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? ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

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

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated