy assassination, people would turn away from their TVs to pour over print coverage. Newspapers retained an important position in the dissemination of information, but movies no longer included montages of bundles of papers with huge headlines being thrown from the back of a truck to a waiting public. More likely, a movie included a scene where crowds gathered outside a shop window to watch a television report. As the years went on, newspapers shared their role as town crier with television news.
As a kid who never lived in a house without a TV, I only I recall getting breaking news via newspaper on two occasions.
The last time was when Princess Diana died in 1997. That happened because I was visiting friends whose copies of the New York Times and the Washington Post arrived before they turned on their TV. Once we saw the headlines, we gathered around the television.
The only other event I learned about through a newspaper was the explosion of the Challenger.
In 1986, I was in Hong Kong on a business trip on January 28th. I’d called our office shortly after 11am, New York time. Around 11:30 I hung up and basically collapsed into sleep. Less than ten minutes later, the Challenger blew up over Florida.
When I awoke in the morning, I stumbled out of bed towards the bathroom. My eyes were barely open but I saw a newspaper had been slipped under my door. I glanced at it and kept going. After a few steps, I stopped. That headline was huge. Something had happened. I reversed direction and saw there was, in fact, breaking news.
I remember that moment clearly. Yes, because of the tragedy. But, also because of the way I learned about it. I felt as if I’d traveled back into another era. Reacting to that headline—not sure if it said Challenger Disaster or Challenger Explodes—made me nostalgic for an era that my parents had lived through but I had only seen in movies.
I grew up with television but I loved newspapers. Still do. I know that online editions have made it possible to report breaking news twenty-four hours a day, but it isn’t the same. I could go on and on about how valuable back copies of newspapers are when trying to get a full picture of an era, but that is not what I am thinking about. I am not really thinking. I am feeling. I am feeling sentimental. And, in a strange way, grateful that I had an experience that was not of my time.