Monday, September 28, 2009

More About Valpo

I've been hither and yon, and will be for the next few weeks.

But back to local news as it was reported in 1930 in the Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger. Here's a story that one might find today:

"The Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce voted to carry its fight against the sale of the local branch of the Northwestern Telephone company to the Winona Telephone Company of Plymouth, to a finish.

"Warned that the Indiana Public Service commission which twice before had disapproved the scheme devised by Former Governor James P. Goodrich, to link the Valparaiso phone system to his Plymouth holdings, was going to change its position, the local civic body has determined to stay in the fight. The Chamber of Commerce has resisted the move through three hearings by the Public Service Commission, a court testing at Crown Point and finally a Supreme Court hearing which reversed the findings of Judge E. Miles Norton of Lake county, approving the deal, and sent it back for a rehearing."

Times are different. It's difficult in today's world to comprehend exactly why it would matter who owned the local phone company, but remember that there were no area codes or direct dial. Long distance meant connecting with another phone company. And chambers of commerce no longer command the sort of institutional authority they did 80 years ago. Still, this sounds like an outlier of an investigative story alleging corruption.

But the 1930s Vidette-Messenger practiced a sort of personal journalism that we don't see and that probably would be condemned today. As noted in my last post, the Vidette was Pro-Valparaiso. Its view was that whatever was for the development of Valparaiso as the business center of Porter County -- particularly at the expense of Chesterton -- was good for Valparaiso, Porter County, and the Vidette-Messenger and its readers and advertisers. (This, of course, was the viewpoint of most newspapers during the 1950s and 1960s, the last era when everyone read newspapers. Newspapers were For The Community back when "community" had a broader meaning than today.)

Lynn Whipple, the co-owner and editor, daily expressed (in a column that often ran more than two columns long, back in the era of wider columns and smaller type) what he thought was best for Valparaiso, and I'm sure he expected many leading citizens of Valparaiso to fall in line (if, indeed, he was not simply falling in line with them). An excerpt from his column explaining why this was an issue shows the sort of involvement a small-town editor was then expected to have with his community. This is a long excerpt, but this is less than half the column. It opens with some high-minded

"The re-electicn of Glfford Pinchot as governor of Pennsylvania and that of George W. Norris of Nebraska as U.S. Senator, are outstanding examples. These men, for years have been as voices in the wilderness, warning the people against too great centralization of public utilities, such as light, power and heat, in the hands of a relatively few men. They have made powerful business, banking, industrial and political enemies. Yet, the people believe in them and continue them in office. ...

"It would seem that those holding public office charged with the responsibility of
representing the public interest as it is concerned with regulation of utilities and utility service would now awaken to the fact that the people of the United States, who have been very liberal and unquestioning in these matters, are beginning to become aroused to the fact that advantage is being taken of them. The above serves to give a background to a question of utility management ... the question of who shall own and operate the telephone company which, until three years ago, was a local utility, owned and operated by men of this community.

"In summer of 1927, however, the local owners decided to sell ... the local telephone company -- which had closely linked the entire county into one telephone system. They knew that there was a buyer for their properties...a buyer which represented the largest telephone system in the world and which controlled telephone operations in the great industrial and metropolitan areas with which Valparaiso and Porter County are closely linked... The Illinois Bell subsidiary of the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. [was] for several years, looking forward to eventual purchase of the Northwestern Indiana Telephone Company's "Ideal" system, with stations at Valparaiso, Kouts, Wheeler, Hobart, Porter and Chesterton. The Illinois Bell Company, which controls the telephone service in Chicago, Gary, Hammond and other Calumet district cities, including Crown Point, h£d had a direct hand in the development of the Northwestern Company.

"It was natural, then, for the owners of the local company to turn to the Illinois Bell Company, as the purchaser, when they determined to dispose of their holdings. The Valparaiso and Porter county public looked with favor upon the pending negotiations as they promised to tie local telephone service directly into that of the fast developing district to the west. The Illinois Bell company financed the transfer of stock holdings.

"Under Indiana law (as under the law of most, if not all other states) the consent of the Public Service Commission has to be secured before the sale of a utility can be consummated. Before giving approval to any such transaction, the commission is required to hold hearings to determine whether or not the proposed action is against public policy and interest. It demands all the facts. Then it was that it was disclosed for the first time, that the local telephone company was not to be sold, as a unit to the Illinois Bell Telephone Company, but instead, to be divided arbitrarily between two operating companies.

