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Once There Were 340 Papers in ND: Now There are Ninety

100th Anniversary, 1901-2001

Haas, Jane. "Once There Were 340 Papers in ND: Now There are Ninety." Ashley Tribune, n.d. 9-10.


Newspapers in North Dakota sprang up like mushrooms in the late 1800s along with general stores, hardware stores, banks, hotels, harness shops, poolrooms, grain elevators, saloons, churches, livery stables, and professional offices.

Elwyn B. Robinson, in his book History of North Dakota stated that in 1890, North Dakota had about 125 newspapers and only 50 incorporated towns and villages. Almost every village, incorporated or not, had a newspaper.

By 1900, 163 newspapers operated in the state, and of those 146 were considered Republican newspapers. That is they were supported of the Republican party. As Robinson put it, those newspapers supported the "party of railroads, grain elevators and moneylenders." Those newspapers were also considered part of the (Alexander) McKenzie machine and kept it well oiled.

The (Fargo) Forum reported in 1912 that 226 newspapers endorsed Louis B. Hanna for governor, 33 endorsed the Progressive party, 19 the Democratic party and 62 remained noncommittal. That means that in a period of 12 years, the number of newspapers in North Dakota had increased from 163 to 340.

"Walrus-Mustached" Colonel Clement A. Lounsberry established the first newspaper, the Bismarck Tribune, in July 1873.

Robinson said, "It was easy to start a paper. A printer was a shirttailful of type and an old Washington handpress was soon in business, often encouraged by a townsite." Thus the Fargo Express appeared Jan. 1, 1874, the second newspaper in northern Dakota.

The Great Dakota Boom from 1878-1886 brought a flood of newspapers, mostly weeklies. The first northern Dakota daily, the Fargo Argus, founded in 1879, was the prodigy of James J. Hill's bankroll. Major Alanson W. Edwards edited the paper.

Robinson said, "In 1881 the Grand Forks Herald became the second daily. George B. Winship had founded it as a weekly in 1879."

"At the peak of the Dakota Boom, one to three newspapers were established every week. In 1899 the state had 143 newspapers, nine of them dailies. By 1909 it had 333 papers, including 12 dailies. Newspapers were published at 267 places in the state, although there were only 211 incorporated towns and villages. Many very small places had papers, and Dogden, populations 80, had two.

"The booms created the newspapers, and the newspapers, in turn did all they could to help the booms. They put out special editions and sent them to the East to advertise the new country."

The railroads, as interested as the newspapers in promoting settlements, kept the editors friendly with free passes. They provided free transportation for newspapermen going on annual junkets arranged by the North Dakota Press Association."

German newspapers flourished during the first decade of the 20th century. When World War I came, anti-German feeling made trouble for the German papers. The Ashley Tribune and The Wishek News printed some pages in German. This practice continued in Ashley until 1945.

According to Robinson, "Newspapers reflected the rough society of which they were a part. Early papers implied haste in weddings, spoke frankly and often uncomplimentarily of the personal affairs of its readers. Scandal and stories of rape, murder and divorce were common. All were free speaking and all fiercely loyal to their towns and localities."

Five towns had two daily papers each in 1910: Valley City, Minot, Jamestown, Grand Forks and Fargo.

The weeklies, most of them with circulations under 1000, gave some national and world news usually coming from a Washington letter subscription, but otherwise gathered local and regional news for publication.

Most newspapermen who ran dailies in the state in the early 1900s had learned the printers' trade as young men back East and migrated to the Midwest, ready to take part in the political life of the area.

The Grand Forks Herald, North Dakota's largest newspaper in 1901, capitalized at $100,000 before 1909 and had its own large building and did job printing.

The League program enacted into law in North Dakota in 1919 dealt a blow to 61 weeklies in the state. The new law authorized a state printing commission, made up of League-elected officials to select the one official newspaper for each county until the next election, when voters would select it. The law subsidized League newspapers with a monopoly on legal printing and so forced out of existence the weeklies that lost that part of their business.

Robinson said, "By furnishing the bulk of all reading matter, newspapers played a leading role in the intellectual life of North Dakotans."

