The Role of the Agent in Partisan Communication Networks of Upper Canadian Newspapers

By Koerber, Duncan | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

The Role of the Agent in Partisan Communication Networks of Upper Canadian Newspapers


Koerber, Duncan, Journal of Canadian Studies


The early newspaper in Upper Canada is often portrayed as a product controlled and operated solely by a partisan editor who sent newspapers to subscribers. The agent, who provided distribution and political feedback to partisan editors, is a rarely examined participant in the partisan newspaper of early Canada. This study examines the letters and biographies of agents to understand agents' contributions to the early press. Biographies of Reform agents reveal their partisan character and the practical work they did in collecting subscription money. Biographies and letters of Conservative agents reveal extensive networks of relationships between agents who worked for multiple newspapers and the post office. A picture develops of the early partisan newspaper as a collective effort by hundreds of Upper Canadians to influence and circulate newspapers in a burgeoning public sphere.

Les premiers journaux du Haut-Canada sont souvent décrits comme des produits contrôlés et exploités uniquement par des rédacteurs partisans qui envoyaient leurs publications à des abonnés. Les agents qui fournissaient une rétroaction sur la distribution et la politique aux rédacteurs partisans sont des participants rarement étudiés dans le phénomène des journaux partisans du nouveau Canada. Le présent article examine les lettres et les biographies de tels agents pour mieux comprendre leur contribution à la presse d'antan. Les biographies d'agents réformistes révèlent leur caractère partisan et le travail pratique qu'ils accomplissaient en percevant les droits d'abonnement. Les biographies et les lettres d'agents conservateurs révèlent des réseaux complexes de relations entre les agents qui travaillaient pour plusieurs journaux et le bureau de poste. Une image se dessine des premiers journaux partisans montrant un effort collectif déployé par des centaines de Haut-Canadiens pour influencer et faire circuler des journaux dans une sphère publique florissante.

Within Canadian media history scholarship, two major eras of journalism are typically demarcated: the partisan newspaper age (1820s to 1870s) and the commercialized newspaper age (1880 and after) (Rutherford 1982; Sotiron 1997). Due to low start-up costs, establishing a newspaper in the partisan age was not difficult for most determined people, and newspapers represented a specific political cause or group to a relatively small audience paying by subscription (Stabile 2002). Newspapers in the commercialized age distanced themselves from partisanship outside of the editorial page with "objective" news, attracted large audiences with a broad range of content including sports, and, as a result, became big businesses driven by advertising. This demarcation implies that the partisan newspaper was a primitive operation, a sort of political pamphlet created, controlled, and distributed solely by its star, the editor. Wilfred Kesterton describes the "new kind of editor [who] came to dominate the British North American newspaper world," emphasizing the individual editor's entrepreneurship and participation in the public sphere after 1807 (1984, 12). Similarly, Paul Rutherford calls the first three decades of the 1800s "a glorious era of personal journalism" where editors "appeared to enjoy so much freedom." An editor could "stamp his image upon the whole newspaper." The only relationships editors had, Rutherford states, involved the sharing of content between editors and the sending of papers to subscribers (1978, 13).

The partisan-age newspaper was a more complex operation than previously thought, however; while editors are the focus of studies of print media production and distribution in early Canada, one additional important participant, the newspaper agent, has been ignored in all major Canadian journalism history surveys (Talman 1938; Firth 1961; Rutherford 1978; Kesterton 1983; Fetherling 1990). While editors certainly were the driving forces behind newspapers in this period, agents, as this study shows, contributed considerably to the functioning of the press. …

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