Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Elegy for a newspaper reader

Adobe Stock

THEY DON’T MAKE newspaper readers like Bill Donovan anymore.

My neighbor from across the street died last week at 85. When I knelt to pay my last respects, of course I smiled at the sight of that day’s Boston Globe tucked inside the casket.

It was just what Bill would want on his passage to eternity — and a sadly perfect symbol of an industry in transition. But it also stood as testament to the power of the printed word. And of what once was an unbreakable bond between daily journalism and the reader next door.

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I know Bill did not agree with every word in every Globe, unless Dan Shaughnessy wrote it. But he loved reading the newspaper and debating its contents. Occasionally he would call out, “Good one, today!” as I walked the dog or did yard work. Beyond any ego boost, it illustrated the intimate tie to our imperfect but aspirational efforts to deliver news and information. If his newspaper came late, or even worse, minus Red Sox scores, he would advise me “to tell Mr. Henry” to get the problems straightened out because he was about to cancel his subscription. He never did that permanently, although I suspect he sometimes stopped delivery so he could sign up at a reduced rate.

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In this age of digital news, the connection between reader and written word is measured more precisely, and much more coldly. There’s no Bill Donovan hailing you from his front porch. In real time, an unforgiving beast of analytics called Chartbeat measures page views and reader engagement time. Landing near the top of this ever-fluctuating list is a great feeling. But when your work is nowhere to be found, panic and self-doubt set in. The first instinct is to blame the headline for its lack of Web appeal; then, the homepage for not understanding the underlying brilliance of your offering and promoting it enough. Finally, reality sets in.

A vast and demanding digital audience prefers the photo of a golden retriever holding a “Boston Strong” flag in its mouth. Time to write about Stormy Daniels?

In the past, we trusted readers to turn the page and sample a menu of offerings, from breaking news and softer features to sports, horoscopes, and weather. Now, we fear their wrath or, more dangerous, their indifference. We must give them what Chartbeat says they want.

In every business, it’s change or die. The newspaper business was slow to understand that. Today, survival trumps nostalgia, as it should. But there still should be room for gratitude for loyal readers like Bill Donovan whose day didn’t really start until the newspaper hit the front doorstep. Perhaps he had more of an ordinary passion for newsprint because he worked as a photo engraver and spent 25 years in the press room at The Salem Evening News. But there are still others like him out there, who don’t do Twitter but send e-mail and sometimes even an old-fashioned letter, on paper. Sometimes they praise our work and sometimes they vehemently disagree with it. But they are all part of a community called lovers of news and the printed word – and they are willing to pay for it.

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Sometimes Chartbeat will tell you “there’s magic happening” with a story. It’s being picked up and shared on social media. It’s climbing in page views and reader engagement time. Life is good. But there was also magic when my neighbor called out “Good one, today!” — even if he meant Shaughnessy. Rest in peace, Bill. And thanks for reading us all those years.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.