The Country Paper
( Originally Published 1916 )
AMERICA is the fertile home of the rural press. Nowhere in the world can be found so many communities provided with one or more local newspapers, devoted to telling the neighbors what is going on about and among themselves. There are about 20,000 rural weeklies in the United States conducted with varying degrees of enterprise and profit, but all of immeasurable benefit in the way of disseminating intelligence and keeping their public informed.
It is a field that should keep at least 100,000 persons well and comfortably employed and afford an annual opening for new talent of respectable proportions. The editor and owner is usually one of the workmen, more or less desultorily employed, often a printer who has added a paper to the products of his shop and content if he can glean " journeyman's" wages out of the enter-prise. Occasionally he is a politician who has felt the call, or a clergyman who has failed to preach himself into a prosperous pulpit, or a lawyer who has not met expectations at the bar. Too often in the past he has been it man who failed at other things and turned to " editing as a last resort. This has produced a large mortality in the country press, much of it undeserved, if the publisher could have had a little training in business or editorial lines, instead of drifting into the business. But as drifting is the American way it has to be put up with. It seems, though, that a more correct sense of destination is arising through the growing prosperity of the country and a greater appreciation of the value of the rural press.
Life in the office of the small weekly means a chance to do almost everything that can be done in making a newspaper. If it is done well and with diligence, profit must ensue, a profit quite comparable with the returns paid the ,lawyer, doctor or other professional man of the country town.
There is no better property to own nor a more pleasant life to lead than that which should go with editing a country newspaper. It is a common jest to speak of the " poor " editor. Editors sometimes lend themselves to the idea. No editor in any good American town of two thousand inhabitants ought to be poor, going by local standards, if he will follow these lines and guide his course accordingly:
1. Run his paper entirely as a newspaper. Do not meddle in politics of any sort. Do not try to improve the community any faster than it wants to be improved and do not borrow money of your advertisers or any so-called "leading citizens." Get it of the bank, which is nonpartisan and only wants interest in return for the money.
2. Have no editorials unless they be little elaborations of facts, The tendency to blow the bugle is almost irresistible if the horn is handy.
3. Get a good correspondent in every town, big or little, in your territory and print what he writes so long as he does not he or insult anybody. Do not edit his English, even if a little twisted; it hurts his feelings and makes his meaning obscure to his neighbors. This is one of the secrets of keeping country correspondents and getting good out of them. They are invaluable.
4. Don't do your work or your advertising for nothing. Remember that as a rule you have a monopoly of the field. When the agent sends ten dollars in cash for fifty dollars' worth of advertising, and the publisher prints it because he does not know when he will see ten dollars again, he makes a great mistake. Nobody can make money by doing fifty dollars' worth of business for ten, dollars, and in accepting the ten the publisher establishes a rate that he will never be able to increase on the foreign list because in making quotations against rivals the favored agent is always able to hold the field.
5. The small community is a sensitive community. The editorial lash cuts it more deeply than any blow that can be dealt. lay low and print the news. This does not mean that a man need be a coward or a sneak because he runs a country paper. It means that the community does not require his advice or his guidance and that when he tries to sell them something they do not want he makes a mistake. They do want the news and they will always pay for it.
6. The country " items are often laughed at, but no greater error could be made than to belittle their importance. They are the life of the paper, and however trivial, often give the most pleasure to that very valuable " single seal " list of subscribers who pay in advance and who, scattered all over the world, want all the news from " home."
7. There is " interest in almost everything that happens, could you but find it, as you must to be a successful maker of newspapers. Above all, be particular to print the things about which your constituency is already informed by personal contact. Nothing is so interesting as to read about an event we have seen wholly or in part. The reader likes to compare the printed report with his own recollection. He wants to know if the reporter saw the dog bite the boy.
The simple art of house painting furnishes many items that are laughed at, but often they please the subscriber and interest the neighborhood. Births, deaths and marriages should be carefully collected and scandals avoided in a country paper. Little headlines help. Most country editors pay too little attention to attractive make-up. Careful job printing, careful setting of advertisements, promptness in getting out work, are prime requisites for success.
