Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
The man stands transfixed by the newspaper. Eyebrows arched, eyes wide, he can hardly believe what he is reading. A crowd has gathered around him on the steps of the post office, where he has just picked up the paper. Some listen intently as he reads aloud; others peer over his shoulder, trying to read ahead in the story.
Painter Richard Caton Woodville created the image in 1848 and entitled it “War News from Mexico.” Woodville crammed 11 people into his canvas, but the central character is clearly the newspaper, with its magical power to bring information from distant lands.
Newspapers were just coming into their own across the United States when Woodville painted this image. Vermont was no exception. Historians mark the year 1848 as the beginning of the daily newspaper in Vermont.
(In fact, the Montpelier Watchman and State Journal had gone daily seven years earlier, but it was a different beast. Its copy was set by clerks of the state House and Senate and its readership was largely made up of legislators.)
Newspapers needed four factors to converge to make a go as dailies, as Vermont historian Tom Bassett once pointed out. They needed telegraphs to transmit news quickly from afar, steam presses to print fast enough to keep up with the daily deadline, an urban population to provide an advertising base, and train service to deliver the papers beyond the local community.
In the late 1840s, those factors converged in Burlington, the state’s largest community with a population of 7,000. When the Troy and Canada Junction Telegraph Company initiated service between Troy, New York, and St. John, Quebec during the winter of 1848, Burlington Free Press editor DeWitt Clinton Clarke saw the potential the telegraph offered — indeed, he invested in the company. And he started a daily paper on April 1 of that year. But Clarke continued to publish the company’s weekly paper too, perhaps as a hedge.
The telegraph allowed the Free Press to publish distant news quickly, while his competitors waited for copies of far-flung papers to arrive by mail and republished interesting stories from them, a common practice of the day. Perhaps out of jealousy, the editor of the Watchman claimed the telegraph’s speed meant the stories it transmitted were bound to contain errors — the “tell-lie-graph,” he dubbed it.
But Clarke had jumped the gun. The railroads hadn’t quite made it to Burlington yet. The Rutland and Burlington and the Vermont Central wouldn’t reach the city’s outskirts until late the next year. By the spring of 1849, the daily Free Press was hardly showing a profit. The daily, Clarke declared, had “pretty near made an end of us.” Bassett noted that the annual subscription fee the paper charged was quickly devoured. Materials and labor ate up half the money subscriptions brought in and telegraphs ate most of the rest.
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Part of the problem was that the paper had only secured 275 subscribers. The weekly is what kept the business afloat. The daily was just a drain.
The struggles of the Free Press didn’t dissuade others from trying the Burlington market. Competitors launched the daily Burlington Sentinel in January 1849. But the Sentinel couldn’t even match the anemic subscription numbers of the Free Press.
Clarke got out of the business the next year, selling the Free Press to another local telegraph investor, George W. Benedict, who evidently had more money to invest in the paper. He modernized the operation, buying a new power press. Though Benedict put the Free Press on a sounder financial footing, the paper still had a smaller circulation than many local weeklies. The problem, Bassett says, was the railroad. The Vermont Central Railroad still hadn’t connected Burlington with much of the rest of Vermont.
For another decade, Burlington remained the only place a daily newspaper could survive. Businessmen in Montpelier had put out a few issues of a paper called the Herald, then closed it. In 1853, the weekly Rutland Herald toyed with the idea of a daily, sending out a sample paper and asking for subscribers. When only 150 people signed up, the Herald shelved the idea. The next year, the Vermont Tribune of St. Albans went into publication. It went out the following year.
Despite these failures, DeWitt Clarke decided to get back into the newspaper business. In 1858, he launched the Burlington Times as both a daily and a weekly. The daily did relatively well. Its circulation of 450 eclipsed that of the Free Press, which sat at about 300. The Times’ weekly, which had 800 subscribers, didn’t fare well enough to support the daily. In 1860, mounting debts forced Clarke to sell the paper at auction. The new owners ran the paper before merging with the Free Press in 1869.
If he could have held on a few more months, Clarke might have made a go of it. The next year brought a fifth factor to add to the telegraph, power press, railroad service, and population in making daily newspapers economically viable, and that was war. The Civil War created huge demands for daily papers. Like the people who populate Woodville’s painting, Vermonters were eager to know what was happening. It is little wonder: seemingly every Vermonter had a friend, a father, a brother, or a husband serving in the military.
The Rutland Herald started printing a daily on April 29, 1861, little more than two weeks after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. The paper left no doubts about its support of the war effort, for a time printing the admonition: “Let every American Citizen, instead of crying Peace, Peace, when there is no peace, rally upon the ramparts until Secession is silenced; until the roar of artillery has ceased.”
The Herald published telegraph dispatches from the Associated Press, the first Vermont paper to do so. Army censors began restricting the wire service’s war coverage, but the Herald made up for it by focusing heavily on news about Vermont units.
The war accelerated the speed of journalism. Writers, editors and printers faced a gaping maw of blank pages that had to be filled every day. Payrolls ballooned. Instead of employing an editor, a printer, and several helpers, daily newspapers required several editors, 12 to 20 printers, local and legislative correspondents and sundry assistants.
Other innovations — the second edition, filled with morning dispatches and printed in time to catch the afternoon train, and the extra edition, published whenever big news occurred after deadline — only added to costs and the frenzy in the newsroom.
The year 1861 saw the start of other Vermont dailies: the Caledonian of St. Johnsbury, the Daily Green Mountain Freeman of Montpelier, the St. Albans Daily Messenger, and the St. Albans Daily Telegram. The Caledonian only lasted until July of that year, its circulation having stalled at roughly 100. The Green Mountain Freeman lasted until 1863. The Messenger won the newspaper war in St. Albans, buying out the competing Telegram. But the economics of daily newspapers were still difficult. The Messenger stopped producing its daily early in the Civil War, then restarted it in 1863 (and has continued ever since).
The Montpelier Argus and Patriot launched a daily in the middle of the war, as the institution of a military draft was riling public sentiment. Its competitor, the Watchman, dismissed the move to a daily as “money thrown away,” which it turned out to be.
The Civil War had helped make the daily newspaper viable in Vermont, but the arrival of new papers didn’t end there. The growth of cities in the late 19th and early 20th century, along with improved rail service, helped spawn more daily publications. The Barre Daily Times started in 1897 and the paper with which it would later merge, the Montpelier Evening Argus, started the next year.
The heyday of daily papers is difficult to imagine now. With some notable exceptions, daily newspapers across the country have all too frequently been tracing a disheartening story arc — shrinking coverage, staff layoffs, and reductions in days of publications, sometimes followed by closing. But perhaps it is inevitable that an industry brought into being by the blessings of steam power, railroads and the telegraph would struggle in the digital age.