Monday, May 1, 2017

On the Historical Trail: When Newspapers Competed

With the recent announcement by the Niagara County Historian’s Office about the digitization of nearly 30,000 newspaper pages, there have been questions about how there can be so many pages and so many newspapers. I figured this would be a great time to look at the reason why there used to be more than one paper in a town, even a town as small as Lockport. There is a very interesting historical reason for it. That reason continues today, albeit more so on television than in print.

Today, everyone has an opinion regarding their particular brand of newscast as well as of those that do not agree with their point of view. Reading through comments on the internet, one will invariably run across, “FOX News should be called Faux News; they’re so biased towards the Republican party.” Likewise, the same things are often said of MSNBC, albeit they’re perceived to be skewed toward Democratic leanings at that network. Of course, comments shift toward how “back in the day, news broadcasts were unbiased.” However, the media choosing sides in the political arena is nothing new. It goes far beyond cable news or hackneyed bloggers.  Even quaint newspapers were separated by their individual ideologies.

The role of a newspaper in society is one of communication. It typically is the one place that all the local, regional, and national news can be compiled together for the reader. Included in the pages of the newspaper is the ever famous, or infamous, editorial section. It is in this part of the paper that the ideals of the newspaper are printed for all to read.

Throughout the 19th century and a good part of the 20th, many communities had two newspapers. One gave the Republican view, while the other gave the Democratic view. Oftentimes, these papers were at not-so-silent odds with each other – especially on the editorial page. Even small cities like Lockport were home to dueling newspapers. The Lockport Daily Journal represented Republican sympathies, while the Lockport Daily Union (under a multitude of names over the years) gave sway to the Democrats of the area. This lasted until 1915, when both papers combined to form the Lockport Union Sun & Journal. There are other papers involved in this evolution, but these are the major players for the purpose of this article.

While today the perception is that the North was uniformly anti-slavery while the South was for it, in practice, the truth was quite different. Animosity ran deep between the newspapers and the political parties.  Through the days of Reconstruction, each of the papers dealt daily blows at each other as they defended their respective positions.  Some examples follow that detail the differences between the two newspapers of the same town regarding allowing the former slaves of the nation their right to vote.

From the Lockport Daily Union, January 23, 1866:

In the work of restoration the question of negro suffrage seems to be agitated by certain politicians and pretended statesmen, as if it were the chief and only important question in the settlement of the country. It borders a little on the ridiculous, if ridiculous is possible, in this momentous question to see a matter of secondary importance and wholly within the province of the State authority seriously argued in the councils of the nation.
According to the editors of the LDU, it was up to the States whether to allow blacks to vote in their respective states, even for national elections. In a tumultuous time where the country was reeling from a four year, bloody war where the Southern farmlands were decimated, it seemed to them that there could be far better uses of time for Congress. The healing of the nation needed to be paramount on the minds of those in position to enact change.

Meanwhile, the competing paper had much to say against the staunch position of the Union. Immediately, the Journal jumped on what they considered the Union’s perceived racism.

From the Lockport Daily Journal, January 24, 1866:

We regret to perceive that our neighbor down the street is still so deeply afflicted with negrophobia – which once raged among the Copperhead persuasion – as to render it evident that the disease is in its case chronic.
It is remarkable that the Bee and Union under all of its changes has been so sorely troubled about the negro, first for fear that his freedom would be secured in the Territories, then it was under the apprehension that he would aid in suppressing the rebellion, and then because of the Emancipation Proclamation. And now it is daily and nightly haunted, and goes into convulsions from the idea of Negro Suffrage in the District of Columbia.
Copperheads were a faction of northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War, instead insisting on an immediate peace accord with the Confederacy. Some historians believe that the group was against the “rapid modernization of society promoted by the Republican Party.”
The Union fired back with consecutive days of declaring the “radical” agenda to be against what a majority of the population truly wanted.

From the Lockport Daily Union, January 24, 1866:

The House of Representatives have passed a bill giving the right of suffrage to the negroes, of all classes and conditions, in the District of Columbia, without discrimination or conditions….New York also has again and again refused to extend this privilege to the blacks, and yet most of the Republican members from this State, voted in favor of the bill.
From the Lockport Daily Union, January 25, 1866:

The Journal of yesterday thinks the Union is making itself uncomfortable in relation to the action of Congress on negro suffrage, equality, etc….. We presume our contemporary would be glad to have us remain silent on the question of negro suffrage, equality, and amalgamation doctrine, to which the leaders of its party are now fully committed. We must, however, disoblige our neighbor. We propose to keep our readers fully advised as to the progress of the Republican party, in their effort to prevent the restoration of the Union, peace, and prosperity, and their rapid progress in fastening the odious and smutty doctrine of amalgamation and equality upon the country.
The endless back and forth culminated (for our purposes) with a quick retort by the Lockport Daily Journal. In it, the editor expounds upon the Founding Fathers’ mantra as they fought for freedom from an oppressive government.

From the Lockport Daily Journal, January 25, 1866:

How can the negrophobist endure the thought that at the capital of the Government whose founders rebelled against “taxation without representation,” the negro should not be taxed without a voice in the election of those who impose the burden?.....It is incomprehensible that even a Copperhead should possess a soul so shriveled, a heart so black and so base, or eyes so blind as to desire to deprive any portion of the human race of the exercise of any right or privilege which tend to elevate them in the scale of humanity.
With just a few, short days of editorials, both the Daily Journal and the Daily Union exhibited the vast differences of opinion that were common in cities everywhere across the country, even neighbors from one end of Main Street to the other. Both papers were without doubt mouthpieces for their respective political parties, making sure to print according to those particular views.

As time has gone on, newspapers have fallen by the wayside. Most communities no longer can support two, competing papers. Some of those former “enemies” have merged into new entities that barely resemble the works of the past. While some of these papers have taken up the call of one political ideology or another, most simply vacillate between whichever point of view will sell the most copies, operating under growing conglomerates of industrial media.

Today, the lines are drawn by competing television networks. The vitriol and its retaliation is immediate with the 24-hour news cycle.  Many people decry this system, asking for the days of yore when gentlemen ruled. However, memories are short and the differences were just as stark over a century ago. This decisiveness is nothing new, as evidenced by the examples I have given today.  Unlike some of the modern rancor, some of the early papers did show respect and compassion.

In an 1858 Lockport Daily Journal editorial, the editor wished the best to his counterpart down the street after the editor of the Niagara Democrat was injured in a carriage accident. “It is with heartfelt sympathy that we wish the best for our neighbor at the Democrat upon his recent misfortune. May his recovery return him soon to the pages of that esteemed journal.” Maybe there are still lessons to be learned from history after all.

Craig Bacon is the Deputy Historian for Niagara County. The Niagara County Historians Office is open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday 8:30-4:30. It is located at 139 Niagara Street, on the corner of Niagara and Hawley Streets.