Chapter XIX - The Newspapers of West Virginia

History of Hampshire County West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present
By Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher
Morgantown, West Virginia; A. Brown Boughner Printer; 1897

PART 1 State History
Pages 229-236

Newspaper history commenced in the territory now forming West Virginia, nearly one hundred years ago; that is, in 1803. The beginning was small, but ambitious; and although the first journal to make its appearance in the state, ceased to pay its visits to the pioneers generations ago; yet, from that small beginning has grown a press which will rank with that of any state in the union, if population and other conditions are taken into account. West Virginia has no large city, and consequently has no paper of metropolitan pretensions; but its press fulfills every requirement of its people; faithfully represents every business interest; maintains every honorable political principle; upholds morality; encourages education, and has its strength in the good will of the people. This chapter can do little more than present an outline of the growth of journalism in this state, together with facts and figures relating to the subject.

The first paper published in West Virginia was the Monongalia Gazette, at Morgantown in 1803. The Farmer's Register, printed at Charlestown, Jefferson county, was the next. These were the only papers in the state in 1810. The oldest paper still being published in West Virginia is the Virginia Free Press, printed at Charlestown, Jefferson county. It was founded in 1821. The Monongalia Gazette was perhaps an up-to-date journal in its day; but it would be unsatisfactory at the present time. It was in four page form, each page sixteen inches long and ten inches wide. There were four columns to the page. Its editors were Campbell & Britton; its subscription rate was six cents a copy, or two dollars a year. It was impossible that a weekly paper so small could efficiently cover the news, even though the news of that day was far below the standard set for the present time. Yet, had such a paper been edited in accordance with modern ideas, it could have exerted a much wider influence than it did exert. No other paper was near enough to make inroads upon its field of circulation and influence; and it might have had the whole region to itself. But it did not expand, as might have been expected; on the contrary, within three years it reduced its size about one-half. More space in it was given to foreign news than to the happenings of county, state and nation. Before the days of railroads, steamboats and telegraphing, it may readily be understood that the events recorded from foreign countries were so stale at the date of their publication in the backwoods paper that they almost deserved classification as ancient history. The domestic news, particularly that relating to distant states, was usually several weeks old before it found place in the Gazette. County occurrences, and happenings in the neighboring counties, were given little attention. Many a valuable scrap of local history might have been permanently preserved in that pioneer journal; but the county historian looks through the crumpled and yellow files in vain. But, on the other hand, he encounters numerous mentions of Napoleon's movements; the emperor of Russia's undertakings, and England's achievements; all of which would be of value as history were it not that Guizot, Rambaud and Knight have given us the same things in better style; so that it is labor thrown away to search for them in the circumscribed columns of a pioneer paper printed, on the forest-covered banks of the Monongahela. Joseph Campbell, one of the editors and proprietors of the Gazette, had learned the printing trade in Philadelphia. It is not known at what date the paper suspended publication. It was customary in early times, as well as at the present day, to incorporate two or more papers into one, drop the name of one and continue the publication. The Gazette may thus have passed quietly out of its individual existence.

Monongalia county fostered the first newspaper west of the Alleghanies in the state, and it also has had perhaps as many papers as any county of West Virginia. The full list, from the first till the present time, numbers between thirty and forty. The list compiled by Samuel T. Wiley, the historian of Monongalia, shows that the county had thirty-one papers prior to 1880. Nearly all of these suspended after brief careers. It would be difficult to compile a list of all the papers established in this state from the earliest times till the present. It would perhaps be impossible to do so, for some of them died in their infancy, and a copy cannot now be found. There were, no doubt, many whose very names are not now remembered. It would not be an extravagant estimate to place the total number of papers published in this state, both those still in existence and those which are dead, at five hundred. It would be a surprise to many persons to learn how ephemeral is the average newspaper. It comes and goes. It has its beginning, its prosperity, its adversity, its death. Another follows in its path, Few can be called relatively permanent. There are now more than one hundred newspapers published in West Virginia. Only nine of these were in existence in 1863, when the state was admitted into the union. These nine are the Wheeling Intelligencer, Wheeling Register, Clarksburg Telegram, Charlestown Free Press, Charlestown Spirit of Jefferson, Shepherdstown Register, Barbour County Jeffersonian, Wellsburg Herald and Point Pleasant Register. Of the papers in existence in this state in 1870 only sixteen have come down to the present day. The cause of the early death of so many papers which begin life in such earnest hope is that the field is full. Two newspapers try to exist where there is room for only one. It does not require an evolutionist to foretell the result. Both must starve or one must quit. If one quits there is always another anxious to push in and try its luck.

West Virginia's does not differ from experiences elsewhere. Journalism in country towns is much the same the country over. In cities the business is more stable, because conducted on business principles. Men with experience and business training* accustom themselves to look before they leap. The inexperienced man who is ambitious to crowd some one else out of the newspaper business in the interior towns is too prone to leap first and do his looking afterwards. There is no scarcity of good newspaper men outside the cities, and West Virginia has its share; but at the same time, there are too many persons who feel themselves called upon to enter the arena, although unprepared for the fray, and who cannot hold their own in competition with men of training in the profession. To the efforts and failures of these latter persons is due the ephemeral character of the lives of newspapers, taken as a whole. Country journalism comes to be looked upon as a changing, evanescent, uncertain thing, always respectable; only moderately and occasionally successful;, inaugurated in hope; full of promise as the rainbow is full of gold; sometimes materializing into things excellent; now and then falling like Lucifer, but always to hope again. There is something sublime in the rural journalist's faith in his ability to push forward. Though failures have been many, country journalism has builded greater than it knew. West Virginia's development and the rural press have gone hand in hand. Every railroad pushing into the wilderness has carried the civilizing editor and his outfit. He goes with an unfaltering belief in printer's ink and confidence in its conquering power. He is ready to do and suffer all things. The mining town and the latest county seat; the lumber center and the oil belt; the manufacturing village and the railroad terminus; these are the fields in which he casts his lot. Here he sets up his press; he issues his paper; he booms the town; he records the births, marriages and deaths with a monotonous faithfulness; he expresses his opinion freely and generously. In return he expects the town and the surrounding country to support his enterprise as liberally as he has given his time, talent and energy in advancing the interests of the town. Sometimes his expectations are realized; sometimes not. If not, perhaps he packs his wordly assets and sets out for another town, richer in experience but poorer in cash. There are men in West Virginia who have founded a number of newspapers, usually selling out after a year or two in order to found another journal.

