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Selfish Interests

Springfield's State Journal-Register, examined

Illinois Times

September 8, 1983

While the opening paragraphs might suggest otherwise, the topic here discussed is small-city newspapers in general and in particular the Springfield daily, the State Journal-Register and its predecessors. Slightly edited.


Reviewed: Always My Friend: A History of "The State Journal-Register" and Springfield, Illinois by Andy Van Meter. The Copley Press, 1981


As is my custom, I try to look on the bright side. Were it not for the State Journal-Register's civic-mindedness, not only would I not care who Juli Inkster or Barbara Mizrahie or Patti Rizzo was, I wouldn't know either. The Springfield daily relieved me of my ignorance, however, with extended profiles (with photos) on successive days of some of the players then teeing up for The Rail LPGA women's professional golf tournament.


The SJR's sports coverage is one of the better things about it, but it is not so comprehensive that its editors would ordinarily devote so much space to a golf tournament. The SJR's coverage of The Rail had little to do with sport, however. The tournament is a national event that is judged by the SJR to be good for the community. (In Springfield, as in most small towns, that means it is backed by the publisher's friends.) So while some local firms donated cars to the event, the SJR donated news.


This is not the first time that the SJR's extracurricular enthusiasms have had an effect on its news pages. While the Izod set amused themselves on the links, I toured the back nine of my library, where I found my copy of Always My Friend. Friend is an official history of the SJR and its predecessor papers, the Illinois State Journal and Illinois State Register, published by the paper in 1981 to commemorate its sesquicentennial.


There's not much about golf in Friend, but quite a lot about the role newspapers play in the economic and political life of small cities. On the surface it is a typical chronicle of its sort. (The book is so crammed with praise for Springfield's "enthusiasm for civic improvement," its "spirit of progress," its "unceasing effort at self-improvement" that one is compelled to check the cover to make sure that it is Springfield, Illinois, that one is reading about.) The book is uneven in both style and emphasis, ranging from profundity to the sheerest piffle; although credited to a single author, it is clear that more than one pair of hands were at work on it.


A careful reading of the book reveals a great deal, however. Friend (perhaps because it was written ultimately for the newspaper's owners) frankly acknowledges the commercial side of the paper's character, especially the tendency of all papers to identify their own economic interest with that of the cities they serve. "What is good for the community is good for the newspaper" is the philosophy espoused in Friend, and to a considerable extent it is true.


But it is not often true that what is good for a newspaper is good for the community. One thinks of the SJR's trumpeting of the arrival of White Oaks Mall—a project which added hundreds of thousands to the SJR's ad sales but did so by destroying the city's downtown, siphoning millions out of the city to chain store headquarters in other cities, and driving local retailers out of business.


Friend is circumspect on such recent episodes, but notes several instances in the safer past when protecting the paper's financial or political interests shaped the way it wrote or didn't write about the news. At the turn of the century, for instance, competition among Springfield's several dailies made the Journal financially dependent on outside printing work which its Republican publishers obtained through political contacts with the state government. The Journal thus turned a blind eye toward the doings of the corrupt Republican machine which then presided in Springfield; it is telling that a reformist Republican state's attorney of the period had to run with the Democratic Register's endorsement and support, which included the pledge to print names of wrong doers which the Republican Journal would not print.


The best parts of Friend explain how the local dailies gradually loosened their economic ties with political parties and began to align themselves, financially as well as editorially, with the "progressive" factions which control the city to this day—a shifting coalition which includes business and civic improvement clubs, establishment society groups, major developers (including banks), and their hired help. Advertising replaced job printing as the principal source of income. But the papers still knew which side their bread was buttered on, even if someone new was buttering it.


In the 1940s, for example, Springfield was a wide open town, and the two major dailies showed little inclination to close it up again. Gambling wasn't just illegal, it was popular, and not just in the dives but in the restaurants and country clubs. Our local sinners could just about tolerate being lectured by their ministers on Sunday but they weren't in the mood to be preached at by editors the rest of the week.


In 1947 a reporter for the Saturday Evening Post named Elise Morrow profiled Springfield, where, she said, "Gambling and prostitution blossom like the rose." Embarrassment over the Morrow article helped spur a reform campaign to which the papers were willing converts, reform suddenly becoming as fashionable in Springfield as apathy had been previously. A subsequent series of articles in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch detailed the grip the rackets had on the city, and has been credited with helping finally to elect a reform state's attorney.


Friend states, "Morrow did not mince words." Ah, but the Journal and Register did. Friend forgot to quote another line from Morrow's piece, the one which reads, "The absence of a vigorous press doesn't help any." Nor does Friend explain why Springfield had to read about the vice in their own hometown in out-of-town magazines and newspapers. Of course, being a good journalist means occasionally telling unflattering truths about one's city, just as being a good businessman means occasionally telling flattering untruths about it.


Given the choice between being a bad business or a bad newspaper, the SJR has usually chosen to be a bad newspaper. Back in the 1920s, when the founder of the Copley Press chain bought the Journal, he promised its readers that it would have "no selfish interest to promote." In those days, "interest" meant interest—financial or political—outside the paper. Today, daily newspapers must be counted among the larger industries of many towns. A $20 million physical plant such as the one owned by the SJR in downtown Springfield is a considerable selfish interest. No wonder then that the SJR is a lifetime director of the Springfield Central Area Development Association. This involvement was not material when SCADA confined itself to tree-planting campaigns and promoting downtown Dollar Days. But today SCADA is one of the key players in the downtown redevelopment sweepstakes in which tens of millions of dollars, much of it public, is being poured into new apartment complexes, hotels, and the like.


Given its past performance, we are entitled to be skeptical of the SJR's ability to draw careful distinctions between the public interest and the paper's private interest. One wonders whether the questions being asked around Springfield about aspects of downtown redevelopment—the quality of workmanship going into restorations, the wisdom of committing general city revenues to repayment of development loans, worries about the impact on local taxes—will be vigorously asked by the SJR.


Of course, in many ways the dual role of the press as both a commercial and a journalistic entity is impossibly contradictory. But one can agree to limits. The code of ethics espoused by Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists, states in part, "Journalists must be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know the truth." To ensure same, the code holds it necessary that "secondary service in community organization should be avoided if it compromises the integrity of journalists and their employers."


I'm not at all sure that newspapers weren't more honest when their ambition was more to make policy than profit. Friend is full of self-congratulation for the Journal's having advanced to the practice of a more "objective" journalism. But dailies too often manage to be objective about everything but themselves. I long to hear again the pledge made in 1881 by the new owners of the Register—then unobjectively Democrat and unprofitable—when they swore to protect Springfield against what they called "monopolizing corporations." Did they foresee the day, I wonder, when that pledge would require that their successor paper do war with itself? ●




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One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

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