2018 Lincoln League of Journalists inducts Illinois news pioneers

The Illinois Herald
Courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Society

By Roger Ruthhart

As part of Illinois’ Bicentennial Celebration, the executive board of the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors has agreed to induct seven pioneers of Illinois journalism into the Lincoln League of Journalists.

The Lincoln League of Journalists was created in 2000 to honor men and women who have provided exemplary service to other journalists and to daily newspapers published in Illinois. It has 15 other members.

These journalists were inducted on Thursday, June 7, 2018.

Matthew Duncan

The first newspaper published in Illinois was the Illinois Herald, a single sheet first published in 1814 in Kaskaskia by Matthew Duncan. Kaskaskia was an important river town during the area’s French colonial period and later was the territorial capital.

Matthew Duncan won the job of printing the newspaper through his friend Ninian Edwards, Illinois’ territorial governor. It was the only paper in Illinois until it became a state in 1818 and the law was changed to allow three state newspapers to publish public notices. Then Illinois Emigrant in Shawneetown and Spectator in Edwardsville were begun, but Duncan and the Illinois Herald have the honor of being the first.

John Withnal Bailey

John Withnal Bailey
Illinois Press Association

John Withnal Bailey, 35, owner of the Bureau County Republican, was the first to suggest a statewide professional press organization founded in 1865. In the waning days of the Civil War, he convinced fellow journalists to united and more than half the editors and publishers in the state formed the Illinois Press Association.

Bailey started his career as an apprentice in a job office in Cincinnati where he was born, then began reporting for newspapers in Ohio, followed by a stint as a Washington, D.C., correspondent.

Illness kept him from serving in the Civil War, but Bailey aided southern fugitives through the Ohio Underground Railroad that helped former slaves escape to freedom. His illness forced him to move west on his doctor’s orders so Bailey settle in Illinois. In 1863 he bought the Bureau County Republican and was one of the youngest publishers in the state. He ran the paper for 40 years. He died in 1903 and his son and later his grandson took over the paper.

When he gave a speech at the 25th anniversary of the IPA he said the principles of its founding were “protection from libel suits … protection of the people against secret confiscation of their property, and the better protection and the exchequers (funds) of the much abused and poorly paid editors.”

He said journalism’s mission was “second only in importance to that of the Christian church.”

Elijah Lovejoy

Elijah Lovejoy
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Elijah Lovejoy attended Waterville College (now Colby College) in his home state of Maine and while still an undergraduate served as headmaster of Colby’s associated high school, the Latin School (later Coburn Classical Institute). He traveled west in 1827 and settled in St. Louis where he worked as an editor of the St. Louis Observer and ran a school.

Five years later, he studied at the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and became an ordained Presbyterian preacher. Returning to St. Louis, he set up a church and resumed work as editor of the Observer. His editorials criticized slavery and other church denominations.

The anti-slavery publisher moved to Illinois in 1836 after pro-slavery advocates destroyed his press. Illinois was technically a free state, but had many slavery supporters, especially in the south. He renamed his newspaper the Alton Observer. But there mobs destroyed his press three more times. In 1837 they finished the job for good, shooting and killing Mr. Lovejoy, setting his building on fire, and throwing his press in the river, ending his years of battle for freedom of the press and abolition of slavery.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott

Robert Sengstacke Abbott

Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born in 1870 on St. Simons Island, Georgia, to former slaves, attended Hampton Institute in Virginia and graduated from Kent Law School (now Chicago-Kent College of Law) in 1899.

On May 5, 1905, Mr. Abbott founded the Chicago Defender newspaper in a small kitchen in his landlord’s apartment, with an initial investment of 25 cents and a press run of 300 copies. The Defender’s first issues were in the form of four-page, six-column handbills, filled with local news items gathered by Mr. Abbott and clippings from other newspapers. Five years later, the Chicago Defender began to attract a national audience. By the start of World War I, the Chicago Defender was the nation’s most influential black weekly newspaper, with more than two-thirds of its readership base located outside of Chicago.

Heralding itself as the “The World’s Greatest Weekly,” the Defender spoke out against segregation of the armed forces in the early 1940s, and actively challenged segregation in the South during the civil rights era. Mr. Abbott died in Chicago in 1940 at age 69 and John H.H. Sengstacke, Mr. Abbott’s nephew and heir, assumed editorial control and continued to champion for equality.

In 1956, the Chicago Defender began publishing daily. In 1965, Mr. Sengstacke purchased The Pittsburgh Courier, including it in his Sengstacke Newspaper chain, along with papers such as the “Michigan Chronicle” in Detroit and the “Tri-State Defender” in Memphis.

Samuel Sidney McClure

Samuel McClure

Samuel McClure and a group of fellow graduates from Knox College in Galesburg, created McClure’s Magazine from 1893 to 1911. McClure encouraged a new form of reporting and writing where instead of demanding writers provide articles immediately, he would give them all the time they needed to do extensive research on their topics – providing the foundation for investigative, or muckraking, journalism.

He was born in 1857 in Northern Ireland, emigrated with his widowed mother to Indiana at age 9 and grew up in near poverty on a farm. He graduated from Valparaiso High School in 1875 and worked his way through Knox College where he co-founded the student newspaper and later moved to New York City.

