Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Newspaper Celebrates Its Birthday

The newspaper for which I toil began its existence 149 years ago this weekend, on Sept. 12, 1861, as the Smoky Hill and Republican Union. George W. Kingsbury was its editor and proprietor. Its slogan was, “We Join Ourselves To No Party That Does Not Carry The Flag, and Keep Step To the Music Of The Union.” The state of Kansas had joined the United States only eight months earlier as a free state and sent more than 20,000 soldiers to fight for the Union cause in the Civil War that began just two months later.

So it is no surprise that the Union newspaper supported both that cause and the party of Lincoln in its nameplate, though of course those are also the names of the rivers that meander through our town and join to form the Kansas River.

I downloaded a copy of the first issue from the Library of Congress, which has digitized the first three years of the newspaper’s existence as part of its Chronicling America project. That means anyone can go online and read or print copies of newspapers from all over the country. I am constantly amazed at this modern world, and how it allows researchers access from a computer screen and Internet connection to material that one once had to travel thousands of miles to peruse.

Kingsbury set out his political views in his opening issue, making it clear he was in the Union camp. He wrote, “It is clearly our duty to rally around the Constitution, and the glorious old flag of our country, in our common cause for the preservation and perpetuation of our glorious Union…”

Putting out a newspaper a century-and-a-half ago was tough sledding even under the best of circumstances. And producing a weekly in Junction City during a Civil War must have been brutal. For Kingsbury, this was his second attempt to put out a paper here, having been involved as the printer of the Sentinel a couple of years earlier.

For nearly 30 years, off and on, I’ve ruined my eyesight looking at microfilm of old newspapers, for a master’s thesis on an 1840s-era Republic of Texas newspaper, and years later for a modest book published by University of Texas press. (Advice to aspiring book authors: Keep your day job.) I’ve had a hand in producing centennial issues for two different newspapers. Next year, Lord willing, our staff will produce a sesquicentennial issue to mark the 150th year for this newspaper. I’m a newspaper nerd from way back.

Only two newspapers in Kansas have stayed in business longer than this publication: the Troy Chief and the Leavenworth Times. That is quite a legacy. The Montgomery family for whom I work have been associated with the Union since 1888. It is still a family operation in a time when most newspapers are owned by corporate chains with distant ownerships. There isn’t necessarily wrong with that, but there is something comforting in the longevity, the commitment that comes with family ownership of a company over well more than a century.

I’m grateful to have come into this line of work a bit more than a century after the Union sprang into existence. Newspapering back then truly was brutal work. Type was set one character at a time, the character placed in a wooden case. Payment from both subscribers and advertisers was always iffy. Newspapers particularly in small towns like Junction City, popped up and disappeared with regularity.

Folks are predicting the demise of newspapers once again. No doubt the landscape is changing. How you get your news, even about this town, will evolve eventually. What won’t change is that nearly 150 years later, we’ll still be the place readers go to find out what happened in the chunk of the Flint Hills that we cover. Nobody does it better or more thoroughly. We’re not perfect by any means. But we plug away every day, with a small crew of folks who are trained to get the story and explain it best as they can.

That’s a family tradition the folks at this paper are proud to continue, just as they do at small papers all across this country. Next year we’ll really celebrate.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, Sept. 11, 2010

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