All told there are sixteen major groups comprising five or more dailies each. Besides the Hearst, Copley, and Scripps-Howard chains, the more important are the Macfadden, Paul Block, Booth, Brush-Moore, Cox, Fentress-Marsh, Gannett, Howe, Lee Syndicate, Macy-Forbes, Lindsay-Nunn Palmer, Stauffer, Thompson, Ridder Brothers, and Scripps-Canfield. Even here, however, it is to be noticed that some of these are entirely within one State and comprise small-town papers only; thus, all but two of the Macy-Forbes newspapers are in Westchester County, New York.
The list naturally takes no account of the weekly newspapers which may also belong to the owner of a chain.
As this article is written comes the news of the purchase of a group of thirty-five weeklies, semiweeklies, and small dailies in Ohio by the “Ohio News, Inc,” whose real ownership is not yet revealed. In most cases the desire to own a large string is evident. No one can say just how rapidly a chain may grow.
Colonel Copley, for instance, is reported to have bought his eighteen California dailies in a day after having withdrawn nearly all his millions from certain public-utility companies through which he had amassed his fortune. His remaining four dailies are in Illinois and of a distinctly different kind from his small-town California properties.
Here we have a characteristic number of chains a lack of balance. The Scripps-Howard dailies seem better coordinated and more wisely distributed than any other; unlike Mr. Hearst the owners of this chain do not own more than one daily in a town. They are thus represented in twenty-four cities, whereas Mr. Hearst’s dark journalistic shadow has happily as yet fallen upon but eighteen.
Curiously enough, the Pentress-Marsh chain seems not to go into a city until it acquires all the dailies or the only daily in that town. Other chains are oddly put together. For example, the Ridder brothers, the sons of the late Hermann Ridder, of the Staatz-Zeitung, have added to that daily such diverse journals as the New York Herold (also German language), the New York Journal of Commerce, a business daily, the Jamaica, New York, Long Island Press, the historic St. Paul, Minnesota, Pioneer-Press, the St. Paul Dispatch, the Aberdeen, South Dakota, American and News, and the Paterson, New Jersey, Press-Guardian, besides holding a minority interest in the Seattle Times.
The most striking rise of a chain is undoubtedly that of the Frank E. Gannett group, now sixteen in number, of which all but two are published in New York State.
It includes such important dailies as the Brooklyn Eagle, the Hartford, Connecticut, and Times, one of the two or three most influential newspapers in New England, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and Times-Union.
Mr. Gannett’s experiment is the more interesting because he has made use of the new technique of selling bonds and preferred stocks to the public and keeping control through the possession of the common stocks, doubtless with the expectation of making such savings in costs by large- scale purchases and other economies as to be able speedily to buy out the public. That, aside from the question of personal power is the chief lure of the chain.
It is still too early to assert that the newspaper chain has finally demonstrated its financial stability. Several of them are suffering a good deal in the present depression, which has severely affected the advertising of practically all Eastern dailies.
It is easy to carry a combination of dailies when conditions are good throughout the country; it may become a dangerous burden when times are bad.
Mr. Hearst’s chain has a number of very weak links. There is nothing, for instance, about his morning dailies in Washington or New York to indicate prosperity, and there is a general belief that if he could find some means of giving away the New York American without too great loss of prestige it would be done.
Baltimore is still a bad spot for him, and so are one or two of the up-State New York cities, this despite the fact that his business management has been much improved during the past several years. Mr. Gannett has had difficulty with the Brooklyn Eagle, for which he probably paid too much—the price of dailies have been as much inflated since 1920 as were farm lands in the boom war years.
It was to finance the purchase of the Eagle that Mr. Gannett procured a loan of $2,000,000 from the International Paper and Power Company and its “public-spirited” president.
When the fact was brought out and the transaction was severely criticized, Mr. Gannett felt it to be his duty to obtain the money elsewhere in order to repay the paper trust. Other reasons also have combined to make the situation of the Eagle a difficult one.
Except in the case of Mr. Hearst, who increased his holdings rapidly in the days when he sought to be Governor of New York and President of the United States, I do not feel that political motives have played any great part in this newspaper development, certainly not at all in Mr. Gannett’s case.
Mr. Gannett was once asked if had in mind any definite purpose in creating his chain, such as the endeavor to influence public opinion in increasing measure. His reply was in the negative; he merely enjoyed enlarging his personal field of activity.
He had no more conscious motive than that which leads a man to buy six more drug-stores if he has made a success of one or two.
Undoubtedly the newspaper chain is as much a response to an economic urge or tide as the recent grouping of railroads and the development of the chain cigar or food stores.
It is in the air; it is part of the transformation of almost every business which is going on under our eyes, and if it had not been Scripps, Gannett, or Copley, it would have been someone else.
