Watching the World Go By (3)

A Kansas City News Bureau c. 1900 Photograph from the Fred Harvey Collection

Watching the World Go By (3)

The timeline of Willis J. Abbot’s autobiography seems a bit strange. He claims that he was a cub reporter on the New York Tribune from 1886-1887 in chapter two, but in chapter three he also claims that he, along with a group of Detroit newspapermen, purchased an evening newspaper in Kansas City in 1886. He called this experience “an expensive school of journalism” (40). He claims to have moved to Kansas city in this failed attempt; the dates are confusing.

Abbot claims that the population of Kansas City was 132,000—amazingly close to the US census figure for 1890 of 132,716. The figure for 1880 was around 55,000. According to Abbot, the population promised to be half-a-million by “the next census.” However, even in 1940 the population in Kansas City hadn’t crossed the 400,000 mark. At the time, Kansas City had four newspapers, the Times and the Journal in the morning, and the Star and the News in the afternoon. Abbot “contributed his expertise” to the News.

Doing a little sideways research, the Kansas City Star is still kicking. Abbot called it the primary newspaper he competed with, and obviously it won the competition. According to their history page, the last competitor for the Star, the Journal, folded in 1942. Abbot remarks that at the time he was writing (1933) there were only one morning and two evening papers.

Reviewing several bits of information, it seems that though Abbot was one of the group that bought the paper, he did not actually move there until 1867. He calls his time in Kansas City his “three-years struggle” and he moved to Chicago in 1890, so he had to be an absentee owner for at least the first year. The actual biographical details of Abbot’s autobiography are difficult to figure out.

Rethinking Abbot’s book as I review it once again for the synopsis, it seems that the early organizing tropes for the book are moral—it hardly follows a strict chronology in its reminisces. In chapter one, the moral core is violent behavior; in chapter two, it is drinking; in chapter three, it is false advertising.

At that earlier date, advertising had not become the well-regulated business that it is now, and its volume was substantially less. There was then no revolt against the execrable advertisements of patent medicines and nostrums and they constituted the bulk of the so-called national advertising. It is worth of note that when a cleaner conception of the dignity and responsibility of journalism forced this class of business out of newspaper columns, a new and admirable type was developed to take its place. I do not purpose identifying cause and effect, but I would like to emphasize the fact that when discreditable and disgusting advertising disappeared, the advertising agencies began the great growth which has now put them among the major industries of the country. (43-44)

Abbot clearly has mixed feelings about advertising. However, he credits it with no small part in the development of better quality newspapers.

I would like to express the opinion that the greatest progress in journalism in the last forty years has been in the vast improvement of the advertising columns. News-gathering methods have hardly changed; there is more gathered, that’s all. Editorial writing can hardly be said to have improved since the days of Dana, Watterson, Greeley, or Medill. But one has only to compare the advertising pages of the New York Times or the Herald-Tribune to-day with those of 1890 or thereabouts to discover how great the improvement in typography and the character of the advertisements. (44)

From his perspective in the 1930s, Abbot speaks of a new battle between the editorial rooms and the advertising departments of newspapers. Given his position as a newspaperman, it is hard not to take his proposal (which actually seems to have come to fruition) as being somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

I began writing this in the midst of a hotly contested presidential campaign. Early in its progress I saw the suggestion seriously advanced that the championship on of rival tickets be taken out of the hands of the national political committees and committed to two advertising agencies. It is a mere matter of selling the Republican or Democratic candidates to the electorate, urged the advocates of this plan. Each committee had several million dollars to spend. Why not have spent by men trained in the art of creating a favorable public sentiment for this or that product? Would not the methods which a few years ago started millions of American girls chewing gum, and only within a few months diverted them to smoking cigarettes, be adequate to selling Hoover or Roosevelt to a majority of the electorate?

It is not an idea without its merits. But it is the part that advertising has played and will continue to play in newspaper making that I want to discuss. (44-45)

Abbot then retraces his model of the perfect newspaper, Dana’s New York Sun, a four page sheet with no Sunday edition that ran with a profit with no solicitation of advertising. Abbot notes that years afterward, E.W. Scripps attempted to run a paper in Chicago with no advertising and only news, which failed at the onset of World War I. Abbot attributes this failure not to a lack of advertising, but to a surfeit of news brought about by the war which made “small papers impossible.” He notes that the paper was showing every sign of success before the war.

Ultimately though, it seems that the attitude of the masses was the biggest enemy of “quality newspapers.” A friend of Abbot’s apparently conducted some early demographic research in “a town of one hundred thousand inhabitants . . . to discover what features of his newspaper most interested housewives”

He devoted his afternoons to trudging about the residential sections and asking the woman who answered the doorbell that vital question. The result demonstrated, to his own conviction at least, that the feminine mind found the most interesting journalistic features to be the department-store bargains sales and death notices! (46)

It is worth noting that Abbot was an advocate of women’s suffrage, and wrote a book about famous women. This comment should not be taken as misogynist, merely as a reporting of demographic research.

Abbot relates a few anecdotes about the newspapers in Kansas City, before closing with an elaborate scenario of Macbeth being performed in a city theater, freezing in the winter from the lack of heat. When the porter uttered the line “this place is too cold for hell” it received greater laughter and rounds of applause than any other performance in history. There was no boom in Kansas City, virtually everything went bust, including Abbot’s newspaper.

Abbot moved on to Chicago in 1890, the town where he grew up.