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.

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