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southern-country-editor

Summer Reading 2013: “The Southern Country Editor” by Thomas D. Clark (1948)

“Daily papers became serious competitors once decent roads were built and rural free delivery routes were established.”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

The Southern Country Editor by Thomas D. Clark

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Thomas D. Clark’s 1948 book tells the story of how small weekly papers in the rural South adapted to a rapidly changing nation at the turn of the century, as new roads and big city dailies connected disparate, antagonistic parts of the country. Newspapers helped usher people through the chaos of Reconstruction; there were 182 country newspapers at the end of the Civil War, 499 three years later in 1868, and 1,827 by 1885. “By 1869 it was evident that the country editors were giving the common man a vital part in the rebirth of the region,” Clark writes.

In the style of an anthropological study, The Southern Country Editor is an apt successor to Clark’s first book, Pills, Petticoats, and Plows, a Southern social history. Our tattered first-edition copy comes with an inscription from the author to then-curator of the Nieman Foundation Louis Lyons and some useful perspective on how local newspapers have long had a strange relationship with their more cosmopolitan peers. This excerpt from the final chapter of the book, “And Still the Presses Roll,” illustrates how new infrastructure upended the news ecosystem by bringing daily papers to the rural south, forcing the weeklies to carve out their own niche of coverage in order to stay afloat. It’s something of an analog for the state of alt-weeklies in today’s media world, and perhaps a blueprint for a kind of healthy symbiosis among competing papers.

In recent years, more news syndicates have successfully invaded the rural market. Daily columnists boil their materials down to comprise a weekly summary of national affairs. Professional gossipers, popular psychologists, advisers of the lovelorn, and arbiters of etiquette all have discovered this rather profitable outlet for their wares…

Earlier editors felt that world and national news coverage lay within the province of the metropolitan press, and they refrained from printing it. They conceived their task to be that of garnering materials of interest from their own localities, and they remained steadfastly in this field. On the other hand, the daily made an effort to stay out of the weekly’s field by giving a broader and more impersonal coverage to its stories and editorials. On the surface, at least, most of the slanted material carried by the dailies appeared in their editorial or special columns.

Daily papers became serious competitors once decent roads were built and rural free delivery routes were established. When this situation developed there had to be a more clearly defined division of fields of interest between the two types of papers for the weekly to survive.

Though the city journal enlarged its patronage, the fact remained that large segments of the Southern population still had access to news only through the weekly paper. It was effective for publicizing local legal matters, giving the common man the satisfaction of seeing accounts of his social affairs in print and of supplying the county with a bulletin of events and public affairs. There was no way for a daily to compete in this field, and for this reason the two types of paper learned to exist together with fair success.

                                   
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