Shoptalk: Look Mom, No Ads!

Article excerpt

By all rights -- especially now, with newspapers desperately tinkering with content, design and size -- the Day Book should be celebrated as one of the great, if doomed, experiments in daily journalism. Instead, newspaper history textbooks have forgotten E.W. Scripps' quixotic attempt to make a success of a Chicago daily newspaper that not only refused to run advertising, but also regularly picked fights with the owners of department stores and supermarkets whose ads kept other papers in business.

Duane Stoltzfus, a former New York Times copy editor who chairs

the communications department at Goshen College in Indiana, tells the fascinating history of the Day Book in a new book from University of Illinois Press: Freedom from Advertising: E.W. Scripps's Chicago Experiment.

During its brief life from 1911 to 1917, the Day Book was unlike any other newspaper in America. About the size of a tabloid and priced at a penny, the paper targeted and championed the working class. It set up shop in a part of town far from Chicago's downtown Loop and tried to build its circulation neighborhood by neighborhood.

Why would Scripps want to create an ad-free daily after making his fortune from newspaper advertising?

"Scripps was a puzzling man, a man of contradictions, because he had done quite well by newspaper advertising," Stoltzfus tells me. "But even with those papers, he set terms for advertising. He wanted to limit the size of ads, and the space they got. He wanted to make sure there was a robust balance between ad space and editorial."

Scripps came up with the idea of the ad-free paper while in semi-retirement in California. He reasoned that a paper without advertising could give a "more honest account" of the news, the author says, and that if he could figure out a successful business model, it would be imitated by other publishers.

"He thought this was the greatest experiment that could be carried out in the history of journalism," Stoltzfus adds.

But rather than trumpet this new kind of newspaper, Scripps launched the Day Book with an almost paranoid secrecy. The daily set up in a modest area not simply to be close to its target audience, but to avoid tipping off competitors that it was taking on Chicago. Oddly, for its first few years, Day Book never ran anything on its flag to let readers know that it was ad-free.

The paper broke all kinds of rules, Stoltzfus says. Negley Cochran, who had been editor of Scripps' Toledo, Ohio, paper, was given wide latitude on content, and "the very first issue started off with a kind of sugary piece of fiction that someone on staff, the business manager, wrote. …