The death of a newspaper hits me as hard as the death of a friend.

Every now and then, a platitude captures reality, and the old saying – that newspapers are the first draft of history – is one of those high-performance cliches. And this first draft involves a lot more than record-keeping.

We all run around in the course of a normal day, trying to make the world a better place, snarling ourselves up in detail, misunderstanding each other and inadvertently stirring up trouble, doing our best to remember our principles and to steer by them if we can manage, in the midst of frenzied activity, to remember what they were.

On the morning after such a day, an understandable first impulse is to say, “Whew. Glad that’s over. Now on to today’s frenzy, whatever that turns up to be.”

But if you have the right habits, that first shallow impulse barely gets going before you walk out your door and pick up the paper. With this ritual, you are saved from racing off into the day in the manner captured in another very accurate platitude: “Act in haste; repent at leisure.” Instead, you have given yourself a few minutes to reflect on the events of the preceding day and to place your own life in the context of local, national and international events.

With utter reliability, a whole bunch of people worked hard, and some of them stayed up late and some of them got up very early, in order to place the human race’s collective diary for yesterday in your front yard and to provide you with this morning moment of orientation.

For a significant number of people, the Internet is providing a similar, maybe better, form of this ritual. Why do we need an antiquated, physical object called a newspaper when Web sites and blogs are proliferating, and reactions to and opinions and interpretations of yesterday’s events are shouting and competing for the attention of the search engines?


Because the newspaper offers an opportunity to think that is the opposite of all the proliferating, shouting and competing of Web sites and blogs. Because the newspaper lets a person sit, often in the company of family, and think about one thing at a time, with the turning of pages permitting a sequence of tranquil thought that cannot keep its grip in the midst of clicking on this and clicking on that.

And, just as important, we are down to a very few social institutions in which the prompt acknowledgment and correction of error is a primary professional obligation. In other lines of work, the flubbing of a fact or the misrepresenting of another person’s position can present itself as an occasion for vigorous spin control or as a time to keep quiet about the problem until attention dies down. Newspapers have an obligation to leap into action to correct their errors with a sense of responsibility that does not burden the souls of many of the opinion-dispersers on the Internet.

So I dread the loss of accountability that will accompany the disappearance of newspapers. We have an abundance of Web sites and blogs available to confirm and ratify every preference, prejudice, bias and preconception. There is, meanwhile, a scarcity of mechanisms, tools and strategies that will be able to reunite human communities under circumstances in which holders of every imaginable point of view can find all they want in the way of electronic validation, and can simply steer clear of challenges to their certainty.

Not having figured out how to steer clear of those challenges to certainty, I can easily imagine how my love for newspapers reveals my status as a dinosaur, a casualty of progress and a nostalgiac of the first order. And, in truth, as a Western American historian, I do have a properly hardhearted understanding that industries, occupations and professions come and go according to their economic performance and to changing market conditions. But I cannot convince myself that financial performance offers the most important way of assessing the value of newspapers and other such cultural institutions.

Subsidized for years by advertising, newspapers were a great bargain. Those of us who loved them and depended on them never paid a price that was at all proportionate to the pleasures, benefits and satisfactions they delivered to us. With all the clarity of hindsight, it seems obvious that I – and the others who share my affection – should have been asked to pay more.

My Denver friend Barbara Sudler Hornby shared my love for newspapers, and her loyalty and devotion transcended my own. Allergic to newspaper ink, Barbara soldiered past the discomfort every day and read several newspapers anyway. The Rocky Mountain News, in February 2006, noted Barbara’s death and celebrated her devotion to historic preservation.

If only, when we sat with our morning newspapers and composed our first drafts of history, we had thought harder about what we valued, and if only, in our determination to pay the price for our enthusiasms, we could have lived up to Barbara’s example.

Patty Limerick is the chair of the board and faculty director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.