"The Crown Point Telephone Company, owned by the Illinois Bell Company, was to gain possession of the Chesterton, Porter and Hobart holdings of the Northwestern
Company...and the Winona Telephone Company, with headquarters in Plymouth, was to come into possession of the exchanges at Valparaiso, Kouts and Wheeler.

"Immediately every civic interest [pointed out that the] county telephone system had been developed as a unit and ought to be so held. It pointed out that Valparaiso had no interest in the Plymouth telephone system, which is functioning some fifty miles east.... {The commission] denied the petition, and demonstrated that it was serving the purpose for which it was created... protection of the public. This left the Illinois Bell corporation the potential owner. Back of the Winona Company, however, was a man once powerful in Indiana politics, former Governor James P. Goodrich. He then took the case to court...under a law that [gives] judges the right to overrule the commission.

"The case was taken to the Lake County circuit court over which presided Judge E. Miles Norton. Why the former governor's company selected this particular court for the hearing has never been disclosed. It did develop that Judge Norton was first named to the bench by Mr. Goodrich, when governor. Judge Norton overruled the commission's order and directed it to approve the deal.

"Then the Valparaiso civic group, :through Attorney Bruce B. Loring, carried the issue direct to the Indiana supreme court... contesting the legality of the law which gave courts the right to make decisions for the Public Service Commission. It got the commission to refuse to comply with Judge Norton's order until and unless the supreme court upheld his position and the law under which he acted. Again the commission demonstrated its desire to serve the public interest.
"Finally, after months and months o£ delay, months, by the way which brought many changes to the financial set-up of the original deal when, because of a severe storm and needed development, the Illinois Bell Company had to extend credit involving many thousands of dollars...the supreme court announced its ruling. It held that part of the law which directed courts to write orders for the commission unconstitutional and sent the case back for a new start.

"Largely because of the contests made by the Valparaiso community representatives the 1929 legislature repealed so much of the 1927 act under which courts were directed to rule for the commission and directed the attorney general of the state to appoint a special deputy whose duly it would be to appear for the commission in all court contests of its rulings.

"It happens that the man now holding this important office... Deputy Attorney General George a Plymouth man and acquainted with the group which is seeking to obtain the commission's approval of the transaction opposed by the Valparaiso civic interests. That is where the issue now stands. Judge Norton has again placed the issue squarely up to the Public Service Commission under the theory that its original order, disapproving the entire transaction, was "unreasonable" and implying that it ought to approve. The commission, for some reason or another, and for the first time, seems to hesitate as to what to do. In view of this, the Valparaiso civic group has appealed to the commission to dismiss the original petition asking for approval of the transaction ...

"Even so, local spokesmen are certain that if the commission will reopen the case, and stands firmly by the policy of protecting the public good, they will be able to again conclusively demonstrate that the proposed deal should not be permitted to go through. With the founding of a new steel city in north Porter county, and the further development of the dunes industrial and recreational district there is added reason why Valparaiso, the county seat, should be directly connected by telephone service and operation, with the entire county on a radius of some ten
to fifteen miles, as it has in the past.

"If the "Goodrich deal" goes, through, Valparaiso's telephone system will be divorced from that of Chesterton, Porter, the Dunes Region and Hobart and tied back into an unnatural and unpromising hook-up with Plymouth, fifty miles east.

"Any other position, on the part of the commission will only serve to feed the fire of discontent relative to utility operation and regulation and hasten the day when control of such will again be lodged with the local communities and strong utility development seriously crippled."

Whew. Here was clearly a man who bought ink by the barrel full. I guess it was his paper and no one could cut his copy. But in other words -- maybe the Plymouth investors are using undue influence; maybe the fix is in with the Crown Point judge; maybe none of that is true and it is simply that Illinois Bell had no desire to serve Valparaiso. But let us pay that little mind. What matters here is that the deal would remove Valparaiso's phone service from that of Chicago and Gary (while leaving Chesterton's with it, by the way). The Valparaiso "civic interests" merely want the commission to see the public good by making it easier for Valparaiso to be part of the Calumet region's growth. The interests of the little guy and the "interests" seem to be one.

