Loving Indy’s Early Newspapers
If you’re a history lover, there’s no cozier Indy place to perch on a brisk winter afternoon than the architecturally beautiful Indiana State Library. A recent visit to the card catalogs there — yes, they still have several card catalogs, alongside digital directories — leads to hours of research-tainment, combing through the microfilm collections that document the earliest city news.
The particularly eye-catching illustration (above) from the February 14, 1900, edition of the Indianapolis Press newspaper catches the imagination, exploring the world of politics and sensibilities of that era through stories and opinion pieces. Similar to other newspapers of the time, the two-to four-page Press issues are jam-packed with columns of text headed by titles that are sometimes indistinguishable from the body of the articles. The rivers of tiny words are punctuated now and again by fanciful illustrations and ads making audacious claims.
It appears that the Press was published from 1888 to 1901 — initially as a weekly, and then as a daily publication. The Press offices were located at 39 West Washington Street with the editorial and mechanical departments housed at Pearl and Illinois Streets. In January of 1900, the paper claimed to have had a paid monthly circulation of 816,819 and an average daily issue of 30,252.
The Birth of Journalism in Indianapolis
In 1822, six months after the city’s — well, let’s be honest, it was more like a muddy village’s — founding, the Indianapolis Gazette hit the presses. The first Indianapolis newspaper was optimistic and politically neutral in content with a rather irregular production schedule. Subsequent papers would take on a decidedly more political (or ideological) tone.
Newspaper publishing was a risky venture in the early days. The printing process itself was slow, laborious, and expensive. Literacy was not a widespread phenomenon, and only those citizens who possessed a vested interest in politics or business (estimated at 10%) were willing or able to subscribe. A paper’s viewpoint, and the amount of advertising revenue that could be coaxed from pioneering businesses also affected survival. As a result, many early papers ran for only a year or two — some for just months.
Those first Indianapolis newspapers bear little resemblance to today’s. The typical paper was 9″ x 12″ in dimension, printed on rag paper with dense copy, and had no illustrations. Front pages were devoted to national news (often reprinted verbatim from other newspapers that came in by stagecoach). A second page would likely be filled with political addresses and legislation, then state and local news. If additional space was available, it would be filled with editorials and literary contributions like morality tales and poetry. A back page spread would be devoted almost entirely to advertising and legal notices. It would take a mid-century advancement in printing technology to bring rise to illustrations and a more “relaxed” text density.
The latter third of the 19th century witnessed the rise of numerous (and often short-lived) newspapers representing the city’s rapidly changing demographics. Between 1890 and 1900, Indianapolis experienced a 60% growth in population to 169,164. In another 30 years, the city would more than double that number to 364,161. However, in the course of this extraordinary expansion, Indianapolis witnessed a decline in the number of local newspapers due to business failures, mergers, and acquisitions. By 1910, Indianapolis had only three primary newspapers — the Star, the News, and the Indiana Daily Times.
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Sources: the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis and the Indiana State Library.