‘There is no business in America that is more precarious’

01-02-1906 St. Louis Republic A1

When it looked like the St. Louis Globe-Democrat was going to be shuttered, back in 1983, I did a quick study of other St. Louis newspapers that beat the Globe to the cemetery. (I was working for a journalism review; it was my job to know the history.) There’d been many, including the St. Louis Chronicle († 1905), the Times († 1932) and the Star-Times († 1951).

The heyday of newspapering in St. Louis  — when there were the most competitors — probably occurred in the early 1900s, when there were at least five robust English-language dailies. The oldest of the bunch, by far, was the St. Louis Republic, a morning daily controlled by David R. Francis, a Democratic politician who led the World’s Fair of 1904 and who served as the fumbling U.S. Ambassador to Russia during the revolutions.

The Republic, founded in 1808 as the Missouri Gazette and later known as the Missouri Republican, claimed to be the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River. Nicknamed “Old 1808,” it published its last edition on Dec. 4, 1919, after it was acquired and suppressed by its morning competitor, the Globe-Democrat. (An irony noted repeatedly at the time — and ever since: the Republic was a staunchly Democratic organ; the Globe-Democrat was Republican.)

12-05-1919 owensboro messenger

The St. Louis Media Foundation — credit Frank Absher — has done a good job of collecting titles and histories of defunct St. Louis publications, and it’s remarkable how many there have been. What the foundation’s history shows, if anything, is that newspapers — or news organizations — come and go. Sometimes they die because they’ve lost an audience; sometimes they die when owners choose to cut their losses.

Whether its end is warranted, the death of an old paper, one that represents the work of generations of dedicated employees, never goes unmourned — especially by other newspapers. They see one of their brethren pass away and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

The Owensboro, Ky., Messenger was among the papers to report on the end of the Republic, and on Dec. 6, 1919, offered a succinct summary of the reasons: despite respectable circulation and advertising numbers, the cost and scarcity of newsprint, among other factors, convinced Francis to cut his losses. The Messenger writer’s assessment of the state of newspapers could have been written in 2019: “There is no business in America that is more precarious now than publishing a newspaper.”

12-07-1919 the daily ardmoreite_edited-1

My favorite eulogy — so far — came from the Daily Ardmoreite, an Oklahoma title, which said on Dec. 7, 1919, in words that still ring true: “Plenty of good men fail to make money, so that is no cause for indictment. Perhaps, in fact, it is excellent reason for applause. Plenty of good newspapers fail to make money. The spectacular person, the spectacular paper, the player-to-the-gallery — these frequently find it easy to make money. The plodding, earnest, honest, able person or paper frequently tail-ends the financial procession.”


The St. Louis Republic

★ 1808  † 1919

(Originally published March 2, 2019)

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