Small-Town Papers in Big League

21 Jul

IN the world of American journalism, doom and gloom are the visitors who have overstayed their welcome so long they look like they’re here to stay. In the past week, PBS eliminated 21 staff positions, the San Diego Union Tribune is considering going on the block, and just today the Chicago Tribune announced it will begin printing the Chicago Sun-Timesa move that will shed 400 jobs.

But a recently released “data visualization” from the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, a representation of the growth and decline of 140,000 newspapers from the first U.S. newspaper, Boston’s Publick Occurrences in 1690, all the way to 2010, shows that community newspapers are surprisingly healthy, with local weeklies at last count numbering more than 7,500. Community papers are defined as those with less than 30,000 in circulation, and community and rural newspapers are used interchangeably in this study.

Reading-Room of the Boston Public Library, an engraving drawn by J. J. Harley and printed January 1871 in Every Saturday, a weekly newspaper published in Boston by James Osgood & Company.

The reading room of the Boston Public Library, an engraving drawn by J. J. Harley and printed January 1871 in Every Saturday, a weekly newspaper published in Boston by James Osgood & Co.

The interactive map shows the geographic spread of printing presses westward over the centuries; it’s accompanied by short summaries of each significant new phase in the newspaper industry and is peppered with fun facts. For instance:

  • A year’s subscription to the Missouri Gazette, which was, in 1808, the first newspaper to be printed west of the Mississippi River, could originally be paid for in cash or vegetables.
  • When the Free Staters were battling pro-slavery forces in Kansas in 1856, the Herald of Freedom in Lawrence melted down its type to make cannon balls for the Free Stater side. The printers called each cannon fired a “new edition” of the paper.
  • In 1890, with a booming immigrant population, at least 18 languages were represented in U.S. papers, including 97 German language dailies in 1892.
  • And as young men deserted the newsrooms for the trenches in World War II, women made up the numbers (though when the men returned, some 8,000 women temps were laid off).

The story of the spread of rural papers is also a story of the frontier, a boundary that shifted ever westward as new towns were built. Printers rushed to establish papers in these young towns, as was the case, the authors write, “in the sleepy town of Denver, Colorado — then called Cherry Creek — where not one but two printers raced to publish the pioneering paper. Accounts of the [1859] ‘Battle of the Newspapers’ have it that William N. Byers’ Rocky Mountain News beat out the journeyman printer Jack Merrick’s Cherry Creek Pioneer by a mere 20 minutes.” (The Rocky Mountain News sadly closed its doors in 2009, marking the end of Colorado’s oldest business.)

Read the rest of this post on the Investigative Fund blog, where it first appeared. 

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