For the 47th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with Beth Garfrerick about the partnership between community weekly newspapers and national newspaper syndication services in the first half of the 20th century and the resulting influence on thousands of rural newspaper readers.
Beth Garfrerick is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama, where she teaches courses in Journalism History and Public Relations. She is the author of “Syndicates Attempt to Sway Public Opinion as a ‘Silent Partner’ of the Country Press, 1900 to 1950” in the March 2020 issue of Journalism History.
This episode is sponsored by the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama.
Teri Finneman: 00:09 Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama in Florence, where experiential learning is valued and students are taught how to produce mass media content, communicate in professional environments, and conduct academic research.
Weekly newspapers are the lifeblood for rural communities to receive information about what is happening in their area. In their heyday, there were 15,000 little newspapers across the country. Yet they are often overlooked when it comes to journalism history research. In today’s episode, researcher Beth Garfrerick discusses her study of the partnership between community weekly newspapers and national newspapers syndication services in the first half of the 20th century. We delve into how newspaper syndicates became the silent partner of the country press, writing and influencing the opinion of thousands of rural newspaper readers who are unaware of the source of much of their news.
Beth, welcome to the show. Why do you think it’s important to study small community newspapers?
Beth Garfrerick: 01:31 Well, I found it interesting in that a lot of the general journalism history works pay very little attention to the small community, weekly newspapers and so I find that it really missed a big story or a big part of our history. And so I think there’s a lot of problem in defining exactly what the community weekly newspaper is. And so in my studies I’ve noted that weeklies could be a special topic related to agriculture, labor, those types of things. But there was little attention given just to those very small communities with 5,000 [or] less people and their weekly newspaper that had local news. So I think we’re missing a big part of our history by not looking a little closer and diving into those newspapers as there were, at their heyday, there were some 15,000 of those little newspapers throughout the country.
Teri Finneman: 02:38 Yeah, I think you make a really good point. I got my start working for weekly newspapers, and I help contribute to one right now. And I completely agree with you how important they are. Did you do any work for weekly papers?
Beth Garfrerick: 02:51 I did not. I worked at a small daily newspaper in Florence, Alabama, and I have noted or found that a lot of research or data collecting sometimes lumps those two categories together, small dailies and weeklies. So it was — even though we, you know, came out more days than the weekly, obviously it was still a lot of this same makeup as far as newsroom and types of articles and the journalism that we were doing.
Teri Finneman: 03:21 So we’re going to focus today a lot on syndication services. So how and when did the relationship between weekly newspapers and syndication services begin?
Beth Garfrerick: 03:32 Well, the thing that fascinates me the most is innovation and just doing what’s necessary to survive. And so this came during a period of war, the Civil War, actually. And so many of the printers at that time, they were printer publishers or printer postmasters and some, many of them, were called to war. And so that left a real personnel shortage there in their newsrooms. And so Ansel Kellogg in Baraboo, Wisconsin, established this kind of a syndication program in 1865. He had begun this in 1861. And what he did is he worked with the Madison, Wisconsin, State Journal, and he ordered half sheets, supplements containing war news from that larger newspaper, and he would insert that in his weekly newspaper. And so it helped him, you know, to fill up his paper. And so eventually he saw that there were some opportunities there of these, what they call ready printed pages. And so he – and several others took notice and started doing the same, but eventually he kind of bought some of those smaller companies out. And so by into the 1870s, he became well-established in starting that service.
Teri Finneman: 05:05 So talk a little bit more about what else these syndication services offered and why they were so important to weeklies.
Beth Garfrerick: 05:13 Weeklies at that time, many of them in these very small communities were only four pages. And so obviously it cost money for the printing press, for the typesetters, for the paper, for the ink, all of those types of things. And for many of them –and it was hard to generate enough local advertising revenue to keep a lot of those operations going. So they found with these syndication services, what they would do is basically they would preprint half of the newspaper. So they provided the paper, the ink, the type setting, the articles, so and then they would ship these, many by rail, to these communities and they would pick up these preprinted sheets and all they had to do was go in and put their local news on the other sides. And so it just saved so much cost for them.
06:16 And of course, for the syndication services, if I’m a big retailer and I could get my advertisements, you know, in these preprinted pages sent out all over the country, mostly the Midwest, they were the biggest customer base for these ready print pages, a lot of small newspapers in that part of the country.
Teri Finneman: 06:40 You note that one of the most influential syndicates was the Western Newspaper Union. Tell us more about them.
Beth Garfrerick: 06:46 Well, they were actually, they started in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1880, so a little bit behind the Kellogg syndication service going at that time. But they had the widest geographic spread, and they, George Joslyn, if I’m pronouncing his name correctly, he was a successful patent medicines salesman, and he moved into the ready print business then in 1890. And by that time, the Western Newspaper Union was starting to expand, or WNU is many referred to it.
07:23 It worked with franchise agreements with other subscriber newspapers. And so, the syndicate provided newsprint, half the editorial type, setting, printing costs. They could afford to provide this newsprint and production because of revenue generated from the national advertising. And Joslyn was quite the salesman. They were very aggressive in their tech expansion tactics and they purchased Kellogg’s Chicago-based company, which was the first big syndication company, in 1906. And I had some data showing by the early 1900s nearly 12,000 newspapers in the United States, roughly 9,000 of those were community weeklies in towns with populations of 10,000 or less, and WNU subscribers had a total newspaper circulation at that time of nearly 25 million.
