A fellow asked me an interesting question the other day, although honesty compels me to admit that the circumstances were a bit bizarre. He was my proctologist and he was doing what proctologists do when he popped the question, so to speak. I was caught a bit off-guard, given the situation, and am not sure I gave him a particularly coherent answer. His question did give me great pause, however, and after careful reflection I have come up with a more succinct answer than I was able to offer up at the time.
The answer is, Lord, I hope not.
The question, by the way, was, do you think newspapers will have disappeared in five years?
I grew up with a newspaper. We didn't have a lot in that little four-room mill village house in which I was raised, but we had a copy of the Atlanta Constitution on our front porch every day of my life, and I mean every day.
My daddy taught me how to read from the pages of that newspaper - which claimed to be "The South's Standard," at the time. Our next door neighbor, James Vining, took the Journal, which claimed to "cover Dixie like the dew." Those two papers are combined now, of course, and barely cover the area inside I-285. Times do change.
But I loved reading the newspaper. I developed the habit, as I said, early on and throughout high school, college and into adulthood, I made it a point to start every day by poring over the paper. I might skip breakfast or forget to brush my teeth, but I was going to read the paper.
The Constitution, of course, had Ralph McGill, who came under fire during the Civil Rights movement for having the audacity to suggest that people of color deserved equal opportunity in the Jim Crow South. My daddy insisted that everything Ralph McGill wrote made good sense, so I looked for his column, which ran down the left side of the front page, every day - as soon as I finished the sports page and the funnies.
I still read the sports page and funnies first, by the way - even before I read my own column, which is usually my favorite part of the paper.
Speaking of sports, I grew up reading Jesse Outlar, long-time Constitution sports editor, and Charlie Roberts, who must have written for a hundred years. Outlar was always a gentleman; in sharp contrast to his cohort, Furman Bisher, over at the Journal. I learned to love Celestine Sibley's sometimes gentle, always insightful reflections on the human condition and eventually, of course, the Constitution got Lewis Grizzard.
For 15 years, I followed the same routine. I would wake up, turn on the coffee pot and walk outside to get the paper. On my way back to the house, I would read Grizzard's column. Then I would sit at the kitchen table, drink my first cup of coffee and read Grizzard's column again.
It's been a long time since there was anything in what passes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that was worth reading twice. In fact, the paper that once gave us Ralph McGill, Celestine Sibley, Jesse Outlar and Lewis Grizzard on a daily basis now offers Cynthia Tucker, Jay Bookman and Terence Moore. My, how the mighty have fallen.
It wasn't just the sports page and opinion columnists that drew me to the paper, of course. I was always interested in the news, realizing, I suppose - even as a child - that today's news is tomorrow's history - and trivia. I scoured the headlines, reading the articles that I found interesting and passing on those that I did not. I loved the funny papers, too. Lil' Abner. The Phantom. Hatlo's History. Snuffy Smith. Peanuts. I kept up with them all. Except Mary Worth, of course. She was strictly for women. And I even attempted the crossword puzzles and Jumble.
The paper was an important part of my day, understand. When I got older and began to travel, I got a chance to read a lot of the nation's notable newspapers - The Louisville Courier-Journal, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, The Florida Times-Union, The Macon Telegraph.
OK. So most of my early travels were in the South. Later, I got out to San Francisco and became acquainted with the Examiner and to Chicago and read the Sun-Times. And if I find myself in a place so remote that there are no newspapers, available I feel out of kilter all day long.
Which brings us back to the probing question of my friendly proctologist. Will it be impossible to hold a newspaper in our hands while we enjoy our morning coffee five years from now?
Newspapers are going through tough times, you see. The economy stinks, as you know, and ad sales are down. To make matters worse, the price of newsprint is up. Then there is that pesky old Internet. The content of most papers is available online - for free. It's hard to sell what you give away. Plus the Internet ad revenues don't compare with those generated by print ads and fuel costs are up and ... well, you get the picture. Newspapers are struggling, and some of the biggest names in the industry are shrinking or disappearing altogether - which accounted for the question in question.
But again, not being an economic expert, my only response is, Lord, I hope not.
Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.