As it turns out, until the deregulation of the phone system in the 1970s Valparaiso was a GTE city, as was Plymouth. So clearly the commission failed to act as the Vidette wished.

Yes, we're still in the William Allen White era of journalism here, not the modern era. This is an opinion piece -- but the front-page story on the chamber of commerce, which is simply a news release, is in line with the paper's program. This is how minds were influenced then. This is the sort of journalism that would soon fall into disrepute. More to come.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What If...

Stop what you're doing and read this post by Howard Owens if you've ever wondered why newspapers, so much more than any other medium disrupted by the Web, have presented matters as Their Imminent Demise, while TV and radio and magazines have also lost readers and business to the Web but tend not to talk about it so much.

I was thinking earlier today: Is it just newspapers' tendency to see the worst, or is it newspaper journalists thinking that in order to be fair, we must publicly flagellate ourselves? Owens has a better answer: Newspapers saw online as just another way to publish newspapers. (Radio, TV, etc., which moved into online more slowly, did so because they saw it as a threat. Newspapers saw it as higher-profit nirvana.) But newspapers' objective was to use online to support the "mother ship" -- the newspaper business as it had been known and grown up, with all the divisions and add-ons that came from print's profit margins. And that, of course, has proven to be a fatal error.

Owens presents this largely as an advertising revenue problem -- which it is -- but notes:

"Throughout the history of newspapers online, there has simply been a lot of thinking that there isn't much different between the Web and print.

"It's understandable. The Web, especially in the early days, is a text-dominated medium. The natural response is to think editors could simply move print stories into pixels and be done with it. ... If publishers thought the Web was no different for content, how could they possibly be expected to see online sales were different, too?"

His answer -- which stands the last five years on its head, but I agree with him -- is that online should have been set up from the start as a separate business unit.

"So ... if newspapers had created more totally separate business units, would newspapers be 'saved' today?

"I don't know.

"The strategy could have hastened their demise, but I think you can also make the case that by letting newspapers be newspapers, and keeping online far away, you would have had fewer readers dropping subscriptions in favor of free online content. Maybe. Maybe the online competitor would have been seen by readers as just another media outlet, not a replacement for the newspaper."

Boldface mine. Of course, publishers, whose essential aim is to not have competition, probably would never have gone for it. They would have seen it as competing with themselves. But since what we have now is, as Dominic Toretta said after hitting the truck at the end of "The Fast and the Furious," not exactly what we had in mind, think about it from Owens' view. If the Daily Reflector-Cotillion had not viewed online as a way to publish the Daily Reflector-Cotillion with no printing expenses -- thus seeming to guarantee itself 50 percent profit margins forever -- but had viewed it the way newspaper companies viewed radio and TV when they first came out, as a medium with its own rules and challenges and for which content should be developed differently -- would the Daily Reflector-Cotillion be so shunned in print? Or would it have a profitable DRC and a profitable, much smaller, Mytown Online?

As Owens says, you can't tell. But at least you would never have had people saying, "Why should I pay you when you give the same stuff away?" -- which, though they come at it from different angles, Owens and Alan Mutter essentially agree is the Original Sin. Perhaps the answer is not pay walls after all, but -- let newspapers be newspapers.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

When Everyone Read Newspapers -- Valparaiso I

I've lately been reading old newspapers through the site Newspaper Archive -- a hefty monthly fee, but you get an amazing group of papers at amazing times. Its only shortcoming is the absence of truly major metros -- although the Post is in there for a few years early in the 20th century. But from Iowa weeklies to papers on the scale of the Oakland Tribune and the Syracuse Herald-Journal, you can get a sense of what the typical American was seeing back when everyone read newspapers.

To me, the era when really everyone read newspapers was the 1950s and 1960s. That may seem curious and I invite contradiction. But small-town newspapers had pretty small circulations until the 1930s. Rural free delivery was a 1910s startup, and motor routes were just a dream for many small papers. The town and city population could easily get a paper or papers when published; if you lived elsewhere, you might get the paper in the mail a day late, or in some cases got a weekly edition with the local news that had been published during the previous week; or you might have to pick up the paper when you went into town. Also, World War II drove increased interest in the news, to follow the boys from your town -- from your family -- as they fought and died in Europe and the Pacific. And in the 1930s, a lot of people simply didn't have the money for a newspaper.

