Trustees even in hard times

by Ken Newton
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Joseph Charless knew a trade and understood the problems of a start-up business. He also knew about causing a ruckus.

Mr. Charless fled Ireland in 1795 as rebellion took hold, and he settled in America, first in Philadelphia, then in Kentucky and finally in St. Louis of the Louisiana Territory. A printer, he established the first newspaper west of the Mississippi River in 1808, the Missouri Gazette.

According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, Mr. Charless contended with “shortages of paper, unpaid subscriptions and irregularities in mail service.” But he also stirred up the local populace with his anti-slavery sentiments. A subsequent newspaper in St. Louis, the Western Journal, countered with the anti-abolitionist writings of Thomas Hart Benton, an oak-hard character who once shot Andrew Jackson in a duel.

These newspapers came into being before Missouri got statehood, a squabbling and illuminating addition to the frontier landscape.

Missouri newspapering arrives in its third century with some problems heading forward and a documentary looking back. The hour-long program, “Trustee for the Public: 200 Years of Missouri Newspapers,” airs Thursday at 8 p.m., on KCPT (Channel 21 on St. Joseph Cablevision).

The documentary notes writers who worked for state newspapers before broader renown. Ernest Hemingway credited his time at the Kansas City Star as tutelage for the crisp language that would become his trademark. Eugene Field, who labored for the St. Joseph Gazette and took a bride in this city, used the experiences here in his later poetry.

Samuel Clemens worked as a “printer’s devil” at the newspaper in Hannibal, apprenticing as a typesetter but, “surreptitiously and uninvited,” editing the paper from the back shop. Nearly six decades later, known to the world as Mark Twain, he wrote to the hometown paper, “I hope the Courier will long survive me and remain always prosperous.”

One hundred and two years after this letter, the Hannibal Courier-Post indeed survives.

The documentary includes this story without dwelling on the well-known. Rather, the program, with origins in a Missouri Press Association oral history endeavor, focuses on smaller experiences — street corner hawking, press breakdowns, journalism teaching — that add to a fuller view of an industry built daily.

Newspapers find themselves now on shaky ground. They face economic problems in a world of warp-speed information and changing consumer demands.

The nation’s largest publications land too often in their own headlines, usually in strife with creditors. Smaller journals work to stay an essential part of lives caught in news cycles briefer than a yawn.

What remains unchanged in the upheaval is the newspaper’s role in a free society. Publications still perform watchdog roles, still follow the public’s money through a maze of governments, still supply depth and perspective to the day’s issues.

At this newspaper, founded just 37 years after Mr. Charless’ Gazette, earnest souls work in the continuum of reporters who covered the Pony Express, the killing of Jesse James, the Greenlease kidnapping and any of thousands of historical moments preserved in first-draft form.

The word “trustees” proves instructive. It implies a faith, in this case between newspapers and their readers. And 200 years of history suggest the relationship endures even in tough times.

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Ken Newton’s column runs in the St. Joseph News-Press on Tuesday and Sunday.

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