The Confederate Press Association: Cooperative News Reporting of the War

Article excerpt

As the second year of the Civil War was drawing to a close, John S. Thrasher faced the biggest challenge of his already exciting journalistic career. The forty-six-year-old Thrasher had just been named superintendent of the newly created Press Association of the Confederate States of America. Since the beginning of the war, editors of the South's newspapers had struggled to find an effective means of gathering and distributing telegraphic news. The wide-ranging fighting taking place, coupled with the fact that few Southern journals employed full-time correspondents, had made reporting the war extremely difficult since the loss of the Associated Press in 1861. By March 1863, however, Confederate editors finally seemed to have settled on an effective system--and in Thrasher they had found the man with the energy and experience to direct the organization.(1)

The superintendent immediately determined that the P.A.--as it came to be known--needed guidelines for the reporting and writing of news reports to be sent over the wires. Thrasher instructed that all telegraphic stories should be written clearly and concisely, and that they should be free of opinion and comment. He ordered correspondents to transmit news immediately and, in the event of a developing event such as a major battle, to send regular updates. Reporters should take care not to reveal Confederate military secrets, he instructed, while cultivating sources within the army to ensure that the P.A. always reported news first.(2)

Thrasher proudly claimed that the Press Association's news gathering and reporting practices represented a "complete revolution" in Southern journalism. They were, in fact, a significant change for journalists in a region of the country where timely news reporting traditionally had taken a back seat to partisan editorial opinion, even among the region's largest daily newspapers.(3) Yet a close reading of the association's published telegraphic reports reveals that while correspondents successfully followed some of the superintendent's guidelines, others proved to be more troublesome.(4) This was hardly surprising considering the dearth of experienced correspondents in the South, the difficulties they faced in reporting the war, and the fact that nineteenth-century American journalists in general drew no firm distinction between reporting and editorializing.(5)

This study traces the development of cooperative newsgathering in the Confederacy, while also examining the Press Association's attempt to introduce new standards for reporting and writing of telegraphic news.(6) A study of the cooperative newsgathering practices in the Confederacy provides insight into the developing standards of American journalism at mid-century. Moreover, the persistence of Southern editors in securing a mutual arrangement for telegraphic news--and the attempt to established principles for reporting and writing that news--was a signal that the journalism practiced in the region was beginning to emerge from the old partisan practices that had dominated newspapers for so long.

Six days after the surrender of Fort Sumter, a detachment of U.S. Army soldiers marched into the office of the American Telegraph Company office in Washington, D.C., and quietly took possession of the office. Although most Southern editors still were dizzy with excitement over the victory at Charleston, it did not take them long to recognize the impact of the event: the South's main source of vital telegraphic news--the Associated Press--had been lost.(7) Confederate editors realized that a reliable Southern replacement for the A.P. would be needed if newspapers were to receive timely and trustworthy news of the fighting.

Cooperative newsgathering in the South dated back to 1847, when a group of editors banded together to pay the cost of receiving telegraphic news. On the eve of the war, two lines served the South. The American Telegraph Company's trunk line extended from New York through Washington to Richmond, Raleigh, Columbia, Macon, Montgomery, and Mobile. …