The Economics of Working-Class Journalism: The E.W. Scripps Newspaper Chain 1878-1908

By Baldasty, Gerald J. | Journalism History, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Economics of Working-Class Journalism: The E.W. Scripps Newspaper Chain 1878-1908


Baldasty, Gerald J., Journalism History


On Labor Day in 1906, E.W. Scripps's Cincinnati Post provided extensive coverage to that city's parades and celebrations in honor of workers. Page-one coverage saluted the "Men of Brawn, the Nation Builders," described the city's big parade ("Flags and banners rippled in the sunshine") and the picnic that followed at Chester Park. The Post prominently displayed a two-column photo of the parade's grand marshal in his everyday work clothes as an iron molder while another article summarized "Labor Fights of Past Year" in Cincinnati. An editorial praised workers for their contribution to America and celebrated the parade, where "beauty and brawn platooned in glittering lines," to demonstrate labor's might.l

Such attention to the working class was the defining characteristic of the Scripps newspaper chain. Unlike most of their competitors, these newspapers provided sympathetic coverage to union labor and strikers and covered the wages, hours, job conditions, and purchasing power of America's laborers. When Scripps died in 1926, the trade journal Editor and Publisher praised him as a great journalist who "had devoted his unique genius and the gigantic press power of its creation to fighting the battles of `the forgotten man,' the worker without the prestige of wealth, political or social position."2

This devotion to the "forgotten man" was the product of deeply held personal beliefs as well as shrewd entrepreneurship. Raised in modest circumstances on an Illinois farm, Scripps never lost his sense that the working class was the backbone of American democracy. His experiences on the farm also taught him not to tilt at windmills; Scripps pursued working-class journalism because it was a shrewd and lucrative move within the newspaper industry of that era.

This article details the economics of Scripps's workingclass journalism, analyzing news and other aspects of newspaper operations (such as distribution, staffing and production) as an outgrowth of market conditions and competition in the newspaper industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The chief argument here is that the distinct nature of the Scripps newspapers derived from three chief barriers Scripps encountered while starting newspapers: the degree of market concentration, rising costs, and the threat of retaliation by incumbent publishers against new publishers. Understanding the impact of such barriers is important because they go far in determining which players can compete in a market-and how they compete. Working-class news reflected Scripps's own beliefs but it appeared in his papers because it was a shrewd competitive strategy. This article focuses on the period from 1878, when he established his first newspaper -the Cleveland Press-to 1908, when he first retired from active management of his newspaper ventures.

Changing definitions of news in the nineteenth century have drawn the interest of several journalism historians and this analysis builds upon their work. In Journalistic Standards in the Nineteenth Century, Dicken-Garcia describes the changing role of the press as a reaction to shifting societal and organizational needs. She stresses press-society interaction as both press and society rethought the role of the press after the Civil War. Michael Schudson's Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers traces the emergence of the modern press to the rise of a "democratic market society." He focuses on two types of journalism in the late nineteenth century: entertainment (represented by Pulitzer's New York World) and information (represented by the New York Times). Both Dicken-Garcia and Schudson place news in a larger context of social transformation and a changing organizational culture.3

This work also builds upon the relatively small but extraordinarily rich work of press historians who have examined business and economic issues. Alfred McClung Lee's The Daily Newspaper in America remains the most detailed analysis of the media business more than sixty years after its publication.

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