Press Tendencies and Dangers
THE passing of the Boston Journal, in the eighty-fourth year of its age, by merger with the Boston Herald, has rightly been characterized as a tragedy of journalism. Yet it is no more significant than the similar merger of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Leader, or the New York Press and the New York Sun. All are in obedience to the drift toward consolidation which has been as marked in journalism as in other spheres of business activity — for this is purely a business matter. True, in the cases of the Sun and the Press Mr. Munsey’s controlling motive was probably the desire to obtain the Associated Press service for the Sun, which he could have secured in no other way. But Mr. Munsey was not blind to the advantages of combining the circulation of the Press and the Sun, and has profited by it.
It is quite possible that there will be further consolidations in New York and Boston before long; at least, conditions arc ripe for them. Chicago has now only four morning newspapers, including the Staats-Zeitung, but one of these has an uncertain future before it. The Herald of that city is the net result of amalgamations which wiped out successively the Record, the Times, the Chronicle, and the Inter-Ocean. It is only a few years ago that the Boston Traveler and the Evening Herald were consolidated, and Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland (Oregon), and Philadelphia are other cities in which there has been a reduction in the number of dailies.
In the main it is correct to say that the decreasing number of newspapers in our larger American cities is due to the enormously increased cost of maintaining great dailies. This has been found to limit the number which a given advertising territory will support. It is a fact, too, that there arc few other fields of enterprise in which so many unprofitable enterprises are maintained. There is one penny daily in New York which has not paid a cent to its owners in twenty years; during that time its income has met its expenses only once. Another of our New York dailies loses between four and five hundred thousand dollars a year, if wellfounded report is correct, but the deficit is cheerfully met each year. It may be safely stated that scarcely half of our New York morning and evening newspapers return an adequate profit.
The most striking fact about the recent consolidations is that this leaves Cleveland with only one morning newspaper, the Plain Dealer. It is the sixth city in size in the United States, yet it has not appeared to be large enough to support both the Plain Dealer and the Leader, not even with the aid of what is called ‘foreign,’ or national, advertising, that is, advertising which originates outside of Cleveland. There are now many other cities in which the seeker after morning news is compelled to take it from one source only, whatever his political affiliations may be: in Indianapolis, from the Star; in Detroit, from the Free Press; in Toledo, from the Times; in Columbus, from the State Journal; in Scranton, from the Republican; in St. Paul, from the Pioneer Press; and in New Orleans from the Times-Picayune. This circumstance comes as a good deal of a shock to those who fancy that at least the chief political parties should have their representative dailies in each city — for that is the old American tradition.
Turning to the State of Michigan, we find that the development has gone even further, for here are some sizable cities with no morning newspaper and but one in the evening field. In fourteen cities whose population has more than doubled during the last twentyfive years the number of daily newspapers printed in the English language has shrunk from 42 to only 23. In nine of these fourteen cities there is not a single morning newspaper; they have but an evening newspaper apiece to give them the news of the world, unless they are content to receive their news by mail from distant cities. On Sunday they are better off, for there are seven Sunday newspapers in these towns.
In the five cities having more than one newspaper, there are six dailies that are thought to be unprofitable to their owners; and it is believed that within a short time the number of one-newspaper cities will grow to twelve, in which case Detroit and Grand Rapids will be the only cities with morning dailies. It is reported by competent witnesses that the one-newspaper towns are not only well content with this state of affairs, but that they actively resist any attempt to change the situation, the merchants in some cases banding together voluntarily to maintain the monopoly by refusing advertising to those wishing to start competition.
It is of course true that in the larger cities of the East there are other causes than the lack of advertising to account for the disappearance of certain newspapers. Many of them have deserved to perish because they were inefficiently managed or improperly edited. The Boston Transcript declares that the reason for the Journal’s demise was lack ‘of that singleness and clearness of direction and purpose which alone establish confidence in and guarantee abiding support of a newspaper.’ If some of the Hearst newspapers may be cited as examples of successful journals which have neither clearness nor honesty of purpose, it is not to be questioned that a newspaper with clear-cut, vigorous personalities behind it is far more likely to survive than one which does not have them.
