Although newspapers throughout most of the nineteenth century were candidly partisan, even during election years they needed more than the latest speech by a party official to fill their pages and sell newspapers.
The Niles Republican (a Democratic paper despite the name) offers an excellent example of what a typical pre-Civil War weekly newspaper was like. It consisted of four pages, the first page largely “clipped” material reprinted either from the Detroit papers or from papers printed out-of-state. Much of the front page material would fall into the category of “literature,” often being short, one paragraph anecdotes. . Of the non-news items published the most common theme was humor and the most common format was poetry. Sermons and essays, however, also were given a prominent place in the paper. Page two was usually a mixture of local and national news. Editorials usually showed up in page 1 or page 3, although in an era of intense newspaper partisanship it was often difficult to draw a clear line between an “editorial” and a political “news story.” Page 3 would also have some advertising, but most ads were printed on page four.
The Niles paper was typical in that much of its material came from clippings freely reproduced from other newspapers. Where change would begin to occur was in the place of local news.As communities became more settled, editors realized that “word of mouth” was insufficient to keep the community abreast of local events, thus local news would interest readers. Among the pioneers ingathering and printing local news was the Detroit Free Press, under the editorial guidance of Wilbur F. Storey. Storey took a “dull, spiritless montage of scissors and paste” and infused it with an unending supply of local news, much of it
“How to Get Rid of a Faithless Wife”
“Suicide by Swallowing a Red Hot Poker”
A bit later, when the Free Press began to “stack” headlines, readers were offered leads such as:
A man Shoots at his Wife and
Blows out the Brains of a
Little Daughter and Breaks
His Gun over his Wife’s
Head after the Murder
Storey found news regarding executions was particularly well read. With dubious taste, but a sure instinct for sales, he included as a daily feature a column entitled “Scaffold Scourings.”
Despite his emphasis on local news, Storey lamented that there often simply was not enough local events with which to fill his paper. As he lamented in 1859, “Local news is sadly deficient about these times,” adding “There seems hardly stir enough among the public to keep up appearances of life…” to address this inconvenience, Storey was also willing to print as news articles that were undoubtedly fictional. The Free Press once ran an article entitled, “A Child Eaten by a Bear in Hamtramck” which proved very successful in selling papers, although it did call for the reader to ignore the small problem that the berries the child was allegedly gathering when he had his fatal encounter were not in season and there were no bears known to inhabit Hamtramck. Storey realized, however, like many newspaper reporters before and after him, that sensationalism sold.