is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

E.W. Scripps and the Business of Newspapers

Author(s):Baldasty, Gerald J.
Reviewer(s):Reed, Barbara Straus

Published by EH.NET (August, 1999)

Gerald J. Baldasty. E.W. Scripps and the Business of Newspapers.

History of Communication Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press,

1999. 272 pp. $42.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-2520-2255-6; $16.95 (paper) ISBN


Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Barbara Straus Reed, Department of

Journalism, Rutgers University.

E. W. Scripps and the Business of Newspapers is an exciting, new

offering in both paper and cloth from the University of Illinois Press.

Gerald J. Baldasty has succeeded in explaining the creation of the

first newspaper chain in America, developed by Edward Willis Scripps at the

end of the last century. Baldasty has used primary material and has made good

use of the correspondence on deposit at Ohio University, Athens. In addition,

he has included a con tent analysis of Scripps’s newspapers covering subject

matter, news sources, photos and illustrations, column inches of print and

photographs, editorial subjects, and articles’


Baldasty, author of The Commercialization of The News in the 19th

Century (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), places the work of Scripps

in relation to his competitors, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

They shared some journalistic values and ran successful corporations. Pulitzer

pioneered newspaper con tent, and his papers reflected a deep commitment to

public service: his crusades against corruption, fraud, and injustices of urban

life are legendary. Hearst copied many Pulitzer innovations and developed the

entertainment aspect of the paper. He openly

staged news events, investigated murders, and ran bizarre news–no matter what

the financial cost to him. Scripps’s legacy was the development of the business

side of the modern American newspaper. He concentrated on performance goals,

long-range planning


circulation methods, and revenue sources, among other areas. He created a

central management that made his newspapers economically efficient entities. He

embraced issues and concerns of the working class, shunning close ties to

advertising and business.

His string of papers–small,

cheap, limited in size and quality–formed a chain that became the envy of his


The purpose of the book is to explicate Scripps’s career in American journalism

from the early 1870’s through his retirement in 1908 and,

ultimately, his death. During that time, he established or bought more than 40

newspapers, began a telegraphic news service, and created an illustrated news

feature syndicate. Baldasty’s book focuses on three business strategies Scripps

used to build his

chain: low cost, market segmentation, and vertical integration. Also, the book

describes Scripps’s efforts to free his papers from advertising and business

influences. Then too, Baldasty describes Scripps’s management structure,

used to coordinate and control his journalistic empire.

Scripps came to the newspaper business during a time of great change. He

eschewed direct competition and instead sought to serve new readers instead of

competing for established ones. In his opinion, most newspapers either

ignored or were hostile to the working class. His news stressed labor issues

and was directed to a less-educated audience.

He also practiced strict economy and his low-cost strategy meant that his

start-up costs ran well below the industry average, because of keeping staffs

small, salaries modest, and offices Spartan. His newspapers sold for just a

penny, whether home delivery or street sales,

at a time when others sold for two cents for home delivery and five cents on

the street. Moreover, Scripps avoided eastern cities because of higher costs

than in the middle-west and west.

His vertical integration strategy was represented by a telegraphic news service

he set up and a feature syndicate that distributed illustrations and soft news

for all papers in the chain. He centralized control and intensely supervised

his papers. He was opposed to running much advertising, as he kept his papers

independent of the rich and powerful so he could reach and represent working

class readers.

Scripps’s contribution to

American journalism was the key role he played in becoming a modern publisher,

building the first national newspaper chain, and recognizing the difficult

problems for mass media in using advertisers. Scripps’s business methods

influenced news gathering and distribution. His highly profitable chain

overwhelmed his competition, was accessible to readers, and established the

model that has dominated 20th century newspaper ownership. His prescient use

of marketing applied to the

newspaper industry contributed

to the business success of his newspapers and influenced the nature of news.

Baldasty has presented a very well-organized and easily understood analysis.

His work is extremely well documented.

