Same As It Ever Was

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Out of the blue the other day, I got an e-mail from Thomas D. Shaw, president and CEO of the Shaw Newspaper chain in Illinois. He’d found an old issue of E&P from 1921. Would I like to have it?

A couple of days later, the mint-condition Sept. 24, 1921 issue arrived in the mail–and transported me to a world at once alien and familiar.

The first thing that I noticed was the sheer volume of long-gone newspapers whose very names were unknown to me. Sure, I knew some of the papers that folded long before my career ever began, such as the Chicago Herald-Examiner or The Pittsburgh Post. But The Atlanta Georgian-American? The Miami Metropolis? The Brooklyn Standard Union?

Yet, the issue was also peopled with names still familiar in the industry. There was James Wright Brown, of course, the patriarch of the family that owned E&P for more than a century before selling it to its present owner VNU. There was also a McClatchy from the Sacramento Bee, and a Shaw from Dixon, Illinois.

There were odd echoes of issues that dog publishers of the present age. Just as newspapers regard the many evolving forms of digital communication with a mix of anticipation and apprehension, in these pages publishers puzzle out the implications of “wireless telegraphy.”

How shall youth be served, these long-ago publishers wondered. On the one hand, a new Seattle Post-Intelligencer editor quickly abolishes The Junior, the “well known juvenile section,” and disbands the “Wide-awake Club, an organization formed and sponsored by the Post-Intelligencer and composed of several thousand school children all over the Northwest.” The editor, one H.G. Nicholas, declares that “I believe in supporting only those features that have general appeal.”

On the other hand, an ad for The International Syndicate of Baltimore offers a half-dozen kid-oriented features.

Just as E&P offers now, there’s considerable coverage in the 1921 issue of the Spanish-language press — and a suggestion that newspapers adopt to a changing demographic. A long article declares Hawaii home of the “most diversified press” in the world. “English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and Filipino Readers Must Be Catered To,” the subhead reads.

But 1921 was clearly a different age, too.

In the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, the self-righteousness that had already spawned the Volstead Act was well in evidence among the “newspaper men,” as E&P inevitably styled them.

To put it mildly, these men did not have the self-esteem issues that afflict journalists of the new millennium. This particular E&P was a special issue, dedicated to the first “Press Congress of the World,” which the participants, and E&P, had no doubt would usher in nothing less than –get ready — world peace.

“World Peace Ideal of Press Congress,” reads the headline over the lead article. “Plan of Honolulu Convention Is to Form a Permanent Organization of Journalists for Better Understanding, With Welfare of All People as Sole Object.”

The headline only hints at the sweeping ambitions outlined in the article by a certain Dr. Virgilio Rodriguez Beteta, identified as “a noted Central American journalist.” A people exhausted from the World War are looking for permanent peace, Dr. Beteta argues, but they cannot find it in the institutions of the military, with its bloody history, nor government, with its narrow self-interests, nor religion, with the antagonisms of its differing dogmas and sects.

No, only journalists can bring world peace. It’s worth quoting him at some length:

“It is in this hour when journalism should attempt to enthrone itself as the touchstone of the Ideal. It does not belong, considered in its essence, to any exclusive circle, army, sect or government whatsoever. More than that, it does not belong to any single country and can even raise its voice against the opinion of the people. It can be symbolized by a new Atlas who hardly feels the weight of the world that he carries on his shoulders while his hands are stretched forth in tireless attitude.”

Nowadays, of course, this kind of rhetoric serves only to amuse journalists, who are more likely to see themselves as incarnations of Sisyphus than Atlas.

“World peace–from the people who brought you the Spanish-American War,” my colleague Jim Rosenberg snorted when I read him some passages from the article.

But Beteta believed. The Press Congress, he declared, will be “more famous than was that of The Hague and a league more influential in its results than the many proposed leagues of nations.”

If, in the end, the Press Congress of the World had about as much impact on the Brotherhood of Man as last year’s Nexpo, the publishers were at least assured of a pleasant time, judging by the official itinerary.

The Congress was held in Hawaii, and, as Transportation Committee Chairman Will Wilke reported, arrangements have been made to “provide he greatest possible degree of comfort, convenience, speed and safety.”

Well, maybe not speed.

Consider this schedule. Leaving Chicago on Sept. 29, the American delegates were to ride by “special train” with stops in Kansas City, Hutchinson, and Albuquerque, with a little excursion to the Grand Canyon. The train was to arrive in San Francisco on Oct. 4 and sail that day to Hawaii, “reaching Honolulu October 10th,” exactly a week before the start of the Congress, which lasted only five days. The publishers didn’t bestir themselves to leave Hawaii, however, until Nov. 2, when they were to sail the six days back to San Francisco.

But not everybody was in that much of a rush. “At the request of some of the delegates,” E&P reported, “Mr. Wilke has undertaken the organization of an Oriental post-Congress tour” to Japan, China and the Philippines. Those folks were to depart Hawaii Nov. 1, “returning first of the year.”

Think about that itinerary on your next red eye home from an NAA or ASNE gathering.

When these news Atlases were not contemplating how they would bear the weight of world peace — they were griping about the price of newsprint. Jason Rogers of The New York Globe took the back cover ad to urge his fellow publishers squeeze newsprint makers for all they can. Rogers happily described suppliers who could not enforce price increases. “Domestic and Canadian mills are begging for business at prices slightly lower than contract market quotations. Mills are shutting down because they have no orders,” he crowed.

Don?t sign any contracts for 1922 deliveries until you talked to him, wrote Rogers, who added he was able to tap into an “abundant supply” of newsprint. “Now is the time to resist the efforts of pirates to maintain unreasonable exactions,” he wrote. “Publishers will be foolish to permit the manufacturers to compel them to sign on the dotted line. We now have a buyers’ market.”

Just as these men of peace were urging each other to squeeze suppliers — they were also fulminating against those damned unions.

Under the headline, “Cut Printers’ Wages, Publishers Demand,” E&P reported on the National Publishers Association “determined efforts” to cut the wages of New York compositors represented by Typographical Union No. 6. Other printing craft unions had already agreed to wage reductions ranging from 10% to 12.5%, the association’s labor committee chairman Arthur Baldwin said — and yet the compositors were daring to demand an increase of $5 a week.

On the eve of their trip to establish world peace, the publishers were obviously moved by this inequity. They passed a resolution urging newspaper management’s Employing Printers Association to tell the union to immediately accept the contract they’d offered – – or they would effectively bust the unions by declaring an “open shop” at the “Big Six” papers and publishing companies.

In an editorial, E&P heaped scorn on the mayors of Chicago and New York City, who were feuding with their local papers. Chicago’s present Mayor Richard M. Daley, buffeted at every turn by Chicago Sun-Times investigations into corruption at City Hall, can at least take comfort that a long-ago predecessor was even more vexed by newspapers. Mayor William Hale Thompson, known as “Big Bill,” was so exercised about their reporting on graft in his administration that he sued the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Daily News for $10 million for alleged injury to the city’s credit rating. An outrage that will never stop the press, E&P thundered: “Men who hold public office know that their acts will be subjected to the scrutiny of the argus-eyed newspapers.”

The editorial’s headline read: “Newspapers Cannot Be Silenced.”
Unless, that is, they are, say, The Atlanta Georgian-American or The Miami Metropolis.

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