The Newspaper by Edgar Wilson Nye

Story type: Essay

An Address Delivered Before the Wisconsin State Press Association, at White-Water, Wis., August 11, 1886.

Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Press of Wisconsin:

I am sure that when you so kindly invited me to address you to-day, you did not anticipate a lavish display of genius and gestures. I accepted the invitation because it afforded me an opportunity to meet you and to get acquainted with you, and tell you personally that for years I have been a constant reader of your valuable paper and I like it. You are running it just as I like to see a newspaper run.

I need not elaborate upon the wonderful growth of the press in our country, or refer to the great power which journalism wields in the development of the new world. I need not ladle out statistics to show you how the newspaper has encroached upon the field of oratory and how the pale and silent man, while others sleep, compiles the universal history of a day and tells his mighty audience what he thinks about it before he goes to bed.

Of course, this is but the opinion of one man, but who has a better opportunity to judge than he who sits with his finger on the electric pulse of the world, judging the actions of humanity at so much per judge, invariably in advance?

I need not tell you all this, for you certainly know it if you read your paper, and I hope you do. A man ought to read his own paper, even if he cannot endorse all its sentiments.

So necessary has the profession of journalism become to the progress and education of our country, that the matter of establishing schools where young men may be fitted for an active newspaper life, has attracted much attention and discussion. It has been demonstrated that our colleges do not fit a young man to walk at once into the active management of a paper. He should at least know the difference between a vile contemporary and a Gothic scoop.

It is difficult to map out a proper course for the student in a school of journalism, there are so many things connected with the profession which the editor and his staff should know and know hard. The newspaper of to-day is a library. It is an encyclopaedia, a poem, a biography, a history, a prophecy, a directory, a time-table, a romance, a cook book, a guide, a horoscope, an art critic, a political resume, a multum in parvo. It is a sermon, a song, a circus, an obituary, a picnic, a shipwreck, a symphony in solid brevier, a medley of life and death, a grand aggregation of man’s glory and his shame. It is, in short, a bird’s-eye-view of all the magnanimity and meanness, the joys and griefs, the births and deaths, the pride and poverty of the world, and all for two cents–sometimes.

I could tell you some more things that the newspaper of to-day is, if you had time to stay here and your business would not suffer in your absence. Among others it is a long felt want, a nine-column paper in a five-column town, a lying sheet, a feeble effort, a financial problem, a tottering wreck, a political tool and a sheriff’s sale.

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If I were to suggest a curriculum for the young man who wished to take a regular course in a school of journalism, preferring that to the actual experience, I would say to him, devote the first two years to meditation and prayer. This will prepare the young editor for the surprise and consequent temptation to profanity which in a few years he may experience when he finds that the name of the Deity in his double-leaded editorial is spelled with a little “g,” and the peroration of the article is locked up between a death notice and the advertisement of a patent moustache coaxer, which is to follow pure reading matter every day in the week and occupy the top of column on Sunday tf.

The ensuing five years should be devoted to the peculiar orthography of the English language.

Then put in three years with the dumb bells, sand bags, slung shots and tomahawk. In my own journalistic experience I have found more cause for regret over my neglect of this branch than anything else. I usually keep on my desk during a heated campaign, a large paper weight, weighing three or four pounds, and in several instances I have found that I could feed that to a constant reader of my valuable paper instead of a retraction.

Fewer people lick the editor though, now, than did so in years gone by. Many people–in the last two years–have gone across the street to lick the editor and never returned. They intended to come right back in a few moments, but they are now in a land where a change of heart and a palm leaf fan is all they need.

Fewer people are robbing the editor now-a-days, too, I notice with much pleasure. Only a short time ago I noticed that a burglar succeeded in breaking into the residence of a Dakota journalist, and after a long, hard struggle the editor succeeded in robbing him.

After the primary course, mapped out already, an intermediate course of ten years should be given to learning the typographical art, so that when visitors come in and ask the editor all about the office, he can tell them of the mysteries of making a paper, and how delinquent subscribers have frequently been killed by a well-directed blow with a printer’s towel.

Five years should be devoted to a study of the art of proof-reading. In that length of time the young journalist can perfect himself to such a degree that it will take another five years for the printer to understand his corrections and marginal notes.

