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American Newspapers, Canadian Company Towns: Conversations and Despatches from the Archives with Media Historian, Michael Stamm (Part II)

Another dispatch from the scenic reading room on the third floor of the Library and Archives Canada building in downtown Ottawa.

Dateline: July 7, 1011. Post filed at 4:42pm, live to blog at 7:18.

In our first conversation last week, I introduced a new friend of mine, Michael Stamm, a media historian at Michigan State University and author of an excellent new book, Sound Business: Newspaper, Radio, and the Politics of New Media,

I’m glad to say that we’ve shared a few more beers and some fantastic conversations since. Michael’s here for the summer, and after a hard day of slogging at Library and Archives Canada, well, he seems up to a good bs session, and some valuable insights into, well, a lotta stuff.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Michael to think about doing a post to my blog every once in a while, something along the lines “cool thing I found in the archives this week”, kinda thing. I think it’s great; it also adds a nice conversational element to my blog, too.

Without any further adieu, here’s this week’s despatche from itinerant scholar and MSU media historian, Michael Stamm.

MS:  In last week’s post, I mentioned that the Chicago Tribune’s activities in Canada helped to build of a different kind of community than the kind we normally think about when we think about newspapers. We usually think about newspapers creating a kind of ‘reading public’, or cultural community, not the ‘real thing’, as the Robert McCormick did with Baie Comeau starting in the late-1930s.

The Tribune literally created a community when it built the city of Baie Comeau around its Quebec newsprint mill beginning in 1936-37. The city still exists to this day, and is probably on the mental landscape of most Canadians, if for no other reason, because it is the hometown of former PM, Brian Mulroney.

In researching the development of this newspaper-owned company town during the past week, I came across a letter written by Tribune publisher Robert McCormick. The letter outlines a number of happenings in the town that brought images to my mind of the fictional media mogul Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and George Pullman (who I mentioned last time). All of these men display different varieties of paternalism as they go about building company towns, and in two of these cases – McCormick and Welles’ fictional Citizen Kane — the newspaper industry is at the centre of these enterprises.

George Pullman is an infamous figure in American history.  Pullman, a builder of railroad cars, decided in 1880 to build a town just south of Chicago to house his workers.  Pullman wanted the town that bore his name to be pretty and orderly and in building it exhibited a domineering paternalism.

Workers rented their homes from the company, had little say in local government, and felt the company’s influence everywhere, to the point of being informed on a daily basis that their town curfew was in effect by the chime of a loud bell.  Over time, a built environment meant to inspire sobriety and create stability among the workers succeeded only in creating alienation and resentment.

Worker frustration peaked with a riot beginning in May 1894, and the unrest lasted into early August, when federal troops were eventually dispatched to the town.  Pullman’s urban planning effort proved to be a spectacular failure, and future builders of company towns like Robert McCormick learned to eschew Pullman’s aggressively paternalistic version.

In less directly coercive ways than Pullman, newspaper publishers exhibited a ‘softer’ degree of paternalism toward their communities.  They believed that they had the serious duty to serve the daily news and information needs of their communities. And they prided themselves on fulfilling that duty.

As Pullman paternalistically built a town that he thought would benefit his workers, many publishers contributed to a public discourse with their own preferred visions of how things were and should be. Publishers cared, too, for these communities, but this concern with the public interest could form a relationship that was in practice less reciprocal than the public itself might like.

We must remember that, to be paternalist, is to not to necessarily always be overbearing, but only occasionally so, and to provide a genuine kind of care – one does not have the option of simply choosing to neglect. McCormick stepped into this mould easily.

We can also get a sense of Robert McCormick – the early 20th century Chicago newsbaron and family heir to the Tribune papers – if we take a look at things through the lens of the fictional Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ 1941 film
Citizen Kane.  In the film, Kane is clearly meant to be a reference to media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

Perhaps I’m just too big of a fan of Welles’ film, but as I plucked my way through the material at Library and Archives Canada during this last week, I’ve been struck by the ways Welles’ Citizen Kane character looks a helluva lot like Robert McCormick, both as a publisher and as a town builder.

In the film, when Kane first starts publishing his newspaper, he pens an impromptu declaration of principles.  Pointing to a gas lamp in his office, Kane tells his friend Jed Leland, “I’ve got to make the New York Enquirer as important to New York as the gas in that light.” And in his declaration, he promises to serve readers “the truth…quickly and simply and, entertainingly.”

He also promises to be visible as the owner and the point where the buck stops. Power with Responsibility is the slogan, not domination and neglect.

“People are going to know who’s responsible,” Kane states.  In Charles Foster Kane’s mind, he cares about the people and knows what is best for them.  As a publisher, he promises to work in their interests.

Later in the film, Kane and Leland have a heated exchange in which an intoxicated Leland accuses Kane of having proven himself to be far less noble than he claimed.  Kane, Leland told him, was aloof and acted paternalistically toward the people of New York.

“You talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belonged to you,” Leland rails.

“You’ve talked about giving the people their rights as if you could make a present of liberty, as a reward for services rendered.  Remember the working man?  You used to write an awful lot about the working man.  He’s turning into something called organized labor.  You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means that your working man expects something is his right and not your gift.”

To really serve the public interest, Leland argues, involves actually listening to the public.  It involves some dialogue with citizens.  It requires being attentive to peoples’ views and desires rather than simply assuming one knows them or can create them.  It demands understanding oneself as a part of a community, not as a paternal figure looming above it.

Kane, Leland concludes, cares little about doing any of this.  “You just want to persuade people that you love them so much that they ought to love you back,” Leland concludes.  “Only you want love on your own terms.  Something to be played your way according to your rules.”

Robert McCormick’s career brings these two strands of paternalism – George Pullman and Charles Foster Kane – together.  As the publisher of an American newspaper and the developer of a Canadian company town, McCormick trafficked in both varieties of paternalism.

As of February 1955, not even twenty years after McCormick broke soil, Baie Comeau was thriving. The population has swelled to almost 4,000. The area began to need new schools to serve the local children.

As company officials worked with local people and provincial politicians, and sought ways to finance the construction, they found that their plans did not always mesh with what the people who actually lived in Baie Comeau wanted.  At one point, during a particularly contentious part of the process, Robert McCormick became frustrated about having to listen to concerns about what the company was planning to do.  Why could the Tribune not just do what they wanted?  Why did it have to negotiate with anyone?

In a memo to one of his executives in Canada, McCormick writes, “When we were not there it was just a little forest.  We built them a big civilization.” The locals, including politicians, he exclaimed, were being “bitterly ungrateful” about all that had been done for them.

Just as Charles Foster Kane was disappointed when his idealized “working man” turned into “organized labor,” Robert McCormick was clearly and similarly frustrated when the good people of Baie Comeau failed to give him the thanks he felt he was due.

Compromising can be difficult.  So is listening to other people. McCormick evidently had trouble doing both.

Ulitimately, in founding and essentially running, or at least have a strong influence on what went on in Baie Comeau, the Chicago publisher soon discovered, to paraphrase Jed Leland from Ciizen Kane, that doing things on one’s own terms is much less difficult than harnessing his sails to someone else’s expectations.

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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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