As the Civil War came to a close, Michigan’s newspapers continued to act out the roles of partisan activists that they had traditionally played. The Detroit Free Press, long the journal of the Democrats, proclaimed just prior to the 1868 in a message entitled “The Opening of the Fall Campaign:”
The Free Press alone in this state is able to combine a Democratic point of view of our state politics and local issues with those of national importance. … [It] will combine political news with a cool and dispassionate discussion of principles and men in such a manner as to afford to the people means of the best judgments as to the truth.
The Free Press was hardly alone in continuing the traditions of antebellum journalism into the era after the War. In 1872, writing under the headline, “For Grant and Wilson,” the Detroit Post proclaimed that it had “no sympathy with the sickly inanity that the Republican Party has accomplished its mission. No party has ceased to be useful while it retained the vitality which initiates all the practical reforms of its age and it is the crowning glory of the organization which as done so much for this country.” Thus the Post stood ready “to meet the demands of the Republicans of Michigan and to advance their cause.”
The nature of newspapers were changing, however, and the Detroit papers exemplified that change. Papers became less partisan, eventually declaring independence from all party affiliation, while at the same time changing the mix of what filled their columns from political essays to “news” stories written in a more gentler tone than that which had filled to pages of previous newspapers. What drove this change is a matter historians continue to debate, some claiming it came about as a result of a new sense of standards among journalists, others the ability to increase profit through the exploitation by advertisers of a non-partisan mass market.
Whatever the cause, the change was clear. In Michigan change was first represented by James E Scripps. As Harper’s Magazine reported in 1888:
One of the most notable features of Western Journalism during the past few years has been the rise and success of the penny and two cents newspapers. The first journalist of the West to discover the demand for journals of this class and to act upon his discovery was Mr. James E. Scripps, the principal owner of the Detroit Evening News. . . . This was the pioneer of the cheap newspaper in the West.
The penny-press had first appeared in New York City many years earlier. As early as 1849, the Detroit Daily Tribune had both described the penny press as “the lever that moves the masses” and suggested that “We see no reason why one or even two, cannot be made permanent in this city.” The Daily Tribune’s opinion notwithstanding, a penny paper did not appear. It was Scripps who adapted the formula for the Midwest and brought the Tribune’s vision to Detroit. This came about in two phases. The first began in the 1870s when Scripps made a critical but simple observation: in 1870 only about 30 percent of Detroit English speaking population regularly read a newspaper. The principle reason for this was the price of a daily newspaper. Detroit’s papers sold for a nickel, in an era when a typical working man made a dollar a day. Because of their price, newspapers were luxury items. To sell newspapers to the masses required lowering the price of the paper, but politicians were not inclined to pay the increased subsidies that this would require and the idea was dismissed as impractical.
Scripps, however, believed there was a way to make considerable profit by changing the ways newspapers went about paying the bills. In 1873 Scripps pulled together virtually every penny he could find to launch the Detroit Evening News. He priced the paper at two cents. Scripps formula for success was based on strict cost control and expanded sales. Scripps four page paper used smaller pieces of newsprint and thus was physically only about one-sixth the size its competitors. The reduced both paper costs, composition costs, and printing costs. He also avoided fees for telegraphic reports by simply reading and using news published in Detroit’s morning newspapers. Stories, both those borrowed from the pages of his competitors and written exclusively for the News were “condensed,” that is written in the briefest possible form. Scripps applied the same economy of writing to editorials. They were “pungent and forceful,” but rarely exceeded a paragraph in length. Scripps pinched pennies everywhere including bringing in relatives to hold various positions in the paper, and paying them when he had cash, and only as much as he might have on hand.
Scripps pitched his stories squarely at the city’s unserved working class market. His original vision was almost that of a daily educational journal. The writing style, small size, and lack of headlines was not an oversight but rather a representation of Scripps desire to deliver to his audience a small, easily consumed product that would be a source of learning and read from cover-to-cover. As Scripps himself expressed it, he desired “a wide diffusion of wholesome literature.”
Scripps original plan towards wholesomeness quickly fell afoul of his brother Edward, who had a keen sense for what the masses would like to read and whose stories likely made the journal profitable. Edward Scripps reported on the doings of “rich rascals” and gained for the News a nationwide reputation for its reporting style. Although the rich rascals did not particularly appreciate the paper’s invasive reporting, and responded to it by a barrage of libel suits, some of which were successful. But Edward remained unphased. He eventually concluded that the road to profitability was paved by the readership gained through such reporting. The losses in court were viewed as something akin to a licensing fee; an inevitable cost of doing business. Although James may not have envisioned his paper taking this path, he gave way to his brother’s vision when by 1876 the News had a larger circulation than the combined circulation of all of the other papers in Detroit. As James would somewhat coyly concede, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the News first publication:
Something really meritorious and elevating, but in small compass and at a cheap rate, was the ideal I set myself. But I soon found I had journalistic genius on my staff, and I was quick to see that true policy, demanded that it have a fair scope. Had I held everything down to my own views, I should have produced a good, but dull newspaper.