The economic drift is what counts—the nation-wide combinations to decrease competition, to restrain trade, and to deal in larger and larger units.
There was at bottom no reason to expect that the newspaper business would be spared by the economic forces which are remodeling our industrial life and making the relationship of government to the staggering combinations of capital the paramount issue of the day.
If there is as yet no deliberate planning of newspaper chains to control opinion there is no reason why this could not be undertaken. It is already quite in the power of rich men to buy all the dailies in the smaller States—there are only three in Delaware, six in Wyoming, five in Idaho, twenty-two in Alabama, and thirty-six in Washington.
Henry Ford could long ago have purchased the sixty dailies in Michigan with the exception of the very rich Detroit News, with but a portion of one year’s income. Since there are forty-eight towns and cities in Michigan which possess only one daily journal apiece, despite the theory that this is a government by two political parties, the opportunity must be pretty obvious to those with political ambitions.
The purchase of the California chain of Colonel Copley was attributed by some to a desire to control public opinion in southern California in favor of the power interests, but this was denied by his employees. The relative worth of the chain, and whether it is a gain or a menace, will depend upon the personal equation, the character and aims of the owners.
So far it is impossible to say that any one chain has been used for specific anti-social or reactionary propaganda, if we omit the Hearst dailies.
The Scripps-Howard newspapers are usually liberal, and most friendly to reform movements. It is a pity that their reporting is sometimes poor, their makeup and typography wretched.
They sorely lack high standards in these respects, but their answer is the old one—”We must stoop to get circulations in order to put our ideas over.” Even the New York Telegram lacks typographical distinction and is messy; yet the New York Times has made its great success while adhering to typographical dignity and taste, with the Herald Tribune following its example.
None of the chains, again excepting Hearst, strive for typographical uniformity. It would be welcome if a format of beauty and distinction were to be adopted by one of them; but those two qualities have largely disappeared from the American press.
By using the new technique of getting the public to advance some of the money while the promoter himself holds control there is no reason whatever why we may not see a chain of one hundred dailies controlled by one man.
Theoretically at least; whether this would work out well practically is doubted by many. Yet the steady progress of the Cripps-Howard syndicate, despite certain weak members, would seem to prove that it is no more impossible than the creation by one owner of a group of five hundred grocery or five-and-ten-cent stores.
I can see no valid reasons why we should not have much larger chains and, I believe, we shall see them when those having great stakes in the present economic system are sufficiently enriched or sufficiently frightened by the specter of radicalism to seek more directly to public control opinion. Here is where the danger lies.
In this connection the action of the International Paper and Power Company in buying its way into a number of dailies in 1928 and 1929, and lending much money to newspaper owners, including Mr. Gannett is highly suggestive. The purpose of this new policy, the president of the company said in his own defense, was simply to assure the company steady customers for its paper.
But the outcry within the press and the disapproval of the public were so great that he was speedily compelled to change his mind about the advisability of this policy and to get out of the newspaper business.
Similarly persistent and at times successful efforts by the power lobbyists to get their hooks into daily newspaper are warnings of. a tendency that must be guarded against if the press is not to become merely a creature of the great capitalists. It is, heaven knows, today sufficiently in the clutch of the forces which make for reaction and the support of the status quo.
Again, the question of absentee ownership sometimes plays a considerable part in the development of the chain. Some of the smaller communities resent the control of their dailies by men living elsewhere.
This is not a universal feeling. There might, however, well be dissatisfaction in Pittsburgh, where all three of the dailies remaining in a city which had seven morning and evening newspapers only a few years ago are now owned by capitalists, residing elsewhere the Scripps-Howard Syndicate, Hearst, and Paul Block.
At bottom the powers of the Hearst and Block Pittsburgh newspapers have no more direct interest in the city than have the owners of chain cigar stores. It is true that there are always editorial writers to deal with local problems; that the staffs are still largely made up of local men.
The owners of the Scripps-Howard papers make every effort to tie up their editors with the local interests of the cities in which their papers are situated. Local autonomy is the watchword and it is generally lived up to, except in national affairs.
The local Scripps-Howard editor is given help to by an interest in the paper and is expected to spend the rest of his life in its service. He is constantly urged to “know your town” and “feel its pulse”.
Scripps-Howard editors are, however, freely transferred from one city to another. It still seems impossible that there should be quite the same relationship of the daily to its community that exists when the paper is owned by a local man known to all his fellow-citizens, to be seen at local gatherings, and to be held directly accountable to local opinions and desires. It would seem as though no community of the size of Pittsburgh could rest happy under such conditions. They appear to me intolerable.
On the other hand, defenders of the chain allege that there is a certain advantage in this freedom of a -chain editor from local entanglements—social, business, and financial.
