Sitting in the terminal at Dulles International last week, I happened to look around me at the passengers waiting for their flights. While there were hundreds of passengers, I saw only a single newspaper among them—the one that I was reading. Later that week, while sitting in our Pittsburgh office, a co-worked passed by, did a double-take, and backtracked. “I had to stop,” he said, “because I never see anyone reading an actual newspaper anymore.” I was reading a copy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The most practical lesson I ever received in elementary school came when my fifth-grade math teacher took it upon himself to teach the class how to read a newspaper. As he model, he used our local paper, the Providence Journal. I remember nothing about the contents of the paper on that particular day, but the lessons he taught us have stayed with me.
He taught us, for instance, how to identify the lead story in the paper. He taught us the basic format of news stories, and how to tell who wrote them. He described the difference between a news story, an editorial, and an opinion piece. He taught us about sources and the basics of factual news reporting. He did all of this at a level that fifth-graders could understand. (He also taught us how to read the stock page, which I think was his original point, since this was, after all, a math class.)
Since then, I have been a fairly steady newspaper reader, although there have been gaps. When I lived in Los Angeles, I read the Los Angeles Times. My local paper today is the Washington Post, but I still read the L.A. Times, part out of nostalgia, and part because I enjoy the writing. When I travel, I try to sample the local fare in news reporting, and am often surprised by how good the smaller papers are. You can learn a lot about a place by reading an issue or two of its local paper.
The Little Man recently turned ten, and by chance, I was ten when my fifth-grade math teacher taught our class how to read the paper. It made me wonder: do schools still teach kids how to read a newspaper? Did they ever, or was my experience unique? In the intervening decades between my fifth grade experience and the Little Man’s, the Internet emerged and grew with all of its promise and problems. Still, with kids spending so much time on screens these days, the importance of newspapers can’t be overstated. I thought about how I might explain this to the Little Man. I started by considering the advantages a newspaper provides over social media, blogs, radio, and television news broadcasts.
- Reading is an important skill to develop and a daily newspaper ensures that practical reading material is available every day. Some of that reading may be a stretch, but like any form of exercise, it’s good to aim high.
- At the same time, newspapers provide a means for keeping up with current events. The Little Man grows increasingly curious about the world, asking all kinds of questions. As that continues, the newspaper can help feed that curiosity.
- Newspaper reporting is not instantaneous. The benefit of a day’s delay allows for more accuracy in reporting. Facts can be checked, multiple sources consultant and corroborated, and in-depth analysis by experts can be brought to bear.
- Editorials provide good examples of persuasive writing. They are brief, and focused. This is a skill that is particularly useful in high school and college. Whether or not you agree with the editorial writer, the model used in most papers is a good one.
- Newspapers provide a mechanism for debate and discussion, correction, disagreement, and expression. If you read something that you think is factually wrong, if you disagree with an opinion piece, most papers provide a means of debate and discussion through their Letters to the Editor page.
There are intangibles to newspapers as well. You might discover a writer you enjoy reading, and looking forward to his or her columns (always with frustration when they are on vacation and the paper puts out a re-run). The first time this happened with me was reading Al Martinez’s column in the L. A. Times. Then, too, many newspapers still have some great sportswriters, among them, Tom Boswell at the Washington Post.
Although many newspapers are now available in digital format, I prefer printed editions, if for no other reason than they provide a daily reprieve from reading on a screen.
I don’t know if fifth-graders are still taught to read a newspaper the way I was. But that single lesson stands out more than any other as one that has had a continually positive impact on my life. In teaching me to read a newspaper, my fifth-grade teacher helped me learn how to think better for myself, using what I read in the paper as both a learning tool, and a sounding board.
I’d hate for the Little Man to miss out on that.