For much of this last year, I have been writing a history of the Space Needle. I'm still at it, but I continue to write every week for Crosscut.com. (Brief commercial for Crosscut: the Fall Membership drive is under way, a crucial source of support for this nonprofit. I hope you'll donate, easily done online.)
My mind, lately, has often been in the Seattle of the early 1960s. It has been a real education in Seattle history, process, and city-building. As a result, I've had my nose in the newspapers of that era, sometimes the yellowed papers and clippings, other times online (the Seattle Times back to 1900 is available through the Seattle Public Library, a tremendous research resource.). Other times, I've been spinning eyeball exhausting microfilm, zipping through the pages of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Daily Journal of Commerce, and The Argus.
It was a different era, media-wise. And a sobering reminder of how far we have fallen. Seattle had two dailies and a terrific, intelligent little weekly in Argus, a kind of miniature, local Wall Street Journal. The papers were big, packed with local stories, national news, and features. The Times and P-I had very different personalities and editorial agendas, but they both had strong staffs, great columnists, lots of variety. You could read Emmett Watson in the P-I, or a young newcomer in town named Tom Robbins in the Times. These were still glory days for American newspapers.
There are things that would raise eyebrows today: racist cartoons, frequent use of "Reds" when talking about the Russians, and staffs that were on orders to hype pet paper causes. At the Times, the world's fair was one such cause. In fact, according to Murray Morgan, it was a Times editor, Ross Cunningham, who helped cook up the idea in a bar at the Washington Athletic Club and the paper spared no ink to push the fair.
Still, the historical record is an abundance of well-reported stories that covered the city extensively, and a lot of coverage that documented the culture, such as it was, of the era. It has reminded me that so much of what newspapers did is not as ephemeral as the proverbial bird-cage liner. The first draft of history, as journalism has been called, is absolutely essential. Without it, there is no second draft, or third, or final proof.
It's reminded me of the importance of what Crosscut is doing in the online realm. It doesn't seek to be the journal of record, it doesn't have the resources of the dailies, old or new. But it is filling part of the gap left by fractured and often diminished media. Crosscut is publishing important writing and observations from a wide range and diverse group of writers who are throwing themselves into the politics, culture, lifestyle, and history of the city in ways that are useful now, and will be invaluable 50 years from now as a window on what we were thinking. Its engagement with readers and the story comments will feed historians decades hence with unfiltered, interesting reactions from readers. "What were they thinking?!" is one of the most frequently asked questions for anyone researching the past. Crosscut will help answer such essentials now, and in the future.
Many blogs and online publications are very narrow. What makes the historical legacy of newspapers so useful is their breadth and scope, and the different perspectives from the weeklies, monthlies, and magazines that offered more depth, a different view, maybe a zig when everyone else is zagging.
Crosscut can't replace the print P-I, or the mid-week Times of the '60s that was almost too heavy to pick up (pity the poor newsboys). But if it continues to offer a wide range of views, an eclectic mix, ideological range, new ideas, and fresh analysis, it will not only be making a great contribution to civic life today, but enriching Seattleites 50 years from now.
It's strange to think that writing for something as ephemeral as a website could also be creating something for posterity, but it's true. When you think of Crosscut's mission in that context, it's even more essential to support it, build it, expand it, broaden it, and deepen it. We're lucky to have the Times, the weeklies, and the blogs we have today. The written word is far from dead. But our local print media don't yet come close to matching what we once had. And our real goal ought to be to do even better. I'd love to see us do that, and I think that pioneering media groups like Crosscut are an essential part of making that happen. I hope you will join me in supporting Crosscut with an annual Membership donation.