By Tara McClellan McAndrew
For the Illinois Press Association
Like so much in Illinois, the origins of its newspapers were tied to politics and patronage.
This land was a wild, largely unpopulated, western territory when its first newspaper sprang up – the single-sheet Illinois Herald, published in 1814 in Kaskaskia. Its proprietor landed the job of printing territorial and national business through his friend, the territorial governor, according to the July 1918 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.
Some early newspapers were created to support or oppose a political candidate or issue, like the anti-slavery Edwardsville Advocate. Illinois newspapers remained political for decades in the 1800s, according to the ISHS Journal.
Publications faced many challenges: bad transportation, unreliable mail delivery and a lack of subscribers. As more settlers came to Illinois in the middle 1800s and transportation improved, newspapers fared better. The advent of railroads precipitated a newspaper boom.
Technological improvements such as the telegraph helped, too. So did wood-pulp, which made paper more economical. A lot of weeklies became dailies and foreign language newspapers arose for immigrant communities.
By the Civil War, Illinois had almost 300 newspapers, according to the Illinois Newspaper Project. While the war increased the desire for news, it brought censorship. Government restricted news sent by telegram and shut down newspapers for not supporting the war. This included the Chicago Times and the Jonesboro Gazette, according to the Abraham Lincoln Classroom online and the website of the Gazette’s successor, the Gazette-Democrat.
Chicago’s papers were decimated in 1871 by the city’s Great Fire. Within two days, all of the major dailies were in business again, according to the Illinois Newspapers Project. Others were gone forever.
Illinois’ newspapers were thriving and diversifying in 1880. The state had about 1,000 newspapers, with at least one in every county. Special interest papers were increasing. In 1899, Chicago was home to a newspaper for African-Americans, the Broad-Ax. More women, such as Myra Bradwell, were in the field. She had started the successful Chicago Legal News in 1868.
In 1902, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign began offering journalism classes, partly in response to a call for more professionalism in media. Twenty-five years later, it opened a journalism school.
Radio brought a new threat, so did the stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression. As World War II raged, newspapers cashed in old machines and other scrap metal for the war effort. Editors and publishers had to comply, once again, with military censorship, and a plea from the governor. According to the Illinois Press Association’s publication from February-March 1942, the governor asked Illinois newspapers to “impress the public … that this is a war to finish.”
After the war, the IPA fought for open government. It created a committee to investigate complaints of government inhibiting the media’s access to news. It’s an issue that remains today.
Newspapers have undergone drastic changes since the 1950s because of technology and competition. Insiders needlessly worried that the new invention called television would be papers’ death knell. But the Watergate investigation that brought down President Richard Nixon in the 1970s fueled a new generation of reporters and readers.
The end of the 1990s and the early 2000s brought the internet and cellphones, which claimed readers and advertising dollars. In response, chains bought many independent newspapers, then reduced staff and consolidated processes to decrease costs. Papers went online and charged for digital subscriptions.
Some say print newspapers are doomed; others say their readership is greater than ever because of the internet. What’s the future? No one knows, but so far the industry has survived every competitor that’s come along.
Tara McClellan McAndrew is an award-winning writer and book author. She writes a monthly history column for Springfield’s State Journal-Register. Her work has been heard on Illinois Public Radio and National Public Radio, and read in 35 newspapers and magazines. Visit taramcandrew.com for more information.