Academic journal article Journalism History

The Progressive Era Farm Press: A Primer on a Neglected Source of Journalism History

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Progressive Era Farm Press: A Primer on a Neglected Source of Journalism History

Article excerpt

Speaking at Iowa State College, where the creation of a chair in journalism was under consideration in the spring of 1905, John Clay commented on the "new era in agriculture."' A great unfolding scientific age was to sweep through the sector, uniting the written word with the minds of the nation's plough men. For Clay, "the fertile pen" would shape progressive agricultural practices and sound public policy. A chair in journalism was needed to meet the large number of requests for editorial assistance by the nation's leading papers and magazines, many of which were adding agriculture departments. Clay thought farm journalists would be perfect candidates to steer the American press clear of the sectionalism and yellow journalism dominating the daily newspapers. A thriving farm press would inspire farmers to address moral, technical, and political issues more knowledgeably. "The seed sown today and in future days at this college," wrote Clay, "may germinate journalists who, knowing their work behind the plow, can take up, in a practical way, the great lifework of molding public opinion through the printing press."

This article is offered as a primer for journalism historians who may have overlooked the rich and authoritative sources of rural public opinion in the early twentieth-century farm press. It provides a glimpse of the critical role of the farm press in linking isolated farmers to politically active business influences. In addition, it illustrates the agenda-setting ambitions of agricultural journalists, particularly on the issue of rural finance. Detailed accounts of the rapid rise of the urban press during the start of the twentieth century have obscured impressive gains made by farm papers as a medium for the cultivation of rural public opinion. Often the entire history of agricultural journalism merits only a passing reference or is reduced to a description of the power and excess of the Populist papers.2 The early twentieth-century farm press leaders, however, were serious journalists who took an interest in national policy decisions affecting the rural economic sectors that kept them in business. While farm papers were trade journals, focused on improving agricultural and business practices, their editorial columns dealt with the broader policy dilemmas of the day.3

In 1900, the rural population in the United States exceeded 44 million.4 A decade later it was approaching 50 million, reflecting a period of agricultural expansion and rural settlement. The census of 1910 showed the total number of farms exceeded six million for the first time. This occurred in the face of a heralded "drift to the cities" of farm-weary children, failed farmers, and prosperous absentee landowners.5 A demographic surge created a demand from rural residents for sources of reliable information. Yet, W. S. Crowe, editor of Batten's Agricultural Directory, found farmers were still "a little shy of scientific teaching," despite the fact that by 1908 there were 89 schools of agriculture, 56 federally funded experiment stations, and 46 farmers' institutes.6

The printed word and the plough were coming together, and the result was a steady stream of publications. Book farming traditionally was scorned by rural skeptics.7 Much of the rural population, however, faithfully read their favorite farm paper. Batten 's listed a total of 458 agricultural periodicals in 1908, with a combined circulation that exceeded 15 million.8 These circulation figures may have been inflated, given the competitiveness of the farm press prior to the founding of the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) in 1914. Advertisers, nevertheless, found the circulations were sufficiently substantial to keep a large number of papers viable with their advertising dollars. Farm-paper publishers were among a small group of businessmen promoting advertising standardization by helping to found the ABC?9

The limited historiography of farm journalism is often told as a narrative of outstanding leaders. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.