So a large majority of the customers, as I said, were in the Midwest region of the country and there was so many small newspapers and a lot of these communities even had several newspapers at that time. It was a fascinating time where newspapers were just all over the place. And so these were ready customers to stay in business. That’s a part to me of a lot of the untold story about journalism. It’s really a business story as well. And a lot this information could just as easily go in business journals. It’s amazing how innovative these individuals were to keep their newspapers operating.
Teri Finneman: 09:06 You write that “in the early 1900s, many smaller communities lacked a public library and the residents cannot afford lavish book collections. So often the community newspaper, a few agricultural journals, and the Bible were the few types of reading material found in a rural home.” What did this mean for the influence of syndicated material in local papers?
Beth Garfrerick: 09:28 It fascinated me to learn that many of these newspapers, they weren’t throwaways. They stayed in the living rooms and the libraries of these rural homes because they were such good reading material. And so many of the homemakers would clip articles or save entire issues because it was full of helpful tips. There were homemaking tips, sewing, agriculture news. They divided kind of men’s news and women’s news. There were news of celebrities, news about goings on in the world and other parts of the country. Now, a lot of these rural subscribers did also subscribe to their – maybe their largest daily newspaper within their state. They might drive in to town and pick those papers up on occasion. There was a lot of rural postal delivery for these papers, and it just kept them informed.
10:39 The biggest hits were, interestingly, they started a lot of literary series in these newspapers, and it was like later on with the, or with the radio soap operas and then of course television, to keep the readers interested. And so they would run series of these – it could be romance, mystery, Westerns, a whole variety of types of serials, and they would run chapters with each week. And they were very clever in keeping the reader interested in wanting more. And so they would purposely not quite end this series near resubscription times, so people would have to renew so they could keep the story going. They would start new serials just before the ends of others so that readers would get started in a new one and have to keep purchasing the newspapers. So it was a fascinating way to keep them going there.
11:38 A lot of the Sunday school lessons, they did recognize that their biggest readership was a Protestant community throughout the country. And so there were a lot of Bible lessons. A popular column was called Sunday School Lessons. So a lot of supplementary reading to the Bible, Bible studies and whatnot. Fashion news, a lot of the women enjoyed the fashion updates and, you know, trying to mimic some of those designs from the starlets and so forth. So it was just fascinating interest and information for them from all variety of topics.
Teri Finneman: 12:20 In your study, you mentioned all-home-print editors. What did this mean?
Beth Garfrerick: 12:25 There started to be a resistance. There was a lot of criticism within the larger journalism circles that kind of looked down upon these ready print papers as not being real journalism, as relying too heavily on material that came from elsewhere.
12:46 A lot of criticism also in that these articles were not, many of them were not – the author’s name was never given. Editorials, a lot of the readers just assumed that maybe that was local content and it wasn’t. So there was criticism from this growing number of all-home-print editors who said we support the idea of strong local editorials, local news throughout. And so there was some concern about quality of the paper, content wise. And so some of them, you know, bought into this idea that we, and bragged about it in their own in-house advertising, claiming to be all-home print. But what I found interesting was the syndicates then worked with their clients in helping them kind of disguise their newspapers to look more all-home print and that they moved more to the stereotype plates instead of preprinted entire sheets.
13:58 They would have columns in different articles that they could use as plate matter and they could place them throughout their pages and look as if they were part of the local content as well. But in all fairness to all-home print versus the syndication services, some of these newspapers, or many of them, could not have survived totally on local generated news and staff and personnel and so forth. They had to have the financial and content support of the syndication services to even stay in production.
Teri Finneman: 14:40 You mention William Allen White a few times in your piece. Of course, my journalism school is the University of Kansas and it’s named after him. Tell us a little bit about him and his importance to community journalism.
Beth Garfrerick: 14:53 He is the one – he became kind of the icon or this symbol of small town newspapers and so, and Kansas, of course, being there in the Midwest as well, Iowa, in many of those states there were so many small town newspapers, but he kind of led the fight to promote this all-home print idea. His editorials took a lot of national notice. He was an excellent writer, well-crafted editorials on state and national issues. And in in 1895, he was only 27 years old. He purchased the Emporia Kansas Gazette, and it was totally devoted to locally generated news. And interestingly, that strategy paid off for him because unlike so many other small weekly newspapers, his subscriptions started to come in from all other parts of the country and eventually parts of the world because he became so well known for his well-crafted editorials.
16:03 So he didn’t have to worry like so many others about where the next dollar is coming from. And he also did, he was a freelancer for some prestigious national magazines as well and became presidential adviser. He just became quite renowned. So he was at one point, you know, he was an excellent representative of promoting the idea of small town journalism, but his own personal life went well beyond those borders. So he wasn’t the typical small town editor in that sense.
Teri Finneman: 16:37 You note that the federal government stepped in by 1913 over concerns about syndicates being used for propaganda purposes. What’s the story behind that?
