Newspapers of the Old West


Newspapers were considered a major sign that a western town became civilized. Everyone greeted the arrival of a printing press with great joy. People were hungry for news and sometimes paid high prices to get it. Businesses needed somewhere to advertise too. Thousands of papers started between 1846 to 1890, though many were short-lived.

Population was a factor in deciding where to put a paper. Another was how stable the town seemed to be. A large percentage of women in the town was a sign of stability. Many also set up in railroad or mining towns. There also needed to be businesses to provide advertising revenue. Some also looked for political agendas such as promotion of a new territory or county seat or candidate. Some started their hand at prospecting but failed, so they returned to their vocation. Some were men who just financed someone else’s operation. A famous publisher was Legh Freeman. He moved his press along the route of the transcontinental railroad as it moved west toward Promontory Point, Utah. He published from at least 16 different locations. Others had other occupations before becoming publishers, such as teachers and farmers.

To entice subscribers, publishers would print ads appealing to the town’s civic duty to support the paper. Their agents went door-to-door to sell subscriptions, especially in areas where people lived far apart. They hired others to pound the pavement for them. They gave away free copies. Some offered free gifts or discounts when paying for a year’s subscription in advance. Agents were given awards for getting a prescribed number of subscribers. Many papers published puzzles to interest readers.

Both youths and adults delivered the papers. Some offices opened at specific times for customers to come by and pick them up. They also sold papers on the major railroads. The average cost was $5 a year for a weekly and $12-16 for a daily. Just as today, there was difficulty in collecting subscription fees. William Byers of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver used an unusual manner of collection. He published the names of all those in arrears and the amounts they owed in an attempt to shame them into paying. Many of them did. Some papers accepted gold dust for payment where cash was scarce. Some would even accept local produce, though cash was still needed to buy supplies to print the paper.

Publishers also used salesmen to sell advertising space. Some even hired agencies to do this for them. Some of these firms represented several papers so it was common to see ads from far-away cities. Patent medicine companies were the first national advertisers and actually sent out prepared metal plates for printing. Most papers carried at least one-third ads. Ad sales were so successful that many had to expand the size or number of pages to accommodate all the ads. Some issued supplements to accommodate the ads. The Deseret News of Salt Lake City used a smaller type face for the ads.

Early ads had no pictures and looked like business cards. Later they used white space and various fonts to capture attention. They usually did not list prices. Fancy language and style was more due to the typesetter’s whim than to the advertiser. Patent medicines “spared no adjectives” in describing their magic potions. Some also used rhymes to sell their goods, especially in San Francisco where there was a large literate populace and lots of people to write poems.

Some advertisers couldn’t pay in cash either, so papers accepted trade items or discounts on the advertiser’s goods. The Antioch Ledger accepted a set of encyclopedias from one company to run its ads. The Rocky Mountain News also printed lists of advertisers who failed to pay.

Some papers also did a lot of business with legal notices. Mining, timber, and homestead claims required publishing legal notices. Cattle ranchers also had to publish their brands.

Some took in other jobs besides printing the paper. Some printed forms and stationary for other businesses. The Deseret News printed material for the Mormon church. Publishers provided binding services. Some presses printed more than one paper such as the Washington Standard in Olympia, which printed seven papers. Some did work for the federal government, especially printing the territorial laws. The government didn’t pay any quicker than anyone else.

The printer had many expenses. This included the initial cost of a press, type, rollers, material for spacing (leads) and lines (rules). Tables and cabinets would be needed for the equipment, plus a building to house it all. Most bought used presses from eastern papers or other older western papers. Many were missing parts. Sometimes letters had to be carved from wood. Presses that printed Spanish language papers had no “w” so the printer would have to use two “v’s.”

Hand presses were first used but were slow and took a lot of manpower to operate. As soon as they made enough profit, they switched to steam-powered presses. Although they had large capacity some still couldn’t afford the steam engine and to drank them by hand. The type consisted of thousands of individual letters of different sizes that had to be set by hand. It wasn’t until 1891 that Helena, Montana, started using the first mechanized type.

The buildings that housed the presses were frequently nothing more than tents. Others were rickety wood frame structures. They were frequently handicapped by extreme cold weather, which froze the ink and made it difficult to set type. Some places were burned down multiple times.

Papers were a variety of sizes depending on what type of press they had and what paper was available. Some were as small as 5 x 7. Larger ones were 24 x 36. Most papers were initially just four pages. For the most part they were solid type with no headlines. Ads did not go over one column. They were very few illustrations except in the bigger papers.

There weren’t always enough men to produce the newspaper. Many of them were out in the gold fields. Some used their family members, including the women, to stick type when there was a labor shortage. About 7% of all employees were women. A Bellingham Bay Mail newspaper was housed in the old courthouse so used prisoners from the jail to print the paper. Soldiers ran the press for some papers. A typical weekly paper needed three full-time staff and a gofer. Many did not have any formal training. Much was learned on the job. Some young men worked under an apprenticeship that could last several years. Wages for printers were double to five times what similar workers in the east made. They typically worked 9 to 10 hours a day.

They relied greatly on the mails for the news. They subscribed to eastern newspapers to get stories. They were freely reprinted in their own papers. Readers were initially more interested in hearing what was going on back home. In 1860, the Pony Express greatly speeded up some of the news though it was very expensive. The transcontinental telegraph came on line in 1861, which made communication even faster. Most major western cities hooked up to it in the 1860s. More remote locations used express riders to go to the nearest telegraph office.

There were still problems obtaining an adequate supply of newsprint. Sometimes they were forced to print on cigar paper, tissue paper, or colored paper. They might also change the size of the paper or frequency of publishing to preserve stock on hand. The Civil War also disrupted supplies. Some bigger papers started up their own pulp mills first with rags than with wood chips.

What did they print? Some papers printed speeches and sermons and poetry, though some papers charged for them to be inserted, believing this material did not have broad interest. They printed news of special interest to a town, like Butte, Montana, printing mining news from other mining towns. They reported murders and war news to sell papers. Some made up stories, most notoriously the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada. Mark Twain wrote stories with clues embedded to prove their falseness, yet most readers did not pick up on them. Some publishers liked to take pot shots at each other, which was very entertaining for the readers. Many printed the local controversies. Some started specifically to promote a business such as a real estate office or a railroad.

There were several foreign language papers, at least 20 in German and 13 in French. There were also papers to serve the Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Danish, and Swedish. Most papers did not have Sunday editions until after the 1880s. One owner of the San Francisco Chronicle was killed because of his paper’s crusade to expose city graft. The death did not stop the paper’s goals. Papers welcomed telephone communication to speed delivery of the news even more. The Deseret News was probably the first to get a telephone in 1878.

The publishers unionized fairly early with printers organizing in San Francisco in 1850. The typographical union was one of the first. They had their share of strikes and disputes and blackballing. There were also press associations.

A newspaper was a fairly easy enterprise to make a good profit from a relatively small investment. still, hundreds of papers failed. Some chose the wrong location: the main economic driver such as mining would end and the town would become a ghost. In some towns there were too many competing papers. Others failed because they extended too much credit to subscribers and advertisers. This led to a cash only system for some papers. Ultimately, though, many of them survived into modern times, especially in the big cities.