So I'm going to concentrate on the 1950s and 1960s. But I did want to look back and see what readers of a small-town newspaper would have gotten in the 1930s. I took the Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger for a couple of reasons; I know Indiana, and the paper was merged into a zone edition of the Hammond Times in the 1980s, I think, so there's no one there to yell at me.

Background: Valparaiso is the county seat of Porter County, which is the first county east of Lake County (Hammond, Gary, East Chicago). Porter and LaPorte Counties are the popcorn center of America (home of Orville Redenbacher) and were mostly agricultural or small industries until the steel industry took over Lake County and created Gary. Valpo, as it's known, is over to the west side of the county and thus started to become an exurb. So the Valparaiso paper would have been fighting off the Gary Post-Tribune as well as all the Chicago papers for the reader's interest. So the news consumer had more choices than, say, in Butte or Waco.

The Vidette-Messenger in the first week of December 1930 -- I figured it would be at its fattest that month, even though the Depression had taken hold -- was about 8 to 10 pages an issue. (I looked for 1929 and it was 10 to 12.) It was owned by its editor and publisher, Lynn Whipple, in partnership with another man, Humphrey Gray of Benton Harbor, Mich. Circulation was just under 5,000. Porter County had about 22,000 population at that point, with 8,000 in the city of Valparaiso. I don't know what ratio per household to use for 1930, but using three per household, that would put the Vidette in, what, 60 percent of county households?

The Vidette was a booster of Valparaiso. Its flag contained the following mottos: "Published in the Ideal Residential City in the Great Calumet District"; "Valparaiso, the Home of Valparaiso University"; "Valparaiso, the Gateway to Indiana Dunes State Park." (Valparaiso University had some national fame as the "Poor Man's Harvard.") That may have been too Valpo-centric, so stuck between the rules was "A Daily Newspaper for All Porter County." (Valparaiso had an eternal war for dominance in the county with Chesterton, a smaller city but closer to the long-planned lake harbor that finally was developed in the 1960s.)

The Vidette ran a streamer on Page One every day. No one could accuse it of subtlety on Dec. 11:
"Bandits Rob Leroy Postoffice; Negroes With Guns Get $145, Make Escape"

But even then, Porter County was seen as a middle-class white escape from ethnically diverse Lake County. The Vidette knew it was in a competitive market and had to get attention. Its front page was designed to "sell newspapers." In the 1930s, of course, photos were few -- engravings cost a lot of money and time -- but the Vidette found A1 room for this:

"Girl, 11, Wanted Live Doll -- So She Kidnapped a Baby!" The caption read:

"I wanted a live baby instead of dolls," ll-year-old Mary Fieder sobbed to detectives after she was found with Evelyn Gaffney, 2, whose mysterious kidnapping had terrorized neighboring families in Newark, N. J. The girl kidnaper is shown, at the left, after her arrest, with police and the stolen baby. She was held for Children's Court. She is alleged to have confessed to authorities that she entered through a window of the Gaffney home, lifted the infant from her crib, and escaped unnoticed."

And Albert Einstein was making his first trip to New York, which was noted on the front page: "Master Mind of Cool Thought Warms to Welcome by American Metropolis." But human interest had the best chance of landing a national or world story on A1. Most of the content on A1 was local or in proportion to the Vidette's mission -- cover Porter County; cover top news from Chicago; get in as much news from Indiana as you can, to compete with the Illinois papers; and then look elsewhere. In the 1930s, the Vidette was largely following the model newspapers are encouraged to use today -- keep it local.

Thus readers were told: "Stormy Time Expected at Sewer Hearing; Property Owners Hardest Hit by Assessment Spread to Appear Before City Council Friday." Gee, assessment appeals. Nothing really ever changes. And "Liberty Township Girl, Noted as Dancer, Succumbs After Three-Year Fight Against Odds." (She was 30.)

We sort of know this newspaper; a newspaper from the 1900-10 period looked at today seems impossibly distant in its style, content and distribution, but we can see here a good bit of what we all recognize as the American Newspaper, along with anachronisms that distance us. What's the point of this exercise? To look at what newspapers were doing back when everyone read them, to see if there's anything that relates to today. There's more fascinating stuff in the 1930s Vidette, but we'll make that another post.