There he founded McClure’s in 1893 and created the first syndicate where articles were distributed for pennies to other publications. He gave up the magazine in 1911 due to poor health and loss of his staff to their own publications. He died in March 1949 in New York City at age 92 and is buried in Galesburg.

Minnie Potter

Minnie Potter
Rock Island Argus

For the first time in its history, the Rock Island Argus seemed to be on sound financial footing following its purchase by John W. Potter in 1888. But in January 1898 at age 37 Mr. Potter died following surgery. His wife, Minnie Potter, took over running the newspaper, making her perhaps the first female newspaper publisher in Illinois as she carried out his vision.

She kept The Argus alive during a critical 25-year period of publication during which the paper battled with The Rock Island News run by gangster John Looney. She led a group of local businessmen who kept the pressure on the city’s corrupt leaders to take action against Looney. In 1920 The Argus acquired it competitor, The Rock Island Union, and Mrs. Potter’s sons joined the business.

The company added a local radio station in 1932 (and would add TV in 1950).

On June 6, 1936 Mrs. Potter died from the second of two heart attacks, resulting in the consolidation of power with her three children, Marguerite, John and Ben, who ran the newspaper until its sale to the Small Newspaper Group in 1986.

Upon her death, writer Frank Brandt wrote, “Mrs. Potter counted the cost. She knew the character of the forces which controlled the city – knew to what lengths they could be depended upon to go. She knew that personal sacrifices were involved for her and for members of her family. She subordinated all that to the good of Rock Island when she told (Managing Editor John Colligan) and her sons to go ahead.”

Col. Robert McCormick

Robert McCormick
Chicago Tribune

Robert R. McCormick was a leader in the field of journalism and press rights. He introduced the concept of higher education in journalism. His goal was to lay the foundation for journalism to become a profession.

Given the lack of schools of journalism in the United States, in 1920 McCormick and his cousin, Joseph Medill Patterson, sponsored a school named for their grandfather, the Joseph Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Robert R. McCormick was born on July 30, 1880, in Chicago to Robert Sanderson McCormick and Katherine Medill McCormick. His father had been U.S. ambassador to Austria-Hungary, Russia and France.

His mother was the daughter of Joseph Medill, the driving force behind the Chicago Tribune in the 19th century. By March 1911, he was the president of the Tribune Company. He held this position until his death in 1955.

Col. McCormick was a leader the newspaper industry in technical innovation. He brought color to newspapers and was a force behind the 1925 construction of the Tribune Tower.

Col. McCormick, a title he achieved by service in the Illinois National Guard and the U.S. Army in World War I, was an activist in the fight for the freedom of the press. He staked his own and the Tribune’s reputation and finances in legal battles against private and governmental efforts to restrict free speech and press freedoms. He led many press campaigns against political corruption and waste, as well as various government policies.

His foundation, now the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, has contributed more than $1 billion for journalism, early childhood education, civic health, social and economic services, arts and culture and citizenship initiatives.


During the induction of the previous Lincoln League honorees listed here, Illinois Associated Press Media Editors board members made a surprise announcement to add Roger Ruthhart to the inductees. Here are Ruthhart’s accomplishments:

Roger Ruthhart

Roger Ruthhart

Roger Ruthhart, a native of Barrington, retired in 2018 after 50 years as a freelance, collegiate and professional journalist in Illinois.

After stringing for the The Free Press in the northwest suburbs of Chicago during his senior year of high school, Roger studied journalism at Bradley University in Peoria. From 1974 to 1984, he worked as a reporter, regional editor, political writer and managing editor for Lakeland Newspapers, a group of 13 weeklies based in Grayslake. In 1984, he moved on to the Small Newspaper Group where for two years he worked as the managing editor for the Streator Times Press.

In 1986, Ruthhart moved to the Quad Cities where he served as managing editor of the Rock Island Argus – before later expanding his duties to also take over the helm at The Dispatch in Moline. A student of history, he became a local authority on Rock Island gangster John Looney, the basis of Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Road to Perdition; Ruthhart co-authored a book on Looney, “Citadel of Sin.” He also worked to get headstones on the unmarked graves of nine black Civil War veterans buried at Rock Island’s Chippiannock Cemetery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. He dug into the newspaper’s archives, worked with local clerks offices and sought other public records to help provide the documentation along with cemetery records to get the federal government to pay for and place military headstones at the graves of the soldiers. He wrote a series of stories in 2002 about the soldiers’ lives and their contributions in fighting a war for their freedom.

Throughout his time as an editor, Ruthhart has been active member of the Illinois Associated Press Board and the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association.

During his nearly 32 years at the Argus and Dispatch, Ruthhart worked as a colleague, mentor and advocate for hundreds of journalists and oversaw a consistent and diverse internship program that graduated two who would go on to win Pulitzer Prizes. His passion for journalism also rubbed off on his son, Bill, who covers City Hall for the Chicago Tribune.

Through his three-plus decades in the Quad-Cities, Ruthhart wrote a popular Sunday column that touched on important issues facing the region – and at times, journalism. In his farewell column, Roger asked his loyal readers for two favors.

“First, always remember that newspapers are written and edited by human beings. Despite the best efforts of reporters, photographers, editors and sources, we sometimes make mistakes. But we are quick to correct them,” he wrote.

“Secondly, keep reading and advertising in newspapers whether in print, online or through social media and support those brick and mortar advertisers who support us. Now more than ever we need the well-researched, edited and thoughtful reporting that professional journalists provide.”