The Book of the Week is “The Astonishing Mr. Scripps” by Vance H. Trimble, published in 1992. This large volume documents the life, among other family members, of Edward Willis Scripps, born in June 1854, the 13th child of James and Julia Scripps. He became the head of the nation’s first newspaper chain by the end of the 19th century.
Prior to journalism, starting at twelve years of age, Scripps was required to assist his father at bookbinding, on the farm and at a sugar mill. He quit school at fifteen. In 1872, after dabbling in a few other ventures, at eighteen, he escaped a life of manual labor to help his 38-year old older brother in the print shop at the Detroit Tribune. The culture was such that journalists had to frequent a bar in order to get good assignments. There was peer pressure to drink.
About five years later, Scripps moved to Cleveland to start another newspaper there. He wanted to sell the paper on the streets, rather than through the customary routes with paperboys. “A newsboy could buy copies wholesale at the pressroom door for half a cent, thus earning fifty cents for each hundred sold.”
The composing room was where the ad and editorial departments had a conflict because advertising copy and news stories competed for space so the one that was typeset second got short shrift at deadline time. Scripps’ paper favored blue collar readers. Its rivals were read by wealthy, industrialist readers. Scripps supported trade unionism and opposed the capitalists. He tried to maximize revenue from subscribers rather than advertisers so he could write what he wanted; he thus didn’t have to print what advertisers told him to.
In 1880, Scripps started yet another newspaper in St. Louis– the Evening Chronicle. A competing paper, the Post Dispatch, was bribing the Chronicle carriers to transfer their route customers to the Post Dispatch. That same year, during the presidential election, the Chronicle’s circulation jumped to 13,000 and afterwards, fell back to 10,000.
In early 1881, when James Garfield was inaugurated U.S. President, Scripps wrote, “Hence we are writing the thing up from home [St. Louis], dating it from Washington and putting big headlines over it. Of course it is fraud, but there is no greater fraud than the doubt whether the country ever had a president with a title honestly acquired.”
The four newspapers were losing money, so in 1888, Scripps formed a “syndicate”– consolidated them– to achieve economies of scale and make them profitable. Nevertheless, he still imposed draconian, petty cost-cutting measures on his employees the following year, such as making reporters pay for work-related costs like transportation, pencils, business cards and promotional copies of the paper.
On the home front, Scripps’ wife had gotten pregnant seven times in twelve years. Four children lived to adulthood.
In 1904, Scripps knew it was a conflict to “… pollute its columns with noxious hucksterism. America’s press would never be truly free and honest until newspapers flatly refused to print any advertising matter at all.” Wealthy merchants could threaten to bankrupt a paper by not advertising. Scripps looked for a city where a paper could stay in business through circulation revenue alone. He thought the paper should be an instrument for fighting oppression and improving quality of life: “… better sanitation, better education, better and healthier and more moral amusements, better homes, better wages, better sermons in our churches, better accommodations on street cars.”
The two conditions required for success with an advertising-free paper are: it must be interesting and have prompt and dependable delivery. But for Scripps, the costs exceeded the profits because he had to pay printers, pressmen, reporters, circulators, rent, utilities, etc. This blogger believes that in the 21st century, many online publications have the aforementioned conditions; however, a third condition includes the fact that readers must be willing to pay for the product.
In 1915, Scripps invested in Max Eastman’s radical weekly “The Masses” – ironically named, because the weekly’s focus was not on the downtrodden, but America’s elite. Eastman’s 22 liberal contributors submitted articles for free. The paper still operated at a loss; circulation was stagnant. There is nothing new under the sun.
Scripps wanted his teenage son Bob to work, saying “I do not want to you to be a simple onlooker and student and critic of life…” Around 1913, Bob had an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, just like in the movie “The Graduate” (1967). Only, Bob was under 18 years old. There is nothing new under the sun.
Unsurprisingly, Scripps was a cynic. He was “… convinced, rightly or wrongly, that altruism, which is almost universal, is still almost universally a minor motive in a man.”
Read the book to learn the history of the wire services, how the people at the Scripps newspapers coped with local political corruption, how they shaped policy in Washington, survived natural disasters and wars, company power struggles, and the consequences of the Scripps family’s alcoholism.