The Wild West of Yester-Year

Newspapers in the Old West

By Rachel Kovaciny

If you love western movies and shows like I do, you are used to seeing a newspaper office portrayed as an expected part of every small Old West town. Many of them feature newspaper reporters dedicated to pursuing stories and presenting them to the public. Sometimes, the story portrays printing or reporting for a newspaper as glorious, dangerous, or even as scurrilous. But moviemakers take for granted that even a small town in the Old West had a newspaper. How accurate is that image to the real history of the Old West? Let’s look at the facts.

They published approximately ten thousand weekly and daily journals in the seventeen states and territories that made up the Old West between 1840 and 1900. While some publications were short-lived, rising up and dying off as swiftly as the gold rush communities they served, others like the San Francisco Chronicle and the Denver Rocky Mountain News are still in circulation today.

When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in the 1830s, he remarked, “In America there is scarcely a hamlet that has not its newspaper.” In 1867, a Nevada newspaper editor noted, “American pioneers carry with them the press and the type, and wherever they pitch their tent, be it in the wilderness of the interior, among the show covered peaks of the Sierra or on the sunny sea beach of the Pacific, there too must the newspaper appear.”
Many towns in the West had at least one newspaper up and going before they ever built a church, a school, or a post office. Pioneers, miners, and their compatriots thirsted for news of every sort.

Newspapers were prized and, if they were scarce, a single issue might pass from person to person until the paper fell to pieces. Although there was a large demand for news, not everyone who wanted to read a paper could afford to buy one. Sharing a newspaper was common, and those who were illiterate might gather with a friend who would read a paper aloud to a group. In cities, a daily paper could be a viable business model, but smaller towns usually maintained only a weekly or monthly paper. Many newspaper owners made their living not from selling papers, but from printing advertisements, signs, and posters for other businesses in town.

The “news” papers printed isn’t what we might consider newsworthy today. Local stories could include an unusually large litter of pigs, a lost pet being found in a miraculous way, or an announcement that new shoes in all sizes had arrived at the local mercantile. Recipes and housekeeping hints were common inclusions. They copied national news items directly from a big-city newspaper, though most printers would politely cite the original source of a borrowed story.

Men and women both took part in the newspaper trade, and sometimes a married couple started a paper together. While men took on the editorial duties, women worked as typesetters, news reporters, and managers. People from all walks of life became reporters and publishers. The most famous today is Bat Masterson, who served as a buffalo hunter, Army scout, gambler, and lawman before discovering a talent for writing editorials and columns. He eventually traded his western adventuring for a job as a sportswriter.

The most popular style of press in the Old West appears to have been the Washington Hand Printing Press, a flat-bed press that involved rollers, moveable type, and a hand-operated pressing mechanism. It weighed over 1,800 pounds, but could be disassembled and reassembled, which made transporting it to new towns workable. If a town could not support a paper, the paper’s owners would pack up their press and find a new place to set up shop.
Today, you can read Old West newspapers online. These are a treasure-trove for historical fiction writers like myself, but they are fun for the casual history-lover too! I find the advertisements and classifieds the most interesting, especially the prices of everyday items and the job descriptions. Hollywood’s portrayal of newspaper offices existing in every corner of the Old West is fairly accurate. What do you know, the movies got something right! ♦