While it was always Mr. Scripps’s idea that his editors might purchase stock in the papers they were serving him rigidly ruled that they should not invest their savings in other enterprises which would interfere with their complete freedom of opinion and action. He wished them to be exclusively newspapermen. Another view is expressed by Eugene A.
Howe of the Howe newspapers (chiefly located in Texas, where the chain idea is being developed most rapidly and successfully). “I think,” He states, “that it doesn’t matter who owns a newspaper as long as it is operated vigorously and honestly. The average reader doesn’t bother about the paper’s masthead.
Give him a judicious selection of news and features, give him a good newspaper, and he is satisfied. And the paper usually will be a profitable investment. . . . We are still experimenting in Texas, but we feel we are going a long way in establishing group dailies.”
There remains, however, the question of the editorial opinions of a chain of newspapers. Here we have three distinct policies.
The Scripps-Howard dailies, while free to deal with local issues, all conform to the national editorial opinions formulated by chief editorial writers, or, as in the case of their support of Herbert Hoover for the Presidency (which they are presumed to be repenting in sackcloth and ashes), as a result of an editorial convention and a free vote of all the editors.
Mr. Hearst’s editors reflect his own contradictory and changing views and personal whims. Frank Gannett, however, does not alter the political policies of the papers he purchases. Thus the Hartford, Connecticut, Times remain Democratic, and the Brooklyn Eagle independent Democratic, while most of the others are Republican.
Mr. Gannett is a convinced and sincere dry; it will be interesting to see if it will be possible for him to allow some of his papers to take the opposite viewpoint if the question of prohibition becomes still more acute.
His policy seems to me entirely ethical and quite defensible. It is certainly unusual for an owner to grant to his editors the complete freedom of opinion and expression which Mr. Gannett permits.
In another situation, that in which the same company controls all the dailies in one city, the question is a bit more difficult. Thus, in Springfield, Massachusetts, all four papers are owned by one company.
Two are Republican in politics, one Democratic, and one independent. Where the facts are known and where, as in Springfield, there is an honest and aboveboard endeavor to advocate the policies of the two political parties and no effort is made to hide to the real ownership, it would seem that no criticism could lie against this procedure.
Different is the case, cited by Senator B.K. Wheeler of Montana, of a town in that State in which the dailies, one Republican and one Democratic, were none the less owned by the same mining company, their respective opposing editorials being written by the same hireling!
As for the standardization of the dailies which results from ownership of groups, I shall touch upon that later. It is necessary to point out here only that his is the inevitable result—and a specially desired one—of the amalgamations.
Herein lies part of the great opportunity to make savings by supplying the same cartoons, illustrations, rotogravure sections, and articles. These savings are not always realized, as for example in the case of a white paper, for which a standard price has now supposedly been fixed for all purchasers, large or small, who do not have their own mills and must buy of the large companies. But in the main it would seem as if enormous economies could be made.
It cannot be maintained that the chain development is a healthy one from the point of view of the general public. Any tendency which makes toward restriction, standardization, or the concentrating of editorial power in one hand is to be watched with concern.
For the ideal journalistic state of a republic, especially where the two-party system prevails, is one in which papers may easily be created by single individuals, as Horace Greely established the Tribune and Alexander Hamilton’s friends the New York Evening Post, to rise and disappear if need be.
If the coordination of the press with the current urge for larger and larger combinations is inevitable, it is regrettable if only because this makes it additionally harder for the man of small fortune to start a daily and compete successfully for public support.
That this chain development is an international phenomenon does not alter the situation. It has gone farthest in Great Britain, where three groups, those of Rothermere, Beaverbrook, and the Berry Brothers, now dominate the press, and inform or misinform perhaps 80 per cent of the reading public.
It is not impossible that within twenty years or less we shall see their three groups owned by a single company or individual. When that comes to pass the government will have to take cognizance of the existence of a power to control and inform opinion that may prove superior to its own—an impossible situation.
No independent daily comes up for sale in England today without the three existing groups bidding for it.
The Hugenberg chain in Germany is as large and powerful as to have worried many persons lest it menace the existence of the new republican institutions. Even in South Africa the chain tendency is apparent.
Thus, the three leading evening journals, the Star of Johannesburg, the Cape Argus of Cape Town, and the Natal Advertiser of Durban, belong to the same company, which also owns the Diamond Fields Advertiser of Kimberley and The Friend of Bloemfontein, besides controlling the two leading dailies of Rhodesia.
The formation of a British company in 1928 for the purpose of owning British dailies and buying into newspaper properties in other countries foreshadows the international chain. Its mere organization aroused a storm of protest in France, and led to the immediate threat in Paris of a law to prevent the holding of any shares of French daily by foreigners.
The heated and, I believe, totally false charges in this country, during and after the war that a portion of our press is, or was, under British control is proof of the deep feeling which would be aroused if it should appear that foreigners were seeking to control our American sources of information.