Fifteen years should then be devoted to the study of American politics, especially civil service reform, looking at it from a non-partisan standpoint. If possible, the last five years should be spent abroad. London is the place to go if you wish to get a clear, concise view of American politics, and Chicago or Milwaukee would be a good place for the young English journalist to go and study the political outlook of England.

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The student should then take a medical and surgical course, so that he may be able to attend to contusions, fractures and so forth, which may occur to himself or to the party who may come to his office for a retraction and by mistake get his spinal column double-leaded.

Ten years should then be given to the study of law. No thorough, metropolitan editor wants to enter upon the duties of his profession without knowing the difference between a writ of mandamus and other styles of profanity. He should thoroughly understand the entire system of American jurisprudence, so that in case a certiorari should break out in his neighborhood he would know just what to do for it.

The student will, by this time, begin to see what is required of him and enter with great zeal upon the further study of his profession.

He will now enter upon a theological course of ten years and fit himself thoroughly to speak intelligently of the various creeds and religions of the world. Ignorance or the part of an editor is almost a crime, and when he closes a powerful editorial with the familiar quotation, “It is the early bird that catches the worm,” and attributes it to St. Paul instead of Deuteronomy, it makes me blush for the profession.

The last ten years may be profitably devoted to the acquisition of a practical knowledge of cutting cordwood, baking beans, making shirts, lecturing, turning double handsprings, being shot out of a catapult at a circus, learning how to make a good adhesive paste that will not sour in hot weather, grinding scissors, punctuating, capitalization, condemnation, syntax, plain sewing, music and dancing, sculpting, etiquette, prosody, how to win the affections of the opposite sex and evade a malignant case of breach of promise, the ten commandments, every man his own tooter on the flute, croquet, rules of the prize ring, rhetoric, parlor magic, calisthenics, penmanship, how to run a jack from the bottom of the pack without getting shot, civil engineering, decorative art, kalsomining, bicycling, base ball, hydraulics, botany, poker, international law, high-low-jack, drawing and painting, faro, vocal music, driving, breaking team, fifteen ball pool, how to remove grease spots from last year’s pantaloons, horsemanship, coupling freight cars, riding on a rail, riding on a pass, feeding threshing machines, how to wean a calf from the parent stem, teaching school, bull-whacking, plastering, waltzing, vaccination, autopsy, how to win the affections of your wife’s mother, every man his own washerwoman, or how to wash underclothes so they will not shrink, etc., etc.

But time forbids anything like a thorough list of what a young man should study in order to fully understand all that he may be called upon to express an opinion about in his actual experience as a journalist. There are a thousand little matters which every editor should know; such, for instance, as the construction of roller composition. Many newspaper men can write a good editorial on Asiatic cholera, but their roller composition is not fit to eat.

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With the course of study that I have mapped out, the young student would emerge from the college of journalism at the age of 95 or 96, ready to take off his coat and write an article on almost any subject. He would be a little giddy at first, and the office boy would have to see that he went to bed at a proper time each night, but aside from that, he would be a good man to feed a waste paper basket.

Actual experience is the best teacher in this peculiarly trying profession. I hope some day to attend a press convention where the order of exercise will consist of five-minute experiences from each one present It would be worth listening to.

My own experience was a little peculiar. It was my intention at first to practice law, when I went to the Rocky Mountains, although I had been warned by the authorities not to do so. Still, I did practice in a surreptitious kind of a way, and might have been practicing yet if my client hadn’t died. When you have become attached to a client and respect and like him, and then when, without warning, like a bolt of electricity from a clear sky, he suddenly dies and takes the bread right out of your mouth, it is rough.

Then I tried the practice of criminal law, but my client got into the penitentiary, where he was no use to me financially or politically. Finally, when the judge was in a hurry, he would appoint me to defend the pauper criminals. They all went to the penitentiary, until people got to criticising the judge, and finally they told him that it was a shame to appoint me to defend an innocent man.

My first experience in journalism was in a Western town, in which I was a total stranger. I went there with thirty-five cents, but I had it concealed in the lining of my clothes so that no one would have suspected it if they had met me. I had no friends, and I noticed that when I got off the train the band was not there to meet me. I entered the town just as any other American citizen would. I had not fully decided whether to become a stage robber or a lecturer on phrenology. At that time I got a chance to work on a morning paper. It used to go to press before dark, so I always had my evenings to myself and I liked that part of it first-rate. I worked on that paper a year and might have continued if the proprietors had not changed it to an evening paper.