8, Be careful of your collections. When people get so they call you by your first name it is hard to collect from them. Don't let bills run. All pay out and no pay in leads to borrowing, and borrowing leads to ruin.
9. In keeping books charge up a fair sum for the value of your own services. Don't assume that your share of the labor is " thrown in " just because you happen to own the plant. Charge up the rent to the business even if you own the building. Un-reckoned overhead has ruined many a printer or kept him poor. In this way you can establish the true cost of operating and maintain proper prices for job work and advertising. Keep track of the earning power of all the items that enter into the working of the shop. Don't run presses " to pay the help." Run them to pay the boss.
10. Don't take a back seat in business affairs. The newspaper is the life-centre of the town—its throbbing heart. The successful newspaper breeds a successful town. It should not place itself in the position of begging support. The town needs the news-paper more than the newspaper needs the town. The vitality of modern life does not give time for word of mouth to circulate. The newspaper is the spokesman, the stimulator, the unifier, the only friend of the community at large.
The small city daily has become in most instances an extremely profitable enterprise. -There has been in the first sixteen years of the century a great advance in the appearance and contents of the minor town dailies, far more, if the truth be told, than in their Metropolitan competitors. Indeed, so strong a barrier have the " country dailies formed that the dream of a " national " daily can only be a dream! The country editor now leaves little to be awaited for beyond opinion from his metropolitan brothers. Cities of 20,000 or even less produce one or two papers of undeniable quality. In Ohio, the Associated Dailies represent a membership of 120, all prosperous and potential in their cities, earning from $10,000 to $35,000 a year each for their owners in many instances, and affording great benefits to their towns. The country daily is the best defender the local merchant has from the city and mail order competitor, if he will but use it as he should.
Cooperation is at the bottom of the success of the modern small city daily. It en-joys a membership in the great Associated Press, or can subscribe to the commercially managed United, or International, Press services. These three give the publisher the best of everything, in crisp, and usually well digested form, ready for the compositor. Numerous syndicates, either independent, or newspapers selling their by-products, afford " features " of interest and a competent sup-ply of pictures. The editor-does not have to be behind the age in anything. This leaves him free to garner and winnow local news where he is beyond the competition of the metropolis. By the same process of localization the large paper becomes more and more local and has a general appeal only so far as events in a big centre have an interest greater than a similar occurrence in Poughkeepsie. There are limits to the size at which a paper of large circulation can be published and these lead it to discard every-thing but the essentials if it is to be successfully produced. This makes it impossible, even if early delivery were feasible, which is limited by time and distance, to cover local events in competition with the home paper.
We are becoming more and more " local" in everything in America, even though we travel more and know more. The " home town is the place we think about and " home " affairs engross far beyond those of the state or the nation, as was once the case. There has been a sharp reverse in this respect from the days when Mr. Bennett thought it would be a great card to break the monopoly enjoyed by three Washington papers for printing the debates of Congress and offered to do it without a subsidy, in which purpose, fortunately for the Herald, he was defeated, and so had to keep on printing things that would interest New Yorkers. It is difficult to get any inkling of what individual Congressmen are now doing through the city press and the Metropolitan papers pay little or no attention to the doings at the State Capitals—unless scandal breeds.
The country daily has, therefore, a free and valuable opening for making up this remission. It can look out for its district in the halls of legislation for all local values and still supply its readers with the news of the world at large.
Circulations of from 5000 to 20,000 are the rule. As the cost of production has grown with size, it has killed the old four-page, cheaply made newspaper, and so reduced the number of publications in many towns, to the general advantage. These were usually papers of opinion. They have been succeeded by papers of purpose. Towns of 25,000 to 40,000 population, with one morning and one evening newspaper, are well supplied and not overloaded. The tax on the -advertiser and reader is reasonable and the profits to the publisher sure.