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Freedom from AdvertisingE. W. Scripps's Chicago Experiment
By DUANE C. S. STOLTZFUS
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2007 Duane C. S. Stoltzfus
All right reserved.
IntroductionEven as he enjoyed the comforts of his Southern California estate in the fall of 1911, surrounded by servants and eucalyptus trees, the publisher E. W. Scripps had his mind on the bold slugger of cities, Chicago. He had dispatched one of his lieutenants to the city to carry out what Scripps regarded as the most important experiment that the press could ever hope to conduct, and one that he believed needed to be executed with utmost secrecy. Rejecting conventional wisdom, Scripps wanted to prove that a newspaper could be profitable without so much as a single column inch of advertising. It was a radical notion, given that advertising had supplanted subscriptions and street sales as the main source of newspaper revenue a decade earlier, and that department stores and other large advertisers appeared to be gaining more influence over newspapers' content with each passing year. The trends troubled Scripps, who had long had an antagonistic relationship with advertisers, even as they had helped to finance the building of his newspaper chain, the largest in the country, and of his estate, one of the grandest. Journalism, Scripps believed, had greedily sold its soul to a commercial devil. In his view, publishers and editors were unwilling to print some of the most important news stories for fear of offending advertisers,and colored much of what they did publish to stay in the good graces of these financial investors. "The whole editorial staff of every modern newspaper," he said, "is little more than an auxiliary of the advertising department." As a result, news was ignored or presented in a dishonest way. Citing an example from his own chain, he said the Cincinnati Post had battled that city's political machine but found that when it aggressively exposed corruption, businesses linked with the political powers would withdraw advertising. So the Post had been "compelled to a course of persistent compromise" and had "kept its hands off of enough to still enjoy a large amount of advertising." This kind of subservient press acted as a drag on democracy, he said, and it was only by having newspapers become "as independent of the bankers and merchants as most of our newspapers are now independent of the politicians and office holders" that readers would be well served.
In starting an ad-free newspaper in Chicago, called the Day Book, Scripps was intent on setting the highest standards for honest and independent reporting. He wanted to create an inexpensive paper that would appeal to the working class in an entertaining way and would at the same time crusade for higher wages, more unions, safer working conditions, and other causes dear to the hearts of the many Americans who aspired to better their lot. To reach its goal, the Day Book would not be above catering to what Scripps called a taste for the common-a delectable mix of lowbrow cartoons, boiled-down news briefs, courtroom drama, and sensational crimes. But Scripps was determined to start a publication that would not only entertain, but would also take up the cause of the working class without compromise. The primary obstacle to honest reporting, from his point of view, was advertising. As long as newspapers (or magazines, for that matter) relied on advertising, he reasoned, they would remain beholden to the captains of department stores and other industries whose interests often ran counter to the people they employed, the workers for whom the Day Book was intended. Scripps wanted to be able to have a newspaper forcefully campaign for higher wages for store clerks, for example, without fearing that a Marshall Field's could pull its advertising and put the newspaper out of business. For years, Scripps had limited advertising in his other newspapers, decreeing that the "news hole" should never be smaller than the space devoted to advertising and that only relatively small ads should be accepted, the better to exclude department stores. Beginning in 1904, he began earnestly planning for a breed of newspaper that would be fully independent of advertisers and would rely solely on readers for its revenue. In a memorandum that Scripps titled the "Non-Advertising Newspaper Scheme," he said that he first came upon the idea nearly thirty years earlier in learning about the editor Charles A. Dana's unrealized plans to reduce and then eliminate advertising in the New York Sun. Scripps envisioned his Chicago newspaper as the beginning of a chain of adless papers, based in large cities across the country-Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington topped the list. He also saw himself creating a model for other publishers, large and small. He wanted to prove that an ad-free newspaper could be started with only a modest investment of capital, so that anyone who shared his vision could follow his lead, even if they did not enjoy his level of wealth, and "build up another class of newspapers which would serve the public and the readers alone." The potential for altering the course of journalism, as he envisioned it, was great, if not revolutionary. Scripps entertained the notion that adless journalism might one day supplant commercial journalism altogether, putting out of business those papers that blindly insisted on publishing ads.