Newspapers, like other aspects of North Dakota life were affected by sparsity of population. The few large, influential newspapers were found in the large centers of population, the many small and less influential ones in scattered towns and villages. Where they were too close together, they could not prosper. Between 1915 and 1919 with the completion of settlement, the number of weeklies in North Dakota dropped from 347 to 293. Half of these were published in towns of less than 500 people. The decline of the 1920s continued into the 1950s. By 1960 only 101 weeklies were left in the state. Only 18 of them were published in towns of less than 500, and no town had two weekly papers.

The 45 larger weeklies in the 1960s commanded circulations of over 1,400 and prospered. Commonly job printing grossed one third of their income.

The vital role of weeklies in the early years was to report national and international news to a large segment of the population that never saw a daily paper. They were plain papers that used few advertisements or illustrations.

Robinson said, "The weeklies were generally owned by their editors, seasoned newspapermen who took a real interest in the development of their communities and the state."

Back in 1886, the newspaper publishers organized the North Dakota Press Association, the forerunner of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, to promote their mutual interests. One of its leaders in the 1920s and 1930s, Mark Forkner, was editor of the Langdon Republican, a leading weekly in the state.

In 1919 the weeklies had an estimated circulation of more than 200,000 compared to 60,000 for the dailies. A burst in daily circulation in the 1940s and 1950s upped the North Dakota dailies circulation to 164,000, most of which was within the state. By 1961, 85 percent of the 173,000 households in North Dakota subscribed to a daily newspaper. Included in that figure is the Minneapolis Tribune.

In 1960 the circulation of weekly papers had fallen to 150,000. Large numbers of the North Dakota weeklies went to former residents living outside the state. Today the weekly press run for the Ashley Tribune of 1500 compares favorably to its sister paper the Wishek Star that distributes about the same number of papers each week. The Tribune sends 25 percent of its papers to readers out of state. Editor Tony Bender said, "It is an indication that hometown ties run deep. If people live away for decades, they are still concerned about Ashley. They donate to fundraisers and support the community.

"They are willing to buy a better product (the newspaper) and spend $35 a year for a subscription. That also shows that their support of the community stretches across the country."

Robinson said that the growth of daily circulation brought about a silent revolution. They broke down the remoteness and isolation of life on the sparsely settled prairie, brought urban ways and attitudes to rural people and exerted a pervasive conservative influence upon the thinking of a population with a long tradition of radicalism.

The (Fargo) Forum, the Grand Forks Herald, the Minot Daily News and the Bismarck Tribune reach beyond their own retail trading zone, and Robinson said, the large dailies restrict circulation of weekly newspapers in the smaller trading centers.

In 1910 the state had a dozen daily papers--two each in Fargo, Grand Forks, Jamestown, Minot and Valley City and one each in Bismarck and Devils Lake. Within a few years, the cities that had two papers each had only one.

Roy P. Johnson, a veteran Forum reporter, stressed the importance of dailies. "They are the herald, the band and the drum that make the noise for a city and keep it before the rest of the country. They shout and exult over its accomplishments, howl down the critics and often growl at those citizens who hurt the city. They put the city's best foot forward." That can also apply to the role of weeklies in the state.

Most United States newspapers are now publicly owned, and according to Publishers' Auxiliary, circulation and readership is in a downward spiral.

Stanley Schwartz, Publishers' Auxiliary editor, said, "Even if you're on the right track, if you're standing still, eventually you'll get run over."

Newspapers in their struggle to stay alive have advanced from hand-set lead type, to linotype typesetting, to Compugraphic phototypesetters to plain-paper typesetting and electronic layout programs often referred to as desktop publishing.

The number of weeklies in North Dakota between 1960 and 2001 has steadily declined but at a slower rate than in earlier decades. The number of dailies did not vary except in 1972 when one more daily started up, but it only survived until 1975.

Year Dailies Weeklies
1960 10 106
1970 10 98
1980 10 90
1990 10 84
2001 10 80

Publishers' Auxiliary predicts a slow continual decline in print newspaper readershsip, a result, in part, of news appearing on hundreds of Websites.

Bender said, "Right now the actual paper newspaper is more efficient to read than on a slow clunky bulky computer. You can page through a newspaper faster and even a laptop with a great screen still is no improvement over a paper."

"However, as technology improves, it will be a great opportunity for newspapers to explore the Internet and reach a generation that might otherwise not be touched by a print newspaper."

"The bottom line is that professional news reporting is always going to be crucial in a democracy. Truth and an unwavering willingness to tell and hear the truth, provides hope and initiates change," he said.

Reprinted with permission of the Ashley Tribune.

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