LAUTENS: The initial rough draft of history begins with your newspaper

"The first rough draft of history.” That astute description of newspapers, from the word lathe of Stuart Keate, whose career ran light-of-step from Time Canada to publisher of the Victoria Times and Vancouver Sun, was so brilliant that a Webster’s dictionary edition of 45-odd years ago quoted it.

Discovering it, I humped the heavy book to his Sun office. He was unaware of this accolade. Was pleased. Word-wielders of all stripes like praise for ideas they’ve created in loneliness.

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And ringingly accurate it is. Newspapers are inherently the best media of events on their way to the history books, presenting the news of contemporary opinion, taste, habits, fashions, amusements, celebrities, restaurants, politics, business and its crashes, wars and their cruelty, pets and their care, sports and their heroes, cartoons and their pith, and not to overlook the crossword and other puzzles that some readers turn to first (I live with one).

This embraces both big metropolitan and local papers, whose reporters, photographers and others, by the way – like this paper’s past and present Jane Seyd, Brent Richter, Jeremy Shepherd, Andy Prest, Mike Wakefield, Brendan McAleer, Paul Sullivan, Chris Dagenais, Julie Crawford and more – are often as skilled journalists as any in the big dailies.

Radio? A sage once smartly described it as not providing the news, just alerting you to it. (Some of the ideologically mandated and twisted “news” on State Radio CBC gives news a bad name, albeit high credit for other CBC fare, but that’s for another day.) Television? Colourful pictures, shallow context. Social media? Greatest gift ever for anonymous libellers and character assassins from the nut hatchery.

Only the newspapers have the reach to do a pretty consistent job of assembling deeper and wider reportage. And while the dailies report education, the community paper reports schools – Jack and Jill’s local school; the dailies, big TSX business, while the community paper marks Sam and Lily’s grocery store’s 40th anniversary; the dailies trumpet the major leagues, but the local paper’s readers know there’s nothing nicer than women’s field hockey or sunny ball games at parks like West Van’s Rutledge Field.

Newspaper editors have an eye for events of interest in their circulation zones, choosing which to fill their valuable space. And how to “play” the chosen: Page 1 lede story – the trade’s spelling – the banana riots in Volcanovia? Or the Volcanovian immigrant who saved Donald Trump from drowning in the White House pool? (No, no, that way lies madness.) Or, below the fold, the bottom zipper, often witty, whimsical or wild? Like  the local classic of 50 years ago, about a Murphy bed that abruptly snapped shut at an inopportune moment on a pair who until then weren’t even good friends.

And not to glamourize the trade (please, don’t say profession). Journalists tend to sardonic humour. H.L. Mencken recalled in Newspaper Days a Baltimore Sun staffer’s take: “It’s a lousy career, but it’s a great job.”

A more dignified view: Dr. Johnson, in a 1750 essay in The Rambler, skilfully worked up his lede to note “a species in human form,” who “seem to be settled in an opinion that the great business of life is to complain ... to disturb the happiness of others ... by painful remembrances of the past, or melancholy prognostics of the future ... with the hateful dross of grief and suspicion.” Johnson superbly called them “the screech-owls of mankind.” But it becomes clear whom he’s describing – one himself, by any term.

   He meant columnists. Thankfully, the reporters of the trade are doing God’s work, as some newspaper people say with only slight humour or blasphemy. The serious importance of the non-metropolitan press is to inform, edify, socialize, and ultimately shape their smaller community, beckoning in the reader with the deft lede and the human element that illustrates and brings to local earth a complex issue. Imperfect like all media, of course, especially when I disagree with them.

The North Shore News has become a priceless (literally – no charge) institution since its humble start in 1969 with the daring vision of Peter Speck. He’d spent much of his working life lying on cold garage floors under cranky cars, and fortunately was equipped with no prior newspaper experience. Fortunate, because none of the old-guard publishers would have dared to create a new North Shore paper against established competition. No one has told the start-from-the-cold-ground-up story as frankly as Speck, who in earliest days delivered the product himself.

Today almost all newspapers are struggling. In my eager youth nobody would believe that Canada’s biggest daily – then in the golden age of Pierre Berton, Robert Fulford, Nathan Cohen, and dare I say Gary Lautens – by 2020 would be a penny stock.

So a standing ovation for present North Shore News publisher Peter Kvarnstrom for candidly reaching out to  community businesses and especially old and new advertisers – who have, to this citizen’s gratitude and appreciation, wonderfully responded. They’ve given readers like me, prone at my age to stick to well-worn paths, fresh ideas for goods, activities and unsampled restaurants.

The huge problem begins with the totally unlevel advertising and taxation playing field, more like a precipice, that newspapers face – at the crest, the giant tech companies (Fortune magazine dubbed them “the Silicon Six”) using legal loopholes to shrink their taxes. So plug the holes. France will. Canada should.

Acknowledgment: I owe every mouthful of food since birth, ultimately every nickel of assets, to newspapers. Mine is a newspaper family, founded exactly a century ago. In 1920 my father Joseph, age 15, got a job in the Winnipeg Free Press office of The Canadian Press news agency. It’s family lore that his father asked: “But is it permanent, Joe?” Joe’s answer took 50 years, when – a teletype operator and mechanic, high-tech stuff – he retired as CP’s longest-serving employee. Early on, he’d met Bertha George, working in circulation for The Prairie Farmer, a Free Press paper. They married and ...  stop. No more. Off-theme. Anyway, no space even to name three generations of my newspaper kin.

Hold on! As I write this, word arrives that a piece by young grand-niece Annika – who had barely joined a glossy up-market magazine when the present pandemic snuffed it – ran in Saturday’s Toronto Star. A fourth generation!

Writing these paragraphs, I shed unmanly tears.  

Editor’s note: Local news has never been more important. Contribute at

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