Then a company incorporated itself and started a paper, of which I took charge. The paper was published in the loft of a livery stable. That is the reason they called it a stock company. You could come up the stairs into the office or you could twist the tail of the iron-gray mule and take the elevator.

It wasn’t much of a paper, but it cost $16,000 a year to run it, and it came out six days in the week, no matter what the weather was. We took the Associated Press news by telegraph part of the time and part of the time we relied on the Cheyenne morning papers, which we got of the conductor on the early morning freight. We got a great many special telegrams from Washington in that way, and when the freight train got in late, I had to guess at what congress was doing and fix up a column of telegraph the best I could. There was a rival evening paper there, and sometimes it would send a smart boy down to the train and get hold of our special telegrams, and sometimes the conductor would go away on a picnic and take our Cheyenne paper with him.

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All these things are annoying to a man who is trying to supply a long felt want. There was one conductor, in particular, who used to go away into the foot-hills shooting sage hens and take our cablegrams with him. This threw too much strain on me. I could guess at what congress was doing and make up a pretty readable report, but foreign powers and reichstags and crowned heads and dynasties always mixed me up. You can look over what congress did last year and give a pretty good guess at what it will do this year, but you can’t rely on a dynasty or an effete monarchy in a bad state of preservation. It may go into executive session or it may go into bankruptcy.

Still, at one time we used to have considerable local news to fill up with. The north and middle parks for a while used to help us out when the mining camps were new. Those were the days when it was considered perfectly proper to kill off the board of supervisors if their action was distasteful. At that time a new camp generally located a cemetery and wrote an obituary; then the boys would start out to find a man whose name would rhyme with the rest of the verse. Those were the days when the cemeteries of Colorado were still in their infancy and the song of the six-shooter was heard in the land.

Sometimes the Indians would send us in an item. It was generally in the obituary line. With the Sioux on the north and the peaceful Utes on the south, we were pretty sure of some kind of news during the summer. The parks used to be occupied by white men winters and Indians summers. Summer was really the pleasantest time to go into the parks, but the Indians had been in the habit of going there at that season, and they were so clannish that the white men couldn’t have much fun with them, so they decided they would not go there in the summer. Several of our best subscribers were killed by the peaceful Utes.

There were two daily and three weekly papers published in Laramie City av that time. There were between two and three thousand people and our local circulation ran from 150 to 250, counting dead-heads. In our prospectus we stated that we would spare no expense whatever in ransacking the universe for fresh news, but there were times when it was all we could do to get our paper out on time. Out of the express office, I mean.

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One of the rival editors used to write his editorials for the paper in the evening, jerk the Washington hand-press to work them off, go home and wrestle with juvenile colic in his family until daylight and then deliver his papers on the street. It is not surprising that the great mental strain incident to this life made an old man of him, and gave a tinge of extreme sadness to the funny column of his paper.

In an unguarded moment, this man wrote an editorial once that got all his subscribers mad at him, and the same afternoon he came around and wanted to sell his paper to us for $10,000. I told him that the whole outfit wasn’t worth ten thousand cents.

“I know that,” said he, “but it is not the material that I am talking about. It is the good will of the paper.”

We had a rising young horsethief in Wyoming in those days, who got into jail by some freak of justice, and it was so odd for a horsethief to get into jail that I alluded to it editorially. This horsethief had distinguished himself from the common, vulgar horsethieves of his time, by wearing a large mouth–a kind of full-dress, eight-day mouth. He rarely smiled, but when he did, he had to hold the top of his head on with both hands. I remember that I spoke of this in the paper, forgetting that he might criticise me when he got out of jail. When he did get out again, he stated that he would shoot me on sight, but friends advised me not to have his blood on my hands, and I took their advice, so I haven’t got a particle of his blood on either of my hands.

For two or three months I didn’t know but he would drop into the office any minute and criticise me, but one day a friend told me that he had been hung in Montana. Then I began to mingle in society again, and didn’t have to get in my coal with a double barrel shot gun any more.

After that I was always conservative in relation to horsethieves until we got the report of the vigilance committee.

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