Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


There are hundreds if not thousands of smalltown newspapers scattered throughout the Great Plains, and they play an important role in the health and vitality of their communities. In the Canadian Plains, for example, the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspapers Association is composed of eighty weekly newspapers reaching more than 500,000 readers. The Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association is about eighty years old and has 102 member newspapers scattered throughout Alberta and into the Northwest Territories. Some papers have a history that goes back to the 1800s; others are brand new.

Traditionally, the community newspaper was defined as a nondaily publication serving a small community. However, as markets, business models, and technologies have changed over the years, it is no longer feasible to distinguish community newspapers based upon frequency or circulation size. A community newspaper may be published once a week, several times a week, or daily. With the emergence of the Internet, some community newspapers exist only in cyberspace. Regardless of frequency or method of distribution, most community newspapers are committed to providing local information and related services that serve and strengthen their communities.

In frontier days, as people moved west, so too did newspapers, largely because of the portability and durability of the flatbed press. A newspaper became one of the earliest marks of a new Plains community. When a newspaper arrived in Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, in 1854, for example, the town consisted of four tents. Denver's Rocky Mountain News was first published in 1859 in a saloon attic. Legh and Frederick Freeman, two former Confederate telegraph operators, started the Kearney Herald at Fort Kearny in Nebraska in 1865, then traveled west with the construction of the Union Pacific, setting up their press at every new railhead. They first published their Frontier Index in North Platte and then continued into Dakota Territory (later Wyoming Territory).

Evangelists and social activists also pioneered publishing in the Great Plains. Outspoken former lawyers, preachers, teachers, politicians, farmers, miners, and others tried their hand at journalism. A local editor could inspire voters and make himself an important figure in the community. Most editors were men, but women also participated in the region's journalism, first as editors' wives and then leading the papers after their husbands died. Carry Nation, with her Smasher's Mail, published in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, in the first years of the twentieth century, promoted temperance and prohibition. Woman suffrage and feminism found early champions in western newspapers.

Editors were expected to serve the local interests of their communities by campaigning for territorial status or statehood, for railroads, and for or against the abolition of slavery. Marriages, deaths, births, social events, prairie fires, lodge meetings, and rumors of gold and silver strikes were included, along with stories of local gunfights. One famous story was the Bismarck Tribune's account of George Armstrong Custer's defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, an account based on notes retrieved from the body of accompanying reporter Mark Kellogg.

Papers in the West were known for their quirky independence. One radical publication that broke through to a mass audience was Appeal to Reason, published in Girard, Kansas. In 1912 it had a circulation of 750,000. Another small-town newspaper that transcended local importance was the Emporia Gazette, published by William Allen White from 1895 to 1944.

Until the late 1800s, little thought was given to training editors and reporters. For more than a century, the emphasis was on printing, and future editors learned to set type under the apprentice system. But there were some modest efforts at training. In the 1840s young Native American students in Indian Territory were being trained in printing, and as early as 1848 girls at the Park Hill Seminary were producing a school paper, the Cherokee Rosebud. Printing in Indian Territory started with the Cherokee Almanac, which began publishing in 1835 at Tahlequah. Another Native American newspaper, the Shawnee Sun, began in 1835 at Shawnee Mission in what would become Kansas. Basic training manuals for journalists existed in the 1860s, and as early as 1873 Kansas State College offered printing classes for rural publishers.

Rural free delivery in 1896 made it possible for large dailies to reach into rural areas, and people predicted the end of rural weeklies. Instead, a special emphasis on local coverage actually strengthened the small-town papers because they no longer had to devote space to world or national events. During World War I local newspapers promoted war bonds, Red Cross campaigns, salvage efforts, and recruitment programs. Personnel problems developed as printers and editors went off to war, and many times wives had to fill in. In the 1920s, despite competition for advertising from radio, many small newspapers, with better equipment and better business methods, attained solid footing in their communities. This did not prevent a large number of failures during the Great Depression. Newspaper editors went back to the old system of bartering because their readers could not afford to buy the paper and businesses could not afford to advertise. Still, the Depression was a time of leadership for many small-town papers. Editorials called for community efforts to overcome local problems and promoted optimism. Papers closed again when World War II broke out, while others carried on with wives, sisters, and mothers assuming the responsibilities of publishing. Newspapers were considered vital to the war effort because of their ability to maintain morale on the home front. When veterans returned home, they flocked to universities, and interest in journalism careers rose, in large part because of the experiences of wartime correspondents.

The years after World War II saw a revolution in production methods and a change in the organization of the publishing business that greatly affected community newspapers. In the 1950s the change from metal to film production accelerated, especially at nondaily newspapers, which could more easily make the switch since they had fewer machines– and people–to deal with. Since new production processes made it easier to start a paper and suburban expansion increased the need for more papers, another development, the newspaper chain, brought change to community newspaper management. Computers in the newsroom, the development of digital cameras, and the convergence of print, audio, and video on the Internet combined to make the last few years of the twentieth century an exciting time for those involved in small-town newspapers. As with any changes, some newspapers embraced the new technologies, while others tried to avoid them.

But the one constant in small-town newspapers is that they strive to provide people with local news about their schools, government, clubs, and activities. They continue to announce births, deaths, weddings, and anniversaries. Editors of small-town newspapers know that if they chronicle people's lives and the events around them, people will read their papers.

See also CITIES AND TOWNS: Small Towns / PROTEST AND DISSENT: Appeal to Reason ; Nation, Carry.

Gloria B. Freeland Kansas State University

America's Premier Community Newspapers. Arlington VA: National Newspaper Association, 1998.

Karolevitz, Robert E. From Quill to Computer: The Story of America's Community Newspapers. Freeman SD: Pine Hill Press, 1985.

Sloan, William David, James G. Stovall, and James D. Startt. The Media in America: A History. Scottsdale AZ: Publishing Horizons, 1993.

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