From Washington D.C. to Washington state, from Atlanta to Arizona, Americans wanted tangible evidence of what had just happened—fellow citizens had just elected as president an African American man. Online tributes just would not do.
“You can't put a computer screen into a scrapbook,” Joyce Mutcherson-Ridley told a Washington Post reporter. I wanted a copy for my kids. I have a newborn son who won't remember this, but I want him to know about the history that was made here, how important this is for us as African Americans," added Samantha Crawford, 35. "I want him to hold the paper in his hand and read about it someday."
The nationwide phenomenon played out most vividly at the Washington Post, where I work. Upon arriving at the newspaper in mid-morning, the typical starting time for most reporters, I couldn’t find a single paper in the vast fifth-floor newsroom. None were to be found on the fourth floor, where the feature sections are based. At 10:30 a.m., an editor who came in through the front door asked if I’d seen what was going on in the lobby and on the street in front of the paper: Hundreds of people were lining up, trying to buy a copy of the paper, with its bold, black headline: “Obama Makes History.”
The demand delighted reporters and editors, even while circulation directors scrambled. “Print journalism lives!!!” one writer blogged. A steady stream of workaday journalists slipped out of the newsroom during the day to check out the length of the line, the mood of the public and the latest word on when extra copies of the paper would arrive.
News organizations, resigned to the years-long decline in sales of their print editions as readers turned to web sites, e-mail and electronically-delivered news, were caught by surprise. Like most newspapers, the Post had increased its election night press runs—by 30,000 copies—in anticipation of typically higher street sales the day after the election. But no one expected to sell out. The paper restarted the presses for an additional 350,000 copies, then doubled that when the lines continued on Thursday.
The New York Times, which had printed about 35 percent more papers than usual, ran off another 175,000 copies. The Chicago Tribune printed an additional 200,000 copies in response to the demand. A man in Washington state bought 10,000 copies of The Bellingham Herald's election wrap-up edition. In Atlanta, a friend at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution told me that police were called in to keep drivers from double-parking as weeping men and women snapped up the 200,000 extra copies.
The long-running election, with its high levels of voter turnout and partisan passion also drove record numbers of readers to news web sites Tuesday and Wednesday. But it was the lines of voters, curling around corners and clogging downtown sidewalks, patiently waiting, that remind us that evidence of history sometimes can be found in 50-cent doses of ink on paper.
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Patricia Sullivan is a staff writer for the Washington Post. She previously worked as the executive online editor at the Industry Standard, an online columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, and a reporter at the Missoulian, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Joliet Herald-News and The Milwaukee Journal. She was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and past president of the Journalism and Women's Symposium.Posted for The Women’s Media Center