Michigan Newspapers: A Two-Hundred-Year Review

Article excerpt

Introduction

It has been said that journalism is the first draft of history, and thus newspapers are indispensable historical sources. The Michigan Essay; or, the Impartial Observer appeared on the streets of Detroit on August 31, 1809, and although it was a small paper (only four pages, one of which was printed in French) and may have lasted only one issue, those few pages opened what would turn out to be an important window on Michigan and its people. Americans have always used newspapers to learn about their world, exercise their democratic rights, discover what is happening in their communities, and plan their weekly shopping trips--simply by reading one source. All this, as well as the events chronicled by newspapers, often provide a narrative starting point for historians.

Newspapers and the organizations that publish them are peculiar institutions; although assumed to have a public function, they are, nevertheless, privately owned commercial enterprises. People often refer to "our paper," and townspeople sometimes celebrate and at other times bemoan the quality of their local newspapers. But the bottom line is that almost every newspaper has a real bottom line, and if the sums printed there are not in black ink the paper will disappear, however beloved it may be in the community. Because of this dichotomy the history of newspapers involves an unusual mix of motives and influences; these organizations serve public needs and are often engaged in public education, but frequently they are unable to fulfill those needs because of the constraints of private enterprise and the need for profits. Although this duality appears inherently contradictory, Michiganians have lived with the contradiction, and made it work, for two centuries.

In writing the history of Michigan's newspapers, there are some significant limitations. The first is the dearth of published information on the subject. It is ironic that an industry that lives by the printed word should be documented only in widely scattered sources. A second limitation is the narrow scope of most national newspaper histories, which tend to focus on newspapers that were located along America's eastern seaboard, with a particular emphasis on New York City. The history of newspapers in that great metropolis is of course important, but America's and Michigan's newspapers often grew and prospered in different ways from papers in New York City or followed a trajectory that resembled that of the eastern papers and yet varied significantly from it--they did not simply imitate the New York City publications.

Conventional newspaper histories also focus relentlessly on the "progress" of newspapers from small weeklies to great metropolitan dailies. These mass-circulation papers are usually represented as the arbiters of national policy in the late nineteenth century. And it is certainly true that the leading newspaper publishers of that era--men like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer--were as well known then as network television's news anchors are today.

Mentioning television, however, reminds us that these triumphal histories ignore the fact that by the late twentieth century, with a few notable exceptions, America's great metropolitan dailies, including those in Michigan, were in retreat. Radio, television, and the internet could all deliver "the news" more quickly and with equal if not greater authority. These media could also deliver mass audiences to advertisers, who no longer needed to rely on the pages of a widely distributed newspaper to market their wares. As a result of competition for the public's attention and for ad dollars, newspaper circulation fell. Formerly profitable papers began to hemorrhage money. Many dailies simply stopped publishing, and others were forced to merge in order to survive.

Many of the newspapers that have moved successfully into the twenty-first century---community newspapers with no national or international aspirations--were frequently ignored in national histories. …