A Reformer Leads a Small Staff
The experiment in Chicago depended upon the success of a small staff led by Negley D. Cochran, who was regarded as one of the most reform-minded and crusading editors in the Scripps organization and who was the longtime editor of the News-Bee in Toledo, Ohio. Assisting Cochran were a managing editor, a business manager, several reporters, and a corps of young canvassers hired to line up subscribers by going door-to-door in neighborhoods near the office. The reporters included Carl Sandburg, who emerged as a national poet while reporting on politics and social issues for the Day Book, and Don MacGregor, a firebrand who left to cover the miners' strikes in Colorado, and the violence that ensued, and later went to Mexico hoping to fight alongside Francisco "Pancho" Villa. To turn a profit-and Scripps was adamant that the ad-free paper would eventually show an annual profit of 15 percent, the standard for all of his papers-Scripps calculated that the Day Book needed to attract about 30,000 subscribers. But testing the profitability and effectiveness of an ad-free paper was only part of the experiment in Chicago. Scripps also wanted to try out a small-sized paper as the best vehicle for adless journalism. He reasoned that a reduced tabloid form would make the most economical use of paper-keeping costs low was a priority in any Scripps venture-and that it would appeal to readers, who could easily hold it and turn the pages, even when standing on a crowded train. The Day Book, while using no more newsprint than a standard four-page paper, relied on a rebuilt press with a special folder to create a mini-newspaper of thirty-two pages, each page eight and seven-eighths inches long by six and one-eighth inches wide. Cochran referred to the paper as the first true tabloid; in Chicago, at the time, the other dailies were usually about eighteen inches by twenty-four inches.
The business model was fairly simple. Scripps agreed to set aside $30,000 a year for, as he put it, "pure unadulterated public service." He and Cochran both understood that at one level "the whole foundation of this adless newspaper idea is that sufficient profit can be made on white paper to run a newspaper." The Day Book was to get by on a modest budget of $2,500 a month, not including the cost of newsprint. It took a pound of paper to produce fifteen copies of the Day Book. The cost of newsprint, at the start, was about forty dollars a ton, or two cents a pound; with delivery and related costs added, it came to just about two-and-a-half cents a pound. The Day Book was sold to newsboys for fifty cents per hundred, or a half cent for each paper; the newsboys in turn sold the paper for a penny a piece, earning for themselves a half cent per paper. So for every pound of newsprint that yielded fifteen papers, proceeds were divided accordingly: two-and-a-half cents for the white paper; seven-and-a-half cents for the carriers; and five cents for the Day Book. When the paper reached a circulation of 30,000, Cochran figured, it would be self-sustaining. That circulation would require 2,000 pounds of paper daily, and a profit of five cents a pound on the paper meant revenue of one hundred dollars per day, or $2,600 a month, based on twenty-six publishing days (there was no paper on Sundays). If the Day Book kept to its $2,500 monthly budget, it would become a moneymaker, albeit a modest one.
An Adless Experiment Becomes a Footnote
Did the Day Book ever turn a profit? Did it provide a viable ad-free model for other newspapers? Even close readers of journalism history would be hardpressed to know exactly how the experiment turned out. By and large historians have treated the Day Book as little more than a footnote-"relegated to brief mention" is how Ben Bagdikian put it-if they refer to the little paper at all. Frank L. Mott's American Journalism: A History of Newspapers, for example, includes numerous citations for Scripps and his newspaper organization. Mott's primary interest, however, is tracing the development of the innovative Scripps newspaper chain, with a smattering of details on E. W. himself, notably his poor health and heavy drinking. Willard G. Bleyer's Main Currents in the History of American Journalism does not mention the Day Book at all. Other contributors to the core literature on the history of the press, including recent works, do little to fill in the gaps surrounding this adless experiment. Much more attention has been paid to PM, a more recent, and, in its own day, better publicized, effort at ad-free publishing. PM, a daily based in New York whose fortunes were widely watched in the 1940s, has been the subject of a book and several articles and received significant mention in journalism histories.
Neither publication, as it turned out, proved to be financially sound. With only one profitable month to its run between 1911 and 1917, the Day Book certainly did not make a convincing case for its viability as a business. But a comparative analysis of the Day Book and competing dailies suggests that its content, rather than its financial troubles and short lifespan, may be the best measure of its contribution to the practice of journalism. The Day Book redefined news in Chicago, and it did so in part because of freedom from commercial pressures. In response to Upton Sinclair's questioning in 1919 whether a newspaper existed that would print unfavorable news about a department store, the staff of the Day Book could answer that such a newspaper had indeed existed until two years earlier. As an example, they could point to a series of articles in January 1917 in which the Day Book used the front page to juxtapose record profits at Marshall Field's with workers' futile demands for year-end bonuses. While the Chicago press raved about the quality of goods for sale at Marshall Field's and other department stores, the Day Book focused on the employees who did the unpacking, stacking, sorting, and selling, and urged the stores to worry less about profits and more about raising the standard of living for their employees. The paper also campaigned for safer working and shopping conditions, publishing accounts of accidents that other papers ignored. Regardless of its modest circulation, which peaked at 22,839 in October 1916, well short of the 30,000 goal, the Day Book remained a steadfast ally of the working class and the dispossessed, and a primary, and sometimes only, source of news about their struggles. In so doing, the Day Book stands as an example of a newspaper that treated readers more as citizens, with rights to be respected and safeguarded, than as consumers, with buying impulses to be stoked.