This is the class of editors who blaze the way into the woods. They bear the same relation to the journalism which follows as the "tomahawk right" bore, in early days, to the plantations and estates which succeeded them. After the adventurous and restless journalist has passed on, then comes the newspaper man who calculates before he. invests. He doss not come in a hurry. He is not afraid some one will get ahead of him. He does not locate before he has carefully surveyed the field, and has satisfied himself that the town and the surrounding country are able to support such a journal as he proposes establishing. His aim is to merit and receive the patronage of the people. This becomes the solid, substantial paper, and its editor wields a permanent influence for good. Such papers and such editors are found ail over West Virginia.

Journalism among businesses is like poetry among the fine arts — the most easily dabbled in but the most difficult to succeed in. It may not appear to the casual observer that the newspaper business is nearly always unsuccessful, or, at least, that nearly all the papers which come into existence meet untimely death in the very blossom of their youth. An examination of the history of newspapers in nearly any old town will show that ten have failed where one has succeeded. The history of journalism in Monongalia county, already alluded to, differs little from the history of the papers in any county of equal age and population.

In 1851 when Horace Greeley was asked by a parliamentary committee from England "at what amount of population of a town in America do they first begin the publication of a weekly newspaper?" he replied that every county will have one, and a county of twenty thousand population usually has two weekly papers; and when a town has fifteen thousand people it usually has a daily paper. This rule does not state the case in West Virginia today. The average would probably show one newspaper for each six thousand people. In the small counties the average is sometimes as low as one paper to two thousand people; and not one fourth of these people subscribe for a paper. It is not difficult to see that the field can be easily over-supplied; and among newspapers there must be a survival of the fittest.

The early journals published in this state, as well as those published elsewhere at that time, say seventy or eighty years ago, were very different in appearance from those of today. The paper on which the printing was done was rough, rugged and discolored, harsh to the touch, and of a quality inferior to wrapping paper of the present time. Some of them advertised that they would take clean rags at four cents a pound in payment of subscriptions. At that time paper was made from rags. It is now mostly made from wood. The publishers no doubt shipped the rags to the paper mills and received credit on their paper accounts. Some of these early journals clung to the old style of punctuation and capitalization; and some, to judge by their appearance, followed no style at all, but were as outlandish as possible, particularly in the use of capital letters. They capitalized all nouns, and as many other words as they could, being limited, apparently, only by the number of capital letters in their type cases.

As late as 1835 all the printing presses in the United States were run by hand power. On the earliest press the pressure necessary was obtained by means of a screw. Fifty papers an hour was fast work. The substitution of the lever for the screw increased the capacity of the press live fold. This arrangement reached its greatest development in the Washington hand press, patented in 1829 by Samuel Rust. This press is still the standby in many small offices. The printing done with it is usually good; but the speed is slow, and two hundred and fifty impressions an hour is a high average. Printers call this press "The Man Killer," because its operation requires so much physical exertion.

The early newspapers in backwoods towns attempted to pull neck and neck with the city journals. They tried to give the news from all over the world; and the result was, they let the home news go. They were long in learning that a small paper's field should be small, and that the readers of a local paper expect that paper to contain the local news. Persons who desired national and foreign news subscribed for metropolitan papers. This was the case years ago the same as now. In course of time the lesson was learned; the local papers betook themselves to their own particular fields with the result that the home paper has become a power at home. The growth of journalism has a tendency to restrict the influence of individual great papers to smaller and smaller geographical limits. All round the outer borders of their areas of circulation, other papers are taking possession of their territory, and limiting them. No daily paper now has a general and large circulation farther away from the place of publication than can be reached in a few hours. This is not so much the case with small papers. When once firmly established they can hold their small circulation and local influence much more securely than large circulation and large influence can be held by metropolitan papers. The trouble with the country papers is that the most of them die before they can establish themselves.

Some of the earlier statesmen feared danger from what they termed a newspaper aristocracy, formed by the concentration of the influence of the press about a comparatively few journals advantageously located in commercial centers. This danger is feared no more. The power of the press has been infinitesimally divided; among the metropolitan papers first; then among those in the smaller cities; lastly, among those in the smaller towns, until all fear of concentration is a thing of the past. The fundamental law of evolution, which rules the influence of the press as it rules the destinies of nations, or the growth and decline of commerce and political power, renders it impossible that any aggregate of newspapers, acting in concert, can long wield undisputed influence over wide areas. They must divide into smaller aggregates, and subdivide again, each smaller aggregate exercising its peculiar power in its own appropriated sphere, and not trespassing upon the domains of others. The lowest subdivision is the country paper; and so secure is it from the inroads of the city journals that it can hold its ground as securely as the metropolitan journal can hold its field against the paper of the interior.

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