Scripps second step occurred in the 1880s. The economics of newspaper publications were changing. How the Scripps family adjusted to that change would again reshape the model of newspapers in the state and cause an angry split between James and Edward Scripps. In 1887 James, suffering from an attack of gallstones and fearing he would soon die, decided to tour Europe, leaving Edward in charge. Edward believed that the old-fashioned, four sheet News was doomed. As he wrote at the time,
The cost of paper is racing down hill. I prophesy that very little paper will be sold dring 1890, at a higher price than three cents. This means that the competition will require larger papers. . . . I believe that the time is shortly coming when the [Cincinnati] Post will print for a cent an eight page paper as big as the [two cent] News is now.
Edward’s vision went beyond a larger paper to encompass a different composition. He foresaw much of those additional pages filled with advertisements.
[The News must enlarge] sufficient to monopolize the advertising business that can be gotten, [otherwise] some other papers must take it and over the profits grow rich and hence a powerful competition for the News. … We have been leaving advertising out of the News at a rate of $1,000 a month. That money which advertisers are willing to spend in Detroit or at least a portion of it is going to The Journal, The Free Press, and the Tribune, making them stronger financially and more fashioned for advertisers.
To make his vision possible, Edward committed funds to buy the latest, fastest printing presses then on the market. Unfortunately James, then in England, thought Edward’s analysis wrong and his decision to buy new printing presses an expensive folly. Edward, however, was working with the facts on the ground. Paper prices were falling fast. In 1884 slightly more than 31 percent of the news expenses were for the purchase of newsprint. By 1889 this cost has dropped to slightly less than 20 percent of the budget. In roughly the same time frame Edwards was able to fill this cheaply purchased newsprint with paying ads. In the three years between 1886 and 1889 advertising revenue grew from 38 percent to 58 percent of the paper’s profit. Leading merchants were transforming their advertisements from a few lines of text or a simple business card printed weekly to “display ads’ that changed regularly and consumed large sections of a page. J. L. Hudson and C. Mabley were among the Detroit merchants who pioneered in this trend and whose purchases of advertising space drove the increase in revenue. The appearance of national brands only amplified this trend as distant companies sought to familiarize local purchasers with their product.
George Booth, the son-in-law of James Scripps, later rationalized his father-in-law’s clear misreading of the situation:
It is . . .not unreasonable to suppose that a man like Mr. James E. Scripps of the old school of journalism and in a condition of poor health, felt it quite impossible [to] comfortably to enter upon this new era which meant a permanent discarding of his own ideal of a four-page daily newspaper.
Although Scripps brought the penny press to Michigan, he was not alone in developing material that would appeal to a mass market. The Detroit Free Press developed writers who had wide appeal locally, nationally, and internationally. The writer who was for many years was the star of the Free Press was Charles Bertrand Lewis. Writing under the pen name M. Quad, Lewis in 1870 penned his first humorous column in the Free Press. Lewis had reported for the Free Press in a variety of settings, but like many of his predecessors he found in the ten years he spent covering the police courts the material from which to make his reputation as a humorist.
Although Lewis was well known locally in the 1870s, he became a national figure in the 1880s, eventually being called “the Mark Twain of the middle west.” This accolade came when he began to write an enormously popular column entitled “Brother Gardner and the Lime Kiln Club.” Although he also wrote other humorous columns, for more than a decade this column which followed the activities of the fictitious Lime Kiln Club brought national attention to both the author and his paper. The Lime Kiln Club was written in supposed Black dialect and frequently caricatured the learning and culture of African Americans. Although frequently offensive by today’s standards, in its day it was very successful. Lewis also caricatured other groups, and often used all of his inventions to criticize politicians. For example Lewis has Carl Dunder, his fictional German immigrant, say of American democracy:
I haf lived in dis country long enough to find oudt dot personal liberty means . . . der right to trample on der privileges of somebody else. Der constitution guaranties efen der humblest citizen his rights, but I notice dot der more money a citizen has der more rights he gets.
And within the largely racist humor of the Lime Kiln Club Lewis created the character of Brother Gardner, a wise old man well versed in national affairs and who possessed a keen sense of the foibles among Detroit’s white citizens. Occasionally Brother Gardner spoke to a future only dimly perceived:
De time am not fur away when de black men of dis kentry will riz up an’ demand a sheer inde guv’ment an in de spiles…
But the path to this dimly seen future was that of Booker T. Washington. Lewis never embraced racial equality. Eventually the columns were gathered together and reprinted as books. Lewis’s success led to him often receiving offers to write exclusively for other papers. In 1891 Joseph Pulitzer made an offer that lured Lewis away from Detroit to work for the New York World.
With the help of columnists such as M. Quad the Free Press developed into both a national and an international newspaper. The paper created a weekly edition that relied mainly on features for sales. In 1871 circulation of the weekly was 6,100. By 1891 the weekly had reached 120,700, of which only 37,720 were distributed in Michigan. In 1881 the ambitious Free Press staff exploited the popularity of the weekly to establish a weekly edition in London, England. Largely recycling its already printed material, the London edition remained in print until 1899 and at its peak had a weekly circulation of over 200,000