By: Mark Fitzgerald
By all rights — especially now, with newspapers desperately tinkering with content, design and size — the Day Book should be celebrated as one of the great, if doomed, experiments in daily journalism. Instead, newspaper history textbooks have forgotten E.W. Scripps’ quixotic attempt to make a success of a Chicago daily newspaper that not only refused to run advertising, but also regularly picked fights with the owners of department stores and supermarkets whose ads kept other papers in business.
Duane Stoltzfus, a former New York Times copy editor who chairs the communications department at Goshen College in Indiana, tells the fascinating history of the Day Book in a new book from University of Illinois Press: “Freedom from Advertising: E.W. Scripps’s Chicago Experiment.”
During its brief life from 1911 to 1917, the Day Book was unlike any other newspaper in America. About the size of a tabloid and priced at a penny, the paper targeted and championed the working class. It set up shop in a part of town far from Chicago’s downtown Loop and tried to build its circulation neighborhood by neighborhood.
Why would Scripps want to create an ad-free daily after making his fortune from newspaper advertising?
“Scripps was a puzzling man, a man of contradictions, because he had done quite well by newspaper advertising,” Stoltzfus tells me. “But even with those papers, he set terms for advertising. He wanted to limit the size of ads, and the space they got. He wanted to make sure there was a robust balance between ad space and editorial.”
Scripps came up with the idea of the ad-free paper while in semi-retirement in California. He reasoned that a paper without advertising could give a “more honest account” of the news, the author says, and that if he could figure out a successful business model, it would be imitated by other publishers.
“He thought this was the greatest experiment that could be carried out in the history of journalism,” Stoltzfus adds.
But rather than trumpet this new kind of newspaper, Scripps launched the Day Book with an almost paranoid secrecy. The daily set up in a modest area not simply to be close to its target audience, but to avoid tipping off competitors that it was taking on Chicago. Oddly, for its first few years, Day Book never ran anything on its flag to let readers know that it was ad-free.
The paper broke all kinds of rules, Stoltzfus says. Negley Cochran, who had been editor of Scripps’ Toledo, Ohio, paper, was given wide latitude on content, and “the very first issue started off with a kind of sugary piece of fiction that someone on staff, the business manager, wrote.”
Two staples of the Day Book’s news were reports on accidents at big Chicago retailers and media criticism of other city papers. Often the two were combined. “You could read about someone who had fallen to his death in an elevator accident in one of the department stores in the Loop, and the Day Book would really thump its chest, [writing] that ‘this is the only place you’ll get this story, because this is a big advertiser,'” says Stoltzfus.
Day Book directed particular criticism against department store magnate Marshall Field Jr. One profitable Christmas, when it appeared the department store was not going to pay worker bonuses, the newspaper published an audaciously personal open letter to Field. As Stoltzfus relates, “It said things like, ‘Are you ready to meet your Maker? At a certain time, you will die. Are you ready to account for your actions?'”
Ironically, Marshall Field III would go on to bankroll the most famous ad-free daily paper of the 20th century, PM, in New York City.
The penny daily also reported in detail on the ferocious newspaper competition at the time, and the often violent methods rivals employed to gain an edge.
Though Scripps may have considered Day Book the greatest experiment in the history of journalism, he attempted it on the cheap. “Scripps from the beginning was concerned about sinking a lot of money into the paper, so it had only a few reporters at any one time — and really struggled to cover Chicago,” he says. One of those reporters was Carl Sandburg, who gained national fame as a poet while writing for the paper.
Day Book never really caught on in Chicago, reaching a circulation high-point of just 22,000 at a time when the Chicago Daily News was selling 327,000 copies, Hearst’s Chicago American 315,000, and the Chicago Tribune 226,000. It turned its first monthly profit in 1916 when it doubled its price to two cents. But with the advent of World War I, newsprint prices soared, and the paper went into a financial tailspin.
“From one part of Scripps’ experiment, the financial part, it failed,” Stoltzfus says, “but Day Book did succeed in the second part, [creating] a different kind of paper with new and expansive coverage.”