But it does not help the situation to point out, as does the Columbia (S.C.) State, that ‘ sentiment and passion ’ have been responsible for the launching of many of the newspaper wrecks, for often sentiment and the righteous passion of indignation have been responsible for the foundation of notable newspapers such as the New York Tribune, whose financial success was, for a time at least, quite notable. It is the danger that newspaper conditions, because of the enormously increased costs and this tendency to monopoly, may prevent people who are actuated by passion and sentiment from founding newspapers that is causing many students of the situation much concern. What is to be the hope for the advocates of new-born and unpopular reforms if they cannot have a press of their own, as the Abolitionists and the founders of the Republican party set up theirs in a remarkably short time, usually with poverty-stricken bank accounts?
If no good American can read of cities having only one newspaper without concern, — since democracy depends largely upon the presenting of both sides of every issue, — it does not add any comfort to know that it would take millions to found a new paper, on a strictly business basis, in our largest cities. None but extremely wealthy men could undertake such a venture, — precisely as the rejuvenated Chicago Herald has been financed by a group of the city’s wealthiest magnates, — and even then the success of the undertaking would be questionable if it were not. possible to secure the Associated Press service for the newcomer.
The ‘journal of protest,’ it may be truthfully said, is to-day being confined, outside of the Socialistic press, to weeklies of varying types, of which the Survey, the Public, and the St. Louis Mirror are examples; and scores of them fall by the wayside. The large sums necessary to establish a journal of opinion are being demonstrated by the New Republic. Gone is the day when a Liberator can be founded with a couple of hundred dollars as capital. The struggle of the New York Call to keep alive, and that of some of our Jewish newspapers, are clear proof that conditions to-day make strongly against those who are fired by passion and sentiment to give a new and radical message to the world.
True, there is still opportunity in small towns for editorial courage and ability; William Allen White has demonstrated that. But in the small towns the increased costs due to the war are being felt as keenly as in the larger cities. Ayer’s Newspaper Directory shows a steady shrinkage during the last three years in the weeklies, semi-weeklies, tri-weeklies, and semimonthlies, there being 300 less in 1916 than in 1914. There lies before me a list of 76 dailies and weeklies over which the funeral rites have been held since January 1, 1917; to some of them the government has administered the coup de grâce. There are three Montreal journals among them, and a number of little German publications, together with the notorious Appeal to Reason and a couple of farm journals: twenty-one states are represented in the list, which is surely not complete.
Many dailies have sought to save themselves by increasing their price to two cents, as in Chicago, Pittsburg, Buffalo, and Philadelphia, and everywhere there has been a raising of mail subscription and advertising rates in an effort to offset the enormous and persistent rise in the cost of paper and labor. It is indisputable, however, that if we are in for a long war, many of the weaker city dailies and the country dailies must go to the wall, just as there have been similar failures in every one of the warring nations of Europe.
Surveying the newspaper field as a whole, there has not been of late years a marked development of the tendency to group together a number of newspapers under one ownership in the manner of Northcliffe. Mr. Hearst, thanks be to fortune, has not added lately to his string;1 his group of Examiners and Journals and Americans is popularly believed not to be making any large sums of money for him, because the weaker members offset the earnings of the prosperous ones, and there is reputed to be great managerial waste. When Mr. Munsey buys another daily he usuually sells an unprosperous one or adds another grave to his private and sizable newspaper cemetery. The ScrippsMcRae Syndicate, comprising some 22 dailies, has not added to its number since 1911.
In Michigan the Booth Brothers control six clean, independent papers, which, for the local reasons given above, exercise a remarkable influence. The situation in that state shows clearly how comparatively easy it would be for rich business men, with selfish or partisan purpose, to dominate public opinion there and poison the public mind against anything they disliked. It is a situation to cause much uneasiness when one looks into the more distant future and considers the distrust of the press because of a far-reaching belief that the large city newspaper, being a several-million-dollar affair, must necessarily have managers in close alliance with other men in great business enterprises, — the chamber of commerce, the merchants’ association group, — and therefore wholly detached from the aspirations of the plain people.
Those who feel thus will be disturbed by another remarkable consolidation in the field of newspaper-making — the recent absorption of a large portion of the business of the American Press Association by the Western Newspaper Union. The latter now has an almost absolute monopoly in supplying ‘ plate ’ and ‘ready-to-print’ matter to the smaller daily newspapers and the country weeklies — ‘patent insides’ is a more familiar term. The Western Newspaper Union to-day furnishes plate matter to nearly fourteen thousand newspapers— a stupendous number. In 1912 a United States court in Chicago forbade this very consolidation as one in restraint of trade; to-day it permits it because the great rise in the cost of plate matter, from four to seventeen cents a pound, seems to necessitate the extinction of the.old competition and the establishment of a monopoly. The court was convinced that this field of newspaper enterprise will no longer support two rival concerns. An immense power which could be used to influence public opinion is thus placed in the hands of the officers of a money-making concern, for news matter is furnished as well as news photogravures.
Only the other day I heard of a boast that a laudatory article praising a certain astute Democratic politician had appeared in no less than 7000 publications of the Union’s clients. Who can estimate the value of such an advertisement? Who can deny the power enormously to influence rural public opinion for better or for worse? Who can deny that the very innocent aspect of such a publication makes it a particularly easy, as well as effective, way of conducting propaganda for better or for worse? So far it has been to the advantage of both the associations to carry the propaganda matter of the great political parties, — they deny any intentional propaganda of their own; but one cannot help wondering whether this will always be the case, and whether there is not danger that some day this tremendous power may be used in the interest of some privileged undertaking or some self-seeking politicians. At least, it would seem as if our lawmakers, already so critical of the press, might be tempted to declare the Union a public-service corporation and, therefore, bound to transmit all legitimate news offered to it.
In the strictly news-gathering field there is probably a decrease of competition at hand. The Allied governments abroad and our courts at home have struck a hard blow at the Hearst news-gathering concern, the International News Service, which has been excluded from England and her colonies, Italy and France, and has recently been convicted of news-stealing and falsification on the complaint of the Associated Press. The case is now pending on appeal in the Supreme Court, where the decision of the lower courts may be reversed. If, as a result of these proceedings, the association eventually goes out of business, it will be to the public advantage, that is, if honest, uncolored news is a desideratum. This will give to the Associated Press — the only press association which is altogether coöperative and makes no profit by the sale of its news — a monopoly in the morning field. If this lack of organized competition — it is daily competing with the special correspondents of all the great newspapers — has its drawbacks, it is certainly reassuring that throughout this unprecedented war the Associated Press has brought over an enormous volume of news with a minimum of just complaints as to the fidelity of that news — save that it is, of course, rigidly censored in every country, and particularly in passing through England. It has met vast problems with astounding success.
But, despite its many foreign correspondents, it is in considerable degree dependent upon foreign news agencies, like Reuters’, the Havas Agency in France, the Wolf Agency in Germany, and others, including the official Russian agency. Where these are not frankly official agencies, they are under the control of their governments and have frequently been used by them to mislead others, and particularly foreign nations, or to conceal the truth from their own subjects. As Dean Walter Williams, of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, has lately pointed out, if there is one thing needed after this war it is the abolition of these official and semi-official agencies with their frequent stirring up of racial and international hatreds, A free press after the war is as badly needed as freedom of the seas and freedom from conscienceless kaisers and autocrats.
At home, when the war is over, there is certain to be as relatively striking a slant toward social reorganization, reform, and economic revolution as has taken place in Russia and is taking place in England as told by the London Times. When that day comes here, the deep smouldering distrust of our press will make itself felt. Our Fourth Estate is to have its day of overhauling and of being muckraked. The perfectly obvious hostility toward newspapers of the present Congress, as illustrated by its attempt to impose a direct and special tax upon them; its rigorous censorship in spite of the profession’s protest of last spring; and the heavy additional postage taxes levied upon some classes of newspapers and magazines, goes far to prove this. But even more convincing is the dissatisfaction with the metropolitan press in every reform camp and among the plain people. It has grown tremendously because the masses are convinced, rightly or wrongly that the newspapers with heavy capital investments are a ‘capitalistic’ press and, therefore, opposed to their interests.
This feeling has grown all the more because so many hundreds of thousands who were opposed to our going to war, and are opposed to it now, still feel that their views — as opposed to those of the prosperous and intellectual classes — were not voiced in the press last winter. They know that their position to-day is being misrepresented as disloyal or pro-German by the bulk of the newspapers. In this situation many are turning to the Socialistic press as their one refuge. They, and multitudes who have gradually been losing faith in the reliability of our journalism, for one reason or another, can still be won back if we journalists will but slake our intense thirst for reliable, trustworthy news, for opinions free from class bias and not always set forth from the point of view of the well-to-do and the privileged. How to respond to this need is the greatest problem before the American press. Meanwhile, on the business side, we drift toward consolidation on a resistless economic current, which foams past numberless rocks, and leads no man knows whither.
- Unfortunately, as we go to press, this statement seems to be contradicted by the dire rumor that Mr, Hearst has acquired the respected Boston Daily Advertiser. — THE EDITORS.↩