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'Don't Stop the Presses!' Q&A with Patt Morrison

"SoCal Connected" sat down with Patt Morrison, an Op Ed columnist for the L.A. Times, to talk about the importance of local news and the history of the newspaper in the United States.

Honolulu Star Bulletin Pearl Harbor
Staff members of the "Honolulu Star Bulletin" reporting after Pearl Harbor | Patt Morrison Collection​

So first of all, what is it that we're talking about here?

Patt Morrison: This is a labor of love of the last couple of years. "Don't Stop the Presses!: Truth Justice and the American Newspaper." The history of newspapers is really the history of the growth of this country. Every new town had to have a newspaper to make it feel like it really was a town. Boulder, Colorado had a printing press. One town over didn't, so the one town sent over a posse, got the editor drunk and stole the printing press. They wanted a printing press. They wanted the newspaper.

I was inspired when I came across this photo of the staff at the Honolulu Star Bulletin. This is right after Pearl Harbor, there are blacked out curtains, they're wearing gas masks and a training episode. I wanted this book to memorialize not just how newspapers function but who they are, how the newspapers came to be in this country, the roles they play and some criticism too.

 

Mountaineer 1880s
Moutaineer opened for business in 1859 as the paper, "The Dalles Journal", in Dalles, Oregon | Patt Morrison Collection

What were some of the bigger surprises you encountered while writing the book? 

PM: One of the biggest surprises and I was ashamed that I didn't know better in the first place was how vital a role local newspapers have played and how hard they work to make their mark. There was a newspaper in West Virginia, "The Gazette Mail", that was reporting on the opioid epidemic. The reporter from that newspaper forced Big Pharma to open its books to find out, for example, that a little town in West Virginia of 352 people with one pharmacy had sent more than a million opioid tablets through in the course of a year or two. Congress paid attention to this. This reporter saved the lives of people in his state by making changes because of his stories. That's what's so vital; local papers where you may have to write about a city hall scandal where the mayor is married to the woman who teaches your fourth grader. That takes a lot of guts.

 

Women with printing press, 1920
Three women run the print shop at an unidentified newspaper, ca. 1920 | Patt Morrison Collection

For Southern California, what do you see is the biggest threat to journalism? For local news? 

PM: The biggest threat to local news is the indifference to local news. You really may not know what it is you need to know until it's right there in front of you. You don't go to your city council meetings. If you read the newspaper, if you follow the news, you see what those people are doing in your name. Newspapers are that bridge news organizations are that conduit not only to tell you what's going on but to say you have the power. You can tell them you don't like this. You walk in with that newspaper or any news coverage story, television or radio, and they know you're paying attention. That really makes you feel like this institution has a reason. 

 

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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