SIGNS and portents are rising in the newspaper sky. Their promise is of extraordinary changes, some of which are already coming to pass. There is justification, indeed, for an expectation that before the process is ended the institution will bear small likeness to that we know now.
The newspaper really is an institution. Each day in the United States eight papers are bought for every five families — one for every two persons over the age of ten who are able to read. It harvests every field of human activity; the poles no less than the capitals of the earth are its threshing floors; each new device of science becomes another flail with which it may beat out grain for the most insatiable of all hungers — curiosity. Nobody has to read a newspaper, but everybody does, and there is more truth than belongs to most epigrams in Kipling’s ‘Journalism meets the first tribal need after warmth, food, and women.’ If it should be taken out of our lives, social disruptions would ensue greater than those that would attend the withdrawal of any other agency of communication. Naturally enough, this importance has made the production of newspapers a major industry. In 1929, income from sales and subscriptions exceeded $325,000,000; from advertising, $900,000,000 — substantially more than one billion dollars.
These two factors of circulation and earnings are chiefly responsible for the changes that are under way. During the war and through the years immediately following, circulation grew swiftly and steadily. For a considerable period the increase was half again as great as that in population. That ratio came to be looked upon as fixed, and it would have been hard to find anyone who believed that such a thing as reaching a point of saturation was possible. Two amazingly fat years came, 1926 and 1927, when circulation increased 4,227,387 and population only 3,249,923. Belief became conviction that nothing could stop the tide — but something could, and something did. In 1928, morning newspapers lost 150,729 in circulation and evening newspapers gained only 156,555, so that the whole gain was 5826. The reversal was staggering, and for the first time saturation found a place in newspaper reckoning. Last year another reversal came, and circulation increased 1,453,127. This was much more like the old days, but thoughtless conclusions are not being drawn — for once. As a matter of fact, the face of these figures is as false as it is fair. For the past five years the population of the United States has increased on an average 1,869,900 a year; for the past three years the average has fallen to 1,544,966. In the past five years circulation growth has averaged 1,285,220; in the past three years, 1,141,272. Even at its sharply decreased rate, population has definitely outpaced circulation. Saturation is no longer a possibility, it is a reality.
Increased circulation, therefore, for the paper that is not content with what it has now is to be gained only through slow feeding upon growth in population or through such major acquisitions as come with consolidations. There is every likelihood that the present condition will bring about a marked increase in consolidations. Already these are under way at a rate far greater than even newspapermen realize. In the past five years ninety-five newspapers have passed from existence - one every nineteen days. In 1928 and 1929, twenty-five were established, but almost without exception they were in oil-boom towns of Texas and Oklahoma, and it remains to be seen how long they may last. Even so, there are seventy fewer newspapers than there were in 1924; the number now is 1944 compared with 2014 then. The mortality promises to be greater among morning newspapers; of the ninety-five that have gone, forty-eight were morning papers, and all the twenty-five new ones were evening papers; there are now 381 morning papers and 1563 evening, these evening papers enjoying two thirds of the gross circulation of 39,425,615. Sixty-nine of our cities of 100,000 population or more have but one morning paper, — Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis among them, — and twelve have none.
A second consequence of the present condition will surely be a still more persistent growth of newspaper chains. Already these have attained an importance to which little attention has been called. Three hundred and three of our newspapers are now under chain ownership — about one in every six. These are held in fifty-seven groups, and represent a capital investment of $600,000,000. Their circulation last year aggregated 15,820,523, a decimal more than 40 per cent of the circulation of the country. They are published in forty states; only Arizona, Delaware, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming have not been invaded. They are to be found in eighty-four cities of 100,000 population or more; only twenty-two cities of the same class do not have them. Eleven cities ranging in size from 75,000 to 600,000 have none but chain newspapers: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Rochester and Albany, New York; Akron and Canton, Ohio; San Diego, California; Flint and Grand Rapids, Michigan; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee; and Camden, New Jersey.
As an example of the effects of mergers and chain ownership, Pittsburgh is worth a moment’s notice. For many years this city of 600,000 had four morning and four evening newspapers. To-day it has one morning and two evening newspapers — none of them owned by Pittsburghers. One belongs to the Paul Block chain, one to the Hearst, and one to the Scripps-Howard. Through this ownership they hold, too, a monopoly of the Associated Press, United Press, and International News services — as tight a barrier against new competition as could be devised or asked.
Scripps-Howard leads the roster of the chains with twenty-five newspapers. William Randolph Hearst comes next with twenty-four, but, with almost exactly twice the circulation of the Scripps-Hovard papers, stands quite by himself in that rating. Nine other chains hold 102 newspapers: Ira C. Copley with eighteen in Illinois and California; Frank E. Gannett with fifteen in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut; Lindsay-Nunn with thirteen in Texas and New Mexico; Fentress-Marsh with eleven in Texas and New Mexico; Scripps-Canfield with eleven in the Pacific Northwest; MacyForbes with ten in Westchester County, New York, and Massachusetts; the Ridder brothers with nine in New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, and South Dakota; Bernarr Macfadden with eight in New York, Philadelphia, and various Michigan cities; and Paul Block with seven in Brooklyn, Newark, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Milwaukee, and Duluth. These eleven groups have one fourth of the country’s circulation and three fifths of the chains’ circulation. This is a concentration comparable in every way with that which has come in England and which we have been inclined to regard as unparalleled.
This spread of mergers and of chains among newspapers has been only in part a matter of choice; to a far greater degree it has been the result of outside influences. Extraordinary changes are being wrought in our whole economic structure. The evidences of this are on every hand, and of the profound effects they are having on our everyday lives. Not even in the ‘trust years’ at the turn of the century were mergers so much the order as they are to-day. They are going forward swiftly in industry and even more swiftly outside industry. What is happening in banking may be cited as a single vivid example. Last year 799 banks were absorbed by others. Steadily banking control is being concentrated — 1 per cent of the banks now hold 75 per cent of the country’s deposits. Relentlessly the number of banks is being cut down — in the last seven years it has been reduced 20 per cent. (In this reduction, it must be made plain, mergers have been but one factor; the trend is the point I seek to emphasize.)
Closely allied to mergers is the chain store, and again banking may be cited as an illustration of its growth. To-day there are 272 banking chains in the United States with thirteen billions of resources. In trade (where, of course, the chain has had its greatest expansion) there is now, quite literally, nothing that cannot be bought in a chain store, and there are communities where nothing can be bought outside one. J. C. Penney reckons that 15 per cent of the retail trade of the country is done at chain stores; one grocery chain did more than a billion dollars’ worth of business in 1929. Installment buying has become an equal factor in these economic changes. No one can say what its volume is, but it may be guessed from its dominance in our greatest industry — more than half the automobiles sold are sold on deferred payments. These things mean mass production, centralization of control, and standardization of products and policies — powerful factors, each of them, in social no less than industrial and mercantile organization.
It was inevitable that the newspaper should have been affected by this development — it touches upon and is touched by too many aspects of business to have escaped so pervasive an influence. Two interior factors hastened the yielding of the newspaper to this influence. One was the great increase in the cost of production — wages, materials, equipment — in the years following the war. As soundly informed an executive as I know declares that this cost has risen to a point where a variation of 10 per cent in volume of advertising would turn profit into loss for four papers out of five. Compactness of organization and concentration of competition are obvious objectives under such a condition. The second factor was the advertiser. Advertising has become a major charge on business. It has become, too, as fixed a charge as rent or pay roll, and like these must justify itself. Just as he found one store and one force of employees sufficient for serving all classes of his patronage, the merchant began to wish for a single medium of announcement. Having wished, he began to demand, and having demanded, he began, in many instances, to lend actual aid toward the consolidation of the agencies of appeal. Few negotiations toward merger, or even toward the advent of chain ownership, have been carried beyond the preliminary stages without consultation with the principal advertisers of the community. On the whole the change has been to the satisfaction of the advertiser. It is not always that he finds himself spending less money, but he is getting better returns.
Now and then he has been rather painfully hoist with his own petard; under consolidation, rates have been raised to a point where he himself, in turn, has risen — in rebellion. Such strikes of advertisers resulted in Cleveland and Dayton in the establishment of ‘shoppers dailies’ carrying nothing but advertising and, in a final stage, neighborhood announcements. Less elaborately organized strikes have been carried on in other cities. It is significant that victory — not always complete, but definite nevertheless — has rested with the newspapers.
The newspaper has proved especially plastic to two, at least, of the major elements of this trend toward mergers and chain ownership. Mass production is not yet feasible for newspapers; news must come molten from the crucible of events, and communities are too self-contained and distances in the United States are too great. Centralization of control, however, fits snugly into the newspaper scheme, and standardization has become a dominating trait of the newspaper of to-day.
Never were newspapers cut so true to a single pattern as they are now. They compete no longer in content, but only in form, and in form there is coming a curious similarity among them. In scores of cities one newspaper differs from another only in the head letter it uses. Features and illustrations will be the same, in kind at least, and not only will the news be the same, but, by the time the last edition has come from the press, the same ‘stories’ will have been chosen for display and the same themes and incidents for emphasis in the headlines.