Born on a farm in 1854, Scripps joined his older half-brother James in

developing a newspaper, characterized by independence in politics,

selling at a cheap price, being half the size of other papers of the time, and

aimed at the working class. Scripps became circulation manager, organized

newspaper routes, supervised newsboys who made deliveries, and developed an

ability to judge others. His two half-brothers backed him financially in his

effort to launch the Cleveland press in 1878. Scripps practiced extraordinary

economic measures: his business was cash-only; he demanded immediate payment

from advertisers and readers; and he carefully kept track of spending. These

daily practices resulted in a 15-17 hours-per-day job. His major goal in

establishing newspapers in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and St. Louis was not to

accomplish a great good but to succeed with a business entity.

At age 33, he succeeded in becoming president of the family business and as

president accomplished the creation of an efficient, centralized newspaper

company; he accomplished modernization of

newspaper plants and establishment of a news bureau and advertising office.

However, he learned how to produce low-cost newspapers for the working class

from his brother James during 17 years.

He then retreated from the newspaper business to develop anextraordinary

estate called Miramar, outside San Diego. At Miramar he had a private gymnasium

with inside pool, an aviary, and a sprawling ranch house with plain American

oak furniture. He owned a yacht, like Hearst and Pulitzer, but his style of

living was simple, compared to Hearst. He left the work of his newspaper

properties to a new partner,

Milton McRae, urging him simply to make money. The Cleveland and Cincinnati

newspapers, both highly profitable, formed the nucleus of his empire. He

developed and

purchased newspapers on the west coast as well,

in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The central office kept tabs on

each newspaper holding and evaluated performance in keeping with the policies

of E. W. He tolerated no dissent and fired those who tried. By the turn of the

century, he returned to full-time newspaper work and extended his empire up

the California coast into Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Texas,

Oklahoma, Iowa, Indiana, and Tennessee.

Scripps used three criteria for

choosing places to begin newspapering:

could a paper strengthen his chain’s news-gathering ability, especially with

the telegraph news service? Could the papers assist other Scripps papers in

gathering regional news? Could the paper be started cheaply,

al ways a penny per day, aimed at workers? Scripps recognized that he needed a

population approaching 40,000 competing newspapers that were partisan,

expensive, influenced by business, and hostile or indifferent to labor. Scripps

had good scouts who prepared

detailed market analyses on different cities.

His telegraph news service became central to both clients and contributors,

helping to defray costs while providing news for other Scripps publications.

His focus on publishing for the working class reflected his business strategy

in segmenting the market and producing something at low cost. Scripps

capitalized on his readers’ great desire for fast-breaking news of local events

as well as national and world news. Eventually Scripps’s newspaper chain

stretched from Portland,

Oregon, to New York City with the acquisition of the telegram in 1927.

Scripps frequently developed newspapers for the purpose of sharing regional

news so that news from cities with a Scripps paper appeared in other Scripps

papers and constituted about half the telegraphic news used by the chain.

Nevertheless, expansion slowed because of limited capital and lack of

personnel. His purchase of more ranch property near Miramar ate into his supply

of capital, and he could not find a sufficient supply of men ready to start a

newspaper for him. However, he was more successful than any of his

contemporaries in initiating and purchasing newspapers. Most saw soaring

profits and he succeeded because he was careful and methodical.

The frugal entrepreneur controlled costs by ordering used presses, cheap

offices, poor-quality newsprint, and poorly-paid staff. His business ran as a

cash-only operation. He was able to preserve capital, limit operating costs,

reduce dependence on advertisers, and keep

his papers for the working class. Yet, his papers carried limited local news,

reported by small staffs, and produced on worn-out presses with old type. The

papers were not attractive and were hard to read. His penny-pinching methods

even included using pa per front and back for reporters’ copy. He controlled

costs with limited start-up capital,

relying on shared news and features and engravings for illustrations.

Scripps bragged that he could begin a newspaper anywhere in America using

merely one reporter

and one editor because of his news service.

Syndicated material accounted for 25 to 35 percent of each issue and even up to

half or three-quarters at times. Baldasty supports this assertion with a formal

content analysis of four Scripps papers created between 1903 and 1906. He

found that syndicated material constituted an average of 62 percent of

non-advertising content! He made reporters pay for their own car fare, purchase

their own lead pencils, and even banned the purchase of toilet paper so staff

members should use old newspapers.

