Paper Route: Finding My Way to Precision Journalism

My previous books, especially “The Vanishing Newspaper” (2d edition 2009) dealt with institutions or situations that were in constant flux. Things kept changing as fast as I could get their details and my interpretations down on paper. With the end of each project, it seemed that I was abandoning rather than finishing it.  I envied the historian and the memoirist. At least, their subjects held still, or so it seemed.

Now I am a memoirist, and a well-documented one at that. My mother hoarded old correspondence, and I inherited that tendency. From my father’s side, I came to own what we called “the Meyer tin box,” containing papers and letters that shed light on various family transactions from the late 19th Century forward.

But I learned what a better historian would have already known, that the past does not hold still either. Long-ago events are always subject to new interpretations as time gives us different perspectives or fresh evaluations. This book, too, has the feeling of being abandoned rather than finished.

Having long ago begun the transition from journalism to scholarship, I hoped to frame this project as a case study. But of what? Innovation, perhaps. My reputation both in market research and in journalism was as a searcher for new and better ways to find things out. Did growing up on the prairie, where the horizon was always visible, have something to do with it? A good case study starts with a framework of theory. Alas, I have none here, although some of the narrative threads might provide a clue.

The metaphor in the title is flawed: “Paper Route: Finding My Way to Precision Journalism.” A paperboy does not have to find his way; the route is already established for him. And yet, looking back on a career with all of its dead ends, reverses, and adaptations, the notion that the route was somehow foreordained is tempting to contemplate. Readers may judge for themselves.