New York, from which the newspapers of the entire country take their cadence, still leads in this emulation. No newspaper day is complete until the product of the competitors has been examined and the closest possible similarity has been achieved. In professional esteem that newspaper is the best which is most like its fellows. The newspaper of selection is passing swiftly from the scene and the newspaper of record is coming as steadily into preeminence. Quite definitely the function of the newspaper has become the merchandizing of news, its first page the show window and its columns the counters on which the widest possible array of goods is displayed.
Hardly half a dozen crusading newspapers remain. As in many another field, however, the crusader is born to his calling and exterior conditions affect him but little. An Ernest Gruening in Portland, Maine, voices a popular feeling; a Julian Harris in Columbus, Georgia, takes a position that is as opposed to popular as it is to vested interest. Nevertheless the American newspaper as an institution is now unmistakably on the side of the established order. Newspapers of militant political opinions, too, grow fewer and fewer. The number that classify themselves as Independent has risen until it is now 41 per cent of the whole number. Such labels do not always mean what they say — the St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls itself Independent and the New York World Independent-Democrat, yet it would be hard to make a choice between them for devotion to Democracy.
Where there is but one newspaper in a field it is not often either easy or wise to take a pronounced partisan position, and even where there are but two it is not likely to be met with unless competition demands it, or the temper of the community itself. Then may be found the apparent anomaly of a single ownership purveying both doctrines. Springfield and Worcester, Massachusetts, are excellent examples of this, and it would be unfair to seek insincerity in it; it is but another evidence of the merchandising function. Because a grocer does not drink coffee should not be a reason for its absence from his stock. Merchandising is not strange, perhaps, when consideration is given to the huge volume of news matter that pours daily into the offices. There is no longer any place in the world that is not a date line for news, and for news that happened within the last twenty-four hours. Within our generation the category of the things that are accepted as news has been increased a hundredfold. We have our own Mars Hill where we spend our time ‘in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.’ No metropolitan newspaper receives each day fewer than two words of news for every one it can print; most of them receive three. In so lush a field there may well be small provocation to forage elsewhere.
But it is not in general news alone that standardization is making headway. The news services are contributing mightily. To an extent not dreamed of ten years ago the Associated Press actually edits the papers of its members. Associated Press matter must go ‘as is.’ Even editorial interpolations for the sake of clarity are frowned upon, and the penalties for infractions are heavy enough to be real deterrents. Where Associated Press news is concerned it is, and must be, the same wherever printed. Now the Associated Press has gone far beyond the field of general news. It runs for its members a photographic service and a feature service that supply each week the equivalent of six pages of newspaper. It has just completed plans for a cartoon service, a daily service of comics, and a four-page comic section for Sunday papers. The United Press gives its clients a Red Letter Service that carries a minimum of 30,000 words a week, and the International News Service sends out each day seven columns of matter supplementary to general news. These special services go into 2800 offices, which means that every newspaper in the country takes at least one, and that almost half of them take at least two. The little that the news services have not done has been taken care of by the syndicates. If you have a favorite comic strip or a favorite columnist, a favorite cartoon or a favorite commentator, you need not deny yourself your daily indulgence wherever you may go.
Chain ownership, too, lends a strong hand to standardization. To a peculiar degree the newspaper still reflects the personality of its ownership. Sometimes the reflection is physical — a Hearst newspaper may be recognized as far as you can see it, no matter what city it is published in. Sometimes it is a manifestation of policy, as in the Scripps-Howard support of the candidacy of Herbert Hoover regardless of the preferences of individual clienteles.
We have, then, one reflection not in a single newspaper or a single community, but in five or ten or twentyfive. There are shortcomings other than monotony in the standardized newspaper. Often it lacks the outward and inward evidences of individuality — of its own individuality, at least. Often it lacks vigor and initiative, and sometimes the courage that is born of competitive need. Nevertheless, the newspaper of to-day, standardized or not, is a good newspaper. Factor for factor in its content, newspaper quality was never so high as it is to-day. The gathering of news has been brought to a magical perfection of scope and detail. Authority in presentation and interpretation is at the highest point that has ever been reached. The syndicate, and the news service, as they function nowadays, can furnish for a hundred newspapers material that in excellence and importance would be beyond the reach of any one newspaper, except, perhaps, a few of the greatest of them all. In every sense of the word the newspaper of to-day is the best bargain any man can buy. Regarded as a manufactured product alone, it sells for less than half the cost of turning it out. The value of the information it garners from a thousand sources and lays at your doorstep or on your desk is utterly beyond calculation.