Beth Garfrerick: 16:48 Well, there were some articles again in some of the national magazines kind of pointing the finger at the syndication services and the propaganda where they are saying that a lot of politicians started to recognize the potential to work out some deals in the lobby and work with these syndication services to get a lot of their content.
17:13 Just, you know, just one transaction there with the WNU or, or whoever the syndication service was and their material is all of a sudden out in, you know, 10,000, 15,000 newspapers or whatnot. So they could see the power in doing that. The concern on the part of the government was that it, it was underhanded or misleading to a lot of these readers. And they might view these as endorsements of these politicians where in fact it was paid syndication coming out of Chicago, Illinois, or wherever. So they were concerned about this idea of looking at the less sophisticated readers out there in these rural communities, not understanding the source of a lot of the information they were receiving with editorials and political endorsements and so forth. So it did derive out of that later that syndicates were required to then have some markings to show that it was syndicate material. It was still very small, and you’ll find an in a lot of these newspapers, tiny, tiny letters at the very end it might say WNU.
18:37 So, you know, they were still abiding by a lot of the new mandates that came out of these hearings. But the lobbyists, I mean, they had a good system going here and they were not wanting to give it up very easily.
Teri Finneman: 18:51 So it’s really ironic that there’s this investigation of propaganda, but then you note that the federal government went and used weeklies for propaganda distribution during the war years. So how did they do this, and what kind of material was produced?
Beth Garfrerick: 19:07 I think in their minds it was a, well, it’s for good intents and purposes, you know, and so it actually, it was interesting just the use of the word propaganda, and I saw so much where there was, it was kind of, or categorized as good propaganda or bad propaganda. And so the government during these times viewed propaganda in a very positive way and that, you know, these newspapers are helping us to promote the war effort.
19:40 And it was very interesting to see both in the Great War, World War I, and then World War II, when there were efforts and not drafts, but efforts to encourage enlistments for soldiers, that most of the soldiers are – so many of them came from these very communities, these small, rural Midwest communities. And so the government found it very successful on their part to run a lot of enlistment campaigns to talk about war effort and then, of course, to get all of those back home to support the war effort through rations and victory gardens and all those types of things. So there were a lot of articles on how to help the homemaker survive during these tough times with, you know, food shortages and of course by World War II, then many women were going into the factories and working.
20:40 And so there were a lot of these syndication articles about home canning, ways to prepare quick meals, nutritious meals for your family. Farming, there were a lot of articles on helping those family members who weren’t off to war, staying behind. So they viewed it as a way to bolster the war efforts to keep to keep everybody in support of, and so, yeah, the government used these papers for their own purposes and were very successful in doing that.
Teri Finneman: 21:20 Overall, what would you say is the legacy of the relationship between weeklies and newspaper syndicates?
Beth Garfrerick: 21:27 Well, I would say that rural, the rural weeklies had a longstanding practice of using outside material anyway, as we mentioned from the federal government, from advertisers, special interests, lobbying. Small newspapers were constantly hit up for what they termed free publicity.
21:52 And so they realized the syndicates offered them a means to instead of just free publicity there, that they could work out these agreements with syndicates to provide, as I said, a lot of support as in personnel because they were providing articles already written. They were providing the ink and the printing and all those types of things. So I think they found it as kind of a salvation to keep their newspapers going as opposed to always being hit up for this free publicity. Because as I said, bottom line, they were businesses. Newspapers in these small towns, they were family-owned businesses. It wasn’t until into the ‘20s where we started to get more of the consolidation chain ownership. And a lot of these smaller family-owned papers started to be bought up by these chains.
22:51 So it was a survival tactic that they used just to stay afloat and to keep a newspaper in their small community. So I’ve come to appreciate and respect the role of the syndicates in keeping journalism alive throughout some very tough decades.
Teri Finneman: 23:12 And our final question of the show: Why does journalism history matter?
Beth Garfrerick: 23:16 Well, because it’s our history. It’s amazing to me wow much of our history is told in newspapers. And of course my studies have focused mainly on small community papers, but it’s amazing how well you can come to know community by reading its small newspapers. You hear birth, marriages, death announcements, comings and goings of the social elite, the accomplishments of local students, the gatherings, community clubs, business, professional organizations, church groups, letters from soldiers, letters home during the wars.
24:01 All of these stories are intimately told in these newspapers. And so one thing I find quite fascinating is that for some historians, I think you can’t truly know or interpret the history of our country without an understanding of how the syndication services worked in our newspapers. For those historians who rely heavily on newspaper articles to tell their histories, many of them are unaware that in a lot of these smaller town newspapers, the content is not coming from, you know, the mayor’s office. It’s coming from Chicago, Illinois, or New York, or you know, other far away places. So I think that is an important fact that’s kind of missed on some who are interpreting newspaper articles from days past.
Teri Finneman: 24:57 Thanks so much for joining us today.
Beth Garfrerick: 25:00 I appreciate it. Thank you.
Teri Finneman: 25:02 Thanks for tuning in and additional thanks to our sponsor, the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama in Florence and to Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: Good night and good luck.