Mass Media Come to the Small Town
While visiting Washington, D.C., in 1923, William Allen White received an invitation to the White House. He had been there many times before, but not since Warren Harding had become president. He had grown accustomed, during visits to previous presidents, to being questioned about the political "situation" out west, but Harding did not want to talk politics. He wanted to talk about the newspaper business. Like White, he had begun his career as a newspaperman, and he still owned the Marion, Ohio, Star. The two men sat in the Oval Office and swapped notes about newsprint prices, advertising rates, and printers' wages back in Emporia and Marion. According to White, Harding mused,
You know every day at three-thirty, here in the midst of the affairs of state, I go to press on the Marion Star. I wonder how much advertising there is. . . . I would like to walk out in the composing room and look over the forms before they go to the stereotyper. There never was a day in all the years that I ran the paper that I didn't get some thrill out of it. 1
By 1923, clearly, neither White nor Harding could by any stretch of the imagination be considered mere small-town newspapermen. Although White continued formally as editor of the Emporia Gazette, he increasingly left editorial decisions to a younger generation of newsmen that included his son William Lindsay White. From the twenties on, White devoted a much larger share of his attention to national affairs. His shrewd observation of politics and life in general earned him the affectionate title "Sage of Emporia."
Yet, as their Oval Office conversation illustrates, neither man could sever his ties to the occupation that had shaped his life and identity, even as their careers moved beyond their original roles. White, in particular, always prided himself on being a community leader in Emporia, and during the twenties he eagerly directed another period of economic expansion at the Gazette. Nonetheless, his national stature and changing local conditions placed a certain distance between him and his neighbors. He became more a respected figurehead, and at times an irritating gadfly, than a native leader. Just as he was established in the nation's imagination as the SmallTown Newspaperman, White ceased to play that role in Emporia.