Propaganda, Chicago Newspapers, and the Political Economy of Newsprint during the First World War

By Nichols, Jeff | Journalism History, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Propaganda, Chicago Newspapers, and the Political Economy of Newsprint during the First World War


Nichols, Jeff, Journalism History


Within the academic literature and popular histories of the First World War, there stands a broad agreement about the indispensability of the Committee on Public Information (CPI) in mobilizing the American public. According to Harold Lasswell, the founding father of propaganda studies, the Committee on Public Information functioned at the level of an unofficial Cabinet department, its head, George Creel, "responsible for every aspect of propaganda work, both at home and abroad."1 "Under Creel's ministrations, Wilson's war pervasively enveloped American citizens at every venue in their personal lives," writes J. Michael Sproul.2 With newspapers fearful of violating vaguely worded yet punitive censorship laws, the CPI is imagined to have effectively nationalized the news by flooding all channels of information with its messages. It is assumed that newspapers did well peddling wartime propaganda. "The press lives by advertising, advertising follows circulation, and circulation depends on excitement," Lasswell wrote. 3

Contrary to the expectation that war automatically generates profits for newspapers, the number of periodicals decreased more than 7 percent between 1917 and 1918, according to Editor & Publisher. The vast majority closed shop because of soaring newsprint prices.4 Although a handful of historians have written in passing about the stresses of the war economy on newspapers, the story of how the wartime state managed newspapers as industrial enterprises, and how that oversight shaped their final product, has gone unexplored. In Chicago, a battleground in the federal war of dissent, the mass-circulation press openly treated the CPI as an unreliable press agency staffed by hacks.5 As the wartime supply of newsprint fell increasingly under the control of the federal government, Chicago newspaper publishers pleaded that they could not help the government prosecute the war unless given their share of newsprint and advertising space. Rather than being the artifacts of "patriotic hysteria" driven by an omnipresent propaganda agency that appeared overnight, the propagandistic images in Chicago newspapers were borne by multiple motivations, one of which was the hand of the wartime marketplace.

At the time of the German invasion of Belgium, Chicago supported eight daily English-language newspapers.6 In the mornings and on Sundays, Chicagoans could read the Examiner, a Hearst newspaper edited by Arthur Brisbane; the Tribune, co-published by the reform-minded cousins Robert R. McCormick and Joseph Patterson; and the Herald, which former Tribune editor James Keeley had recently formed through the merger of the Inter Ocean and the Record-Herald. Competition in the evening comprised the Day Book, an experimental ad-free Scripps tabloid; the Daily Journal, a conservative Democratic paper published by John Eastman; the Evening Post, a Republican paper that was part of a small national chain owned by John C. Shaffer; the Chicago-American, a Hearst tabloid that specialized in fast, loud news; and the Daily News, published by Victor Lawson. At the end of 1914, the combined circulation of the Hearst papers enjoyed the largest share of circulation in Chicago, although the Tribune, with its massive Sunday edition, had the widest circulation of any single newspaper. Monday through Saturday, the Daily News held on to the largest readership.7

The Daily News was founded in 1875 by Melville Stone, a refugee from the Inter Ocean, whose motto had been "Republican in everything, independent in nothing." Lawson dumped his inheritance into the foundering paper. Within a decade, it had become the second largest daily in the nation.8 In its chase for advertising revenue, the Daily News rejected misleading advertisements and political patrons. "Despite the Daily News's enthusiasm for fires, earthquakes, murders, and scandals, it did not let the sensational divert it from respectability and genuine public service," historian James F. …

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