He also admonished his business managers to buy used twine. In addition,

Scripps importantly kept distribution costs low by concentrating circulation in

the city rather than the country. He recognized that urban populations

could mean focused news gathering and cheaper distribution than suburbs or

rural areas. To avoid office expense, no records were kept of subscribers; only

newspaper carriers knew who the customers were. His economizing became a

hallmark of his career in editing and publishing. He kept his newspapers cheap

to remain true to his goal of having independent working class newspapers. He

monitored every expense. The central office created incentives for employees to

obey rules and policies and abide by surveillance systems that checked up on


Company policy meant not printing Scripps’s name on the masthead. He wanted to

share markets with upscale rivals but sought to drive out labor-oriented

publications. He saw Hearst as his chief competitor and even kil led a Chicago

publication to avoid battling Hearst. He avoided all publicity, as well as any

kind of advertising. He saw the importance of attending to the working class,

publishing news about labor: strikes,

wages, hours, political organizing. Even editorial cartoons portrayed the

difficulties of Mr. and Mrs. Common People. His papers exposed trusts and

monopolies, supported collective bargaining and strikes,

supported government regulation of food and transportation industries,

and government ownership

of water and electric utilities. They advocated power for the common people by

direct election of public office and through initiative, referendum, and

recall. Workers went out of their way to support Scripps publications; they

were the only publications peaking for labor. His syndicate brought popular

cartoon characters with whom the working class could identify. He had his

newspapers devote more space to coverage of leisure and entertainment rather

than government, politics, courts, and business. News a bout plays and sports

appealed to readers; he did not avoid politics but limited its coverage.

Scripps carried a great deal of news of interest to women, as women were more

loyal customers than men. His paper sponsored contests to attract women and

printed short stories geared towards women. It is important to note that

Scripps papers offered content to working class women, about how to run a

household on a limited income, for example. At the turn of the century, Scripps

publications reported that more than 20 percent of American women worked

outside the home; few if any received adequate wages. His papers attacked job

discrimination and advocated equal pay for equal work.

Scripps wanted his newspapers to please readers, so he urged editors to make


short, easy to read, and in simple language; to entertain with jokes and

cartoons, to make news interesting and easy to understand, and to use

illustrations and features lavishly. Scripps newspapers had shorter articles,

more vivid headlines, and more ty pes of non-traditional content to reach

working class readers.

Scripps died in 1926. He had only a public school education. He advocated

independence in journalism, urging that the press serve as the foundation of

democracy to provide information vital to an enlightened electorate. He felt

the press fell short in becoming a tool of the elite and ignoring or opposing

the needs of the masses. A press dominated by the few, representing the

interests of the few, was not a press able to bring the needs of democracy.

Scripps’s cause was to prove that newspapers could be owned and run by people

who were not millionaires and with not much advertising. He defined news

through the eyes of labor, and did not support political or business elites.

Scripps tried to emphasize circulation over advertising revenues and his


once established, limited the amount and size of advertisements accepted. He

wanted to be supported by many small businesses rather than rely on large ones.

The bottom line was that Scripps wanted to make money. He was a successful

entrepreneur through careful money management and controlling costs. Scripps

tried to create newspapers for an audience heretofore ignored. He recognized

the dangers of being dependent on advertising,

but as a result his papers were smaller, cheaper, and poorer. His papers

lacked the resources to cover local news well and his competitors provided

nearly three times more local news. He emphasized cost-cutting over quality and

judged his editors by their ability to generate profits rather than produce

quality news. His idea of central management and having papers benefit from

common resources such as features can be seen today in other newspaper chains.

He was an astute businessman and put into practice methods of

newspaper operation that have endured.

Baldasty’s analysis is crisp, well thought out and executed. He has made a

tremendous contribution by his astute insights and thorough research.

His is a significant contribution to the literature of journalism history.

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century