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,
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
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
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.