Media Historians and the Importance of ‘Dead Tree Media’ (aka Newspapers): An Interview with Prof. Michael Stamm
A couple of weeks ago I was introduced by my friend and colleague at Carleton U, Chris Russill, to a fascinating media historian and really nice guy, Michael Stamm. I’ve met up with Michael on a couple of occasions in the past few weeks, including just last Sunday when he flipped the kayak I leant him while paddling on the Ottawa River.
Michael is in Ottawa to do research at the national archives for a new project that he’s working on. I thought this would be a good place to talk about his work and contrived a situation to do just that. I’m going to try and do this more often as I bump into people with interesting things to say that broadly fit with what this blog is up to. So, here goes.
Michael’s an assistant professor at Michigan State University and earlier this year his new book, Sound Business: Newspaper, Radio, and the Politics of New Media, was published. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve taken a peak and it is on the top of my list.
From what I’ve glimpsed and heard so far, Michael’s book provides us with a wonderful guide to making sense of how well-established media deal with the incursions made by ‘new media’. Addressing the question of how the newspaper industry dealt with the perceived threat stemming from the rise of radio broadcasting in the 1920s, Michael crisply tells us that
“. . . newspaper publishers of all sizes turned threat into opportunity by establishing their own stations. Many, such as the Chicago Tribune‘s WGN, are still in operation. By 1940 newspapers owned 30 percent of America’s radio stations. This new type of enterprise, the multimedia corporation, troubled those who feared its power to control the flow of news and information.”
Indeed, for over ninety years newspapers have had to deal with the steady incursion of new technologies, and I might even stretch that back another sixty or so years to deal with the rise of the telegraph in the early- to mid-19th century. Historian’s prerogative.
The obvious point being that as established media industries such as the press and music, in particular, encounter an onslaught of new technologies today, so too have they done so in the past. Of course, adjustments are not easy, and some specific individuals and elements of ‘old media’ models will get slaughtered, but an expanding array of media constantly enlarges and increases the structural complexity of the overall media ecology, and eventually things seem to find a relatively stable place within the routines of our daily lives and as a set of institutional-mechanical arrangements.
I want to come back and talk more about these issues with Michael in the next few weeks while he is still in Ottawa. For today, however, I want to ask Michael about his current research and what he’s up to in the archives overlooking the Ottawa River just down the street from where I live and the Parliament Buildings.
So, Michael, welcome and thanks a bunch for joining us. Can you tell us a bit more about your current research project, and some of the nitty gritty details about, well, how you arrived at this project, what you’re finding, and lets call it your ‘archival discovery of the week’?
Thanks very much, Dwayne. I really appreciate the opportunity to share the results of some of this research. Despite the great view over the Ottawa River and the wonderful opening hours at the Archives (8AM to 11PM weekdays and 10AM to 6PM on weekends, unheard of in the U.S.), daily archival work can seem like a grind after a few weeks. This is a nice break.
Broadly speaking, my research is on the political economy of news and journalism, and this new project is an extension of some of the themes and subjects that I covered in Sound Business. As I researched and wrote about newspapers’ involvement in the development of American broadcasting, what came to impress me was how they remained vibrant and even expanded in the years after radio broadcasting began in the 1920s, all the while some futurists were predicting the “death of the newspaper.”
In the book, I called this the “persistence of print,” and as I finished that project I wanted to find a way to look at the longer-term history of the newspaper as a paper product. How and why has form of delivering the news persisted for this long?
With this issue of paper in mind, I began to see scattered references to “Canadian newsprint suppliers” in the archives I was working with, particularly those of the Chicago Tribune. As I followed this trail further over the last eighteen months, I was struck by how the need for Canadian newsprint was one of the central problems of the American news business in the twentieth century. Historians have almost entirely ignored this.
I began searching for archival materials on the subject, and I discovered that the records of the Quebec and Ontario Paper Company, the Chicago Tribune’s Canadian newsprint subsidiary, were just about ready to be opened to researchers and the public. With support of a Canadian Embassy Research Grant, I’m spending two months working with this collection this summer.
The material has been great, and what I’m ultimately trying to do with it is to combine two arcs of twentieth century history through a case study of the Chicago Tribune: the development of the American mass-circulation newspaper and the evolution of the trade relationship between the United States and Canada.
The basic facts of the matter, as I now understand them: though we often think of the newspaper as a significant source of public information (which it is), there is something less well understood about the printed newspaper, and that it is also a mass-produced consumer good with a shelf life shorter than that of milk and eggs.
Starting in the middle of the nineteenth century, publishers applied the technology of the industrial revolution to the production of newspapers by employing new methods of papermaking and printing, in the process dramatically increasing the number of papers they could produce on a daily basis and greatly expanding the size of the audience they reached with their publications. In the early twentieth century, some metropolitan dailies had circulations as high as a million. To make these newspapers required both a printing plant organized as a factory and a large amount of newsprint.
In contemporary discourse, many derisively refer to newspapers as “dead tree media.” The main animating idea seems to be highlight the perceived differences between a stodgy “old media” and a seemingly vibrant and participatory Internet, but I think it is important to call attention to the fact that newspapers are quite literally the physical products of felled trees. Because of this incessant need for large supplies of newsprint, newspapers came to have a significant effect not only on society and politics but also on the environment and on North American trade.
For various reasons, spruce proved to be an ideal wood for making newsprint, and the location of dense forests along and north of the American-Canadian border, particularly near navigable waterways on the Great Lakes, made the tree even more attractive to American publishers. This need for spruce-based paper increasingly drew publishers into arrangements with Canadian paper mills and made publishers seek raw materials for their products from outside the United States.
As American and Canadian policymakers struggled with trade reciprocity debates in the early twentieth century, America newspaper publishers lobbied aggressively in favor of free trade in order to get cheaper newsprint. Though negotiations on full reciprocity failed in 1911, the American passage of the Underwood Tariff in 1913 made newsprint from Canada a duty-free item.
This new trade status was fortuitous for the Chicago Tribune’s Robert McCormick, who took over as the paper’s publisher in 1911. McCormick’s family had owned the paper since 1855 and, foreseeing a growing city, McCormick also saw tremendous growth potential for the paper.
When he took over the Tribune, one of the first things McCormick realized he needed to do if he wanted to expand his business was to find a source for cheap and plentiful newsprint, as this was among his most significant and costly inputs. Immediately after newsprint was made duty free, McCormick built one of the most technologically advanced mills in the world on the Welland Canal at Thorold, Ontario.
He then began scouting timberlands on Quebec’s North Shore, where some of the richest pulpwood forests in North America were located. McCormick soon had concessions from the provincial government to log a piece of forest almost the size of the state of Connecticut.
Instead of simply taking the trees from Quebec to his Thorold mill, McCormick decided to build another new mill on the remote site. In doing this, McCormick was driven not only by business strategy but also by an ambition to act as urban planner, and in 1936 his company began building the city of Baie Comeau.
Drawing upon his experience as president of the Chicago Sanitary District, where he had supervised the installation of public sewer and electrical systems, and upon the lessons of Pullman, the revolutionary but ultimately unsuccessful company town built by railroad magnate George Pullman in the 1880s just south of Chicago, Robert McCormick directed the construction of both a cutting edge newsprint production facility and a model company town.
Construction of the mill and town began in the winter of 1936-37, and the mill formally opened on June 11, 1938.
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