Role in Pioneer Communities

Newspapers before the Civil war, and in large measure throughout the nineteenth century, played three principle roles. Pioneer papers tended to be a mixture of boosterism about the community and a tool to advocate for a political party. As the century progressed, newspapers became more and more a vehicle for news, both national and local, as well as a tool through which advertisers could inform and persuade the community about the quality of their products and services.

Pioneer papers, however, had surprisingly little local news. Communities were often small and it was easy enough to hear gossip of the neighbor’s doings. More to the point, in pioneer communities were settlers often sought a new start from what sometimes was an unhappy personal history, it was sometimes wiser not to inquire too closely into neighbor’s past. Instead, pioneer newspapers preached the virtues of the town and a political party.[8]

In the years before the Civil War, Michigan’s newspapers, like most throughout the United States, were intensely political. They often filled their pages with speeches made by favored politicians or political essays penned by the editor. This partisanship, far from being considered an evil, was instead worn as a badge of honor and integrity.[9] Newspapers proudly proclaimed the political principles that guided their publications. Editors distrusted newspapers which claimed to be “independent” on the theory that such a paper almost certainly had an agenda but it was being concealed, likely for some nefarious reason. Reflecting this trend, the 1850 census listed only 5% of the nation’s newspapers as “neutral” or “independent.”[10]

Editors not only supported candidates in their paper, during election years, particularly during presidential elections, they often printed separate campaign newspapers that lasted only for the length of the campaign. For example in 1840 the Michigan State Journal (Ann Arbor) also published the Old Hero, in support of Harrison and Tyler. Elsewhere in Ann Arbor the Democratic Herald briefly revived the Michigan Times in support of Martin Van Buren. [11]

Principle, however, was linked to the subsidies paid to editors by politicians. This practice, which in one way or another remained fairly common late into the nineteenth century, was not viewed as “buying influence” but rather as a way to ensure the political voice of a particular party or party faction was heard. Editors were not bought by an explicit or implicit bribe but rather hired with the clear understanding that they would support the party or faction which made possible the paper’s publication. It was simply part of the job.

In this environment the role of the editor was that of partisan representative. In the hands of a lesser man, this could often simply mean serving as a party hack as well as a refusal to acknowledge unpleasant realities. For example, in 1832 the Detroit Free Press, faced with reporting the unpleasant fact that the Democratic candidate for Congress had been defeated by an overwhelming majority, delayed printing the news for three weeks. Eventually, when forced to concede that the opposition had won, the Free Press put the best possible partisan spin on the news, saying:

The Democratic Republicans can draw abundant consolation from the circumstances attending the campaign; from the certainty that they have effected an organization, and that they will hereafter be prepared at all times to met the enemy and beat them.[12]

Michigan newspapers also promoted Michigan settlement generally and extolled the virtue of their community. Land speculators, often created a newspaper for the purpose encouraging investment or settlement. The Oakland Chronicle was founded in Pontiac in 1830 to “boom” the area. The first newspaper in Saginaw, was published in 1836 at the behest of a group of investors who had purchased “the city of Saginaw.”[13] Similarly, one of the early products of the Detroit Gazette was a poem entitled “The Emigrant,” which looked suspiciously like a speculator’s promotion in that the author shared with readers, “informative notes” and “facts” such as that hay in Michigan grows in vast quantity with almost no effort and that Michigan bees produce an unusual quality of honey.[14] Boom papers could be shortlived. After a lifespan of only a year the Oakland Chronicle had served its purposes in promoting settlement and the owners sought to dispose of the press. It was sold to a group of Democrats, seeking to establish a party organ in Detroit, and who subsequently used the press to found the Detroit Free Press.[15]

The Upper Peninsula’s first paper, the Lake Superior News and Miners’ Journal, established in July of 1846, had a similar theme. In an editorial published in its first issue, the editor spoke of the region’s mineral wealth, and established as the paper’s goal:

To foster its developments – to point out its advantages – to represent the interests of those who may invest their capital and energies within our district, and give to the public broad correct and faithful medium of mining intelligence.[16]

The editor went on to write that paper the paper’s news would be of a character “studiously eschewing everything of a political character.” [17]

Government and other legal printing was also an important source of income, and in some cases seems to have ben the sole reason for a newspaper. The North Star, also printed in Saginaw, made money by printing lists of “paps,” land that had been repossessed by the government and was available for resale.[18] Like the North Star, Flint’s Wolverine Citizen also was published primarily to advertise tax and mortgage sales.[19] Similarly, Ingham County’s first paper, the Ingham Telegraph, appeared in 1842 primarily to print tax lists. In contrast, Lansing’s first paper, the Expounder, was unique in that it was founded in 1849 by an evangelist for the Universalist church, who created the paper to discuss culture and religion.[20]

Part of the financial formula employed by most papers included advertising. Early on editors found it possible to put aside their personal or editorial positions in order to run an ad. For example the Western Emigrant, Ann Arbor’s first newspaper, at one point strongly supported temperance. This view, however, did not restrain the editors from accepting an ad touting the discovery of a new distilling process, available for sale in both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The editors, apparently slightly embarrassed by the inconsistency of accepting the advertising, claimed in an editorial that the still produced a “valuable oil” in addition to “liquid poison,” that is whiskey.[21] Many years later the Detroit Free Press, rabid in its support of Democratic politics and violently opposed to the abolition of slavery, nevertheless printed six paid advertisements for “Foster’s Panorama of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” when the show appeared in Detroit for six nights. The Free Press, like the Western Emigrant, saw no need to turn down a profitable ad even if it represented a gross inconsistency with the paper’s editorial policy.[2​2]

The willingness of early newspapers to accept ads from any source was likely based, in part, on the scarcity of paid ads. In 1839 both the Herald of Ann Arbor and the Pontiac Jacksonian lamented the fact that merchants failed to realize the importance of advertising in obtaining sales. When, in late 1839, the Herald printed an advertisement, the editor wrote, “Lo! The columns of the Herald, for the first time except one, exhibit a merchant’s advertisement![23]

Most newspaper editors also supplemented their income by printing items other than the newspaper. Indeed newspapers were often a way an established printer obtained additional income. Michigan’s first paper, for example, was printed James Miller, whose principle client was Detroit priest, Father Gabriel Richard. In 1808 Richard had arranged for a press to be brought to Detroit, and he subsequently convinced Miller to come to the city primarily to print various small books Richard desired to be available in the community. The first imprint to come from the press was a twelve page spelling book for school children. Miller, however, like many itinerant printers, moved frequently in search of better employment. By late 1810 he had left Detroit for New York State. Similarly, the printers of the Detroit Gazette quickly used their political influence to become “printers to the territory,” thus becoming the first state printers. This pattern of supplementing income by doing job printing continues to this day in many newspaper offices.[24]