There is still another aspect in which the newspaper of to-day has departed sharply from tradition. Again this is a change that is not peculiar to the newspaper, but marks business generally. The commercial loan is a diminishing factor in the financing of business. Its place is being taken, apparently, by issues of stocks and bonds, and now the newspaper security has made its appearance. This is a major change. To an extraordinary extent the newspaper has been the product of individual endeavor. There was really a great deal of truth in the ancient, and homely, formula for starting one — ‘an itch to write and a shirt tail full of type.’ From the days of Franklin and Bradford on down through the days of Bennett and Greeley and Medill and Nelson and Pulitzer and Ochs, the thing that made newspapers was one man’s intensity and devotion and willingness to do the whole job, even if it took thirty hours a day. Sometimes families and partnerships succeeded these founders, but always the distinctive, individual control was unmistakable. Rarely, until recent years, was there anything approximating company ownership. The financial structure was in keeping with these conditions, and financial dealings were on the oldfashioned basis of the personal equation. But now the newspaper security has come to keep company with, for instance, the department-store security.
In the past three years forty-eight newspapers in thirty-six cities of fourteen states have issued stocks and bonds in the sum of $130,000,000. These are newspaper issues only; the securities covering magazines and other periodicals form an entirely separate classification. Also they are public issues, traded in on some public market. Except in two instances, where the purposes are commingled, they are exclusive of loans for strictly real-estate purposes. These are impressive figures. They are significant, too, of the newspaper’s definite classification as a business. Behind each issue stands a corporation, and each issue has imposed on newspaper management a new responsibility. It is a responsibility that must be met in terms of earnings, of interest on bonds, of dividends on stocks. It is a responsibility that may not be taken lightly. The securities referred to are held by some 50,000 persons, which is another way of saying that, instead of one or two or three, there are a thousand owners for each of the papers covered by these securities. These owners came in as investors — that is, for business reasons. It is only human that they should be interested in results rather than in the means by which those results are achieved; it is only human that management should be sensitive to the new conditions.
How much money a newspaper must make thus becomes a matter of first importance. Take, as an example, the Chicago Daily News. Four years ago it issued $8,000,000 worth of 6 per cent debentures to cover the purchase of the property from the Lawson estate. It has, as well, 60,000 shares of 7 per cent cumulative preferred stock outstanding, and 400,000 shares of common. It provides $250,000 a year for a sinking fund, and so has now only $7,000,000 of debentures unredeemed. These call for $420,000 a year in interest, and dividends on the preferred stock for another $420,000. With the $250,000 for the sinking fund, this makes a total of $1,090,000. For the five years immediately preceding the issue, the net profits of the Daily News averaged $1,500,000, so that these new fixed charges require two thirds of the net profits before provision may be made for common-stock dividends or any of the other demands arising from the change in organization. All the old obligations remain — pay rolls, materials, replacements; these charges are additional. The new fixed charges of none of the issues call for less than one third of the net earnings of the properties. Inevitably there has been a shift of emphasis from the editorial to the business side of newspapers. I do not say that this is sinister, but I hazard the guess that we have seen only the beginning of the change.
Where will the change end ? I wish I knew! It seems safe to prophesy that the number of newspapers will decrease until even those that are only moderately successful have disappeared. Ownership will be more and more concentrated until, quite probably, there are mergers of chains themselves. Concentration may, indeed, be carried to a point where mass production is both possible and desirable. Some of the agencies toward that end may be already in the testing.
There is automatic composition; perhaps that will bring about a great central office where all general — not local — news, all editorials, all features, will be gathered and edited, to be punched on a tape and sent direct to typesetting machines in a score of cities. The transmission of pictures by wire and wireless is now an established factor in newspaper production; perhaps the time is not far away when newspapers, centrally produced, will be photographed a whole page at a time, transmitted by these devices, engraved, and sent direct to the press without editorial intervention at the point of printing. Perhaps television may reach a quantity-production basis that will make feasible the throwing of a newspaper or its equivalent on a screen in the home or the office, or even in an automobile or a bus. Already this is being done experimentally.
Before the American Society of Newspaper Editors a year ago, William Allen White conjured up a vision of a day when ‘a man as he goes downtown in the morning can, at the news stand, leave his order and say, “Send me ten minutes of the Tex Guinan cross-examination, ten minutes of the ball game with the pictures, and send me the fire at Boston,” and when he gets home he will sit down and look at it. Where, then, will be all our pride and glory?’