Rise of Commercial Influence
With advertising dollars forming the financial foundation of the newspaper industry, press historians certainly have some justification for giving any adless ventures only a passing mention. U.S. Census data from roughly the same time as the formation of the Scripps newspaper chain show advertising supplanting subscriptions and sales as the primary source of financing for newspapers and other periodicals by 1899 and then surging far ahead, never again to play second fiddle to subscription revenue. In 1879, a year after Scripps and his associates established the Cleveland Press, the first paper in what would become the Scripps chain, subscriptions and sales accounted for $49.9 million, or 56 percent of revenue, for the industry; that compared with advertising's contribution of $39 million, or 44 percent. Advertising rapidly gained ground in the 1890s, and by 1899 contributed $95.9 million, or 54.5 percent, outdistancing the $80 million, or 45.5 percent, from subscriptions and sales. By the time Scripps acquired his last newspaper, the New Mexico State Tribune, in 1923, the ratio was better than two-to-one in favor of advertising, 68.7 percent to 31.3 percent.
Looking at the period from 1833, with the founding of the New York Sun, through the Civil War, William E. Huntzicker traces the evolution of American newspapers from partisan and mercantile journalism to the commercial penny press. The period marked a growing independence of newspapers from political elites, longtime providers of content and financial support. This independence came about in part because papers sent reporters into the field to gather facts and information-and also because local advertising increasingly accompanied local news. "By taking advertising money instead of political subsidies and dependable subscriptions," Huntzicker writes, "penny editors traded subsidies from a few influential readers for large volumes of small ads carrying people's wants and needs." Ads appeared to announce marriages and deaths, promote museums, proffer violin lessons, sell potatoes, or find nurses. And with those ads came a different kind of risk. John C. Nerone has forcefully punctured one of the abiding myths of the press: that advertising came as a liberator, freeing newspapers from servitude to powerful political parties and interests. In so doing, newspapers, as the myth would have it, became "a social instrument of popular democracy"-politically and editorially independent. As Nerone and others note, this myth ignores the well-documented ways in which advertising came to exercise a controlling influence over the press.
Challenging the "Church-State" Wall
The Day Book presents an alternative model-if not in business terms, certainly in philosophical ones-for a U.S. press that is more dependent than ever on advertisers. Perhaps the most egregious recent example of commercial influence run amok in the newsroom came during the reign of a California publisher who was no E. W. Scripps. The publisher, Mark H. Willes, will be remembered as something of a corporate cowboy who strode into the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times determined to bust down the wall separating news and advertising. Willes pledged to "use a bazooka, if necessary," to remove the wall, which he saw as hindering business growth. A former vice chairman at the cereal maker General Mills, Willes became chief executive of the Times Mirror Company in 1995 and chairman in 1996, responsible for a national media company whose flagship property was the Times. The newspaper's economic fortunes had been flagging, and Willes was brought in to ensure profitable returns there, and across the company. His vision for success, however, called for shattering a wall that had long been compared to the divide between church and state, a wall, however porous, that was intended to ensure that business interests would not overly compromise editorial integrity and unduly influence the coverage of news. Under the Willes regime, representatives from news, advertising, marketing, and operations worked in teams to create new sections and devise strategies to increase circulation and profits. Reporters and editors considered ways to sell more ads, even as the advertising staff suggested articles to boost revenues. Willes made no secret of his first order of business: "The fundamental challenge is to be successful on the business side, because that's also the way we're going to be successful on the journalism side." Leo Wolinsky, who was the managing editor, phrased it more bluntly: "Money is always the first thing we talk about. The readers are always the last thing we talk about." The push for innovative partnerships in advertising and news led to a highly unusual venture in which the paper agreed to share the profits of a Sunday magazine issue (October 10, 1999) with the very subject of that issue, a new downtown sports arena. For its part, the arena urged its contractors and patrons to take out ads in the magazine, suggestive of "a kickback scheme." When word of the hidden profit-sharing arrangement leaked out later that month, the news staff revolted, senior editors apologized, and the paper's media critic printed a 30,000-word report on the debacle. Faced with widespread criticism, the publisher of the Times, Kathryn M. Downing, promised to take steps to insulate the newsroom from business operations, in effect signaling a retreat from the all-out assault on the wall between news and commerce. Several months later, in an acquisition driven by a desire to create media hubs across the country, the Tribune Company bought the Times Mirror Company, ending the Willes reign. But the effects of advertising on news gathering remain in Los Angeles, and elsewhere, even if they take a more oblique form. Weeks after the Los Angeles Times won five Pulitzer Prizes in spring 2004, company executives announced that the newsroom staff would be reduced because of a shortfall in advertising revenue. As one research analyst observed, "Although journalism is important, at the end of the day, investors care more about the number of newspapers you sell and the ad rate increases you get, rather than the number of Pulitzer Prizes."
Excerpted from Freedom from Advertising by DUANE C. S. STOLTZFUS Copyright © 2007 by Duane C. S. Stoltzfus. Excerpted by permission.
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