Covering the Community: Iowa's Newspaper History

In community newspapers citizens read about business openings and closings and local government news. Newspapers provide a place for local groups to advertise their activities and for citizens to publicize births, weddings and deaths. They are a place to learn what's on the school lunch menu and how the girls' basketball team scored against their neighboring team. The opinions of community members appear in letters to the editor, guest columns and editorials.

The Only Source of News

While newspapers are important today, in Iowa's past—before telephones, television and radio news and the Internet—newspapers were often the only source of news. The local newspaper connected a town's residents with each other and also with the world outside their community. Readers looked for published steamboat arrival and departure times. Later train and bus schedules published in the local paper helped readers plan trips and order supplies for their homes and farms.

Social Gatherings at Newspaper Offices

Newspaper offices of the past were gathering places. Townfolk assembled there as often as they gathered in post offices and general stores. They came to report or hear the news, meet friends and neighbors, and pay their subscription bills. 

Often editors and publishers discouraged people from using their offices as public meeting places. In 1859 a Hampton editor wrote the following rules for visitors to his office: "Enter softly, sit down quietly, say nothing interesting, don't talk to the printers."

Small towns competed fiercely for county seat status and railroad depots—both would bring in money for the community. Newspapers participated fully in these competitions. Articles and editorials bragged about the town's offerings.

A Family Business

Throughout Iowa's history, community newspapers have often been family businesses. Family members worked long hours to ensure that the paper was published on time. Children started in the business by sweeping the office floor and progressed to typesetting or writing. In the town of Glidden in western Iowa, I.A. Nichols and his sister ran the weekly Glidden Graphic. "I could gather the news, take care of the advertising, and do the press work alone," he wrote in his autobiography. "My sister came into the office and set type."

Another newspaper family was the Elder family of Washington, Iowa. Orville Elder was the editor and publisher of the Evening Journal. His son, David, grew up in the newspaper office. David began carrying papers as a small child and worked into other jobs in the paper. He reviewed the high school plays, sold ads, wrote accounts of weddings and deaths. He eventually became editor and publisher of the paper as his father before him had been. David was still writing a column for the paper when he was in his 90s. Both father and son were named newspaper and editor of the year for Iowa. Fewer and fewer Iowa papers are family operated now.

It's Business First

Newspapers are first and foremost businesses. Iowa's small-town papers often started in county seats, where laws require that information of interest to the public, such as delinquent tax lists, property sales, official meeting notices and wills or bankruptcy notices, be published in a newspaper. The county government paid the paper to run these notices, giving publishers one certain and steady source of income. Weekly newspapers still compete today for the income generated by these notices.

Most papers earn their money from two sources: subscribers and advertisers. In the past the local newspaper was often the only way businesses could advertise goods and services. Newspaper advertising benefited many small towns in Iowa because it attracted shoppers from rural areas. The small-town newspaper also provided a place for national companies to advertise their goods. In the late 1800s when rural delivery boosted mail order sales, citizens in Iowa's small towns looked forward to reading about goods that were available nationally.

Newspapers and Politics

Newspaper publishers and editors throughout Iowa history have been powerful community members because they decide which news to print. Because they often worked as lawyers or in other professions and held public office, the publishers and editors sometimes chose to print only news that served their own interests and those of people like them. Often the newspapers were very political and some even included the words Democrat or Republican in the name of the paper. Later publishers and editors tried to print information that was important to many different kinds of people. 

In late 1979 Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray, along with some other state governors, visited refugee camps in Thailand. They were shocked at the conditions they saw in one of the camps and wanted people in their home states to know about the situation. When the governor returned to Iowa, pictures he had taken of the camp were published in The Des Moines Register. The newspaper became involved when Michael Gartner of the Des Moines Register, used the editorial page of the paper to raise awareness of these refugee camps. Efforts by the newspaper and other community institutions helped to raise about $600,000 to supply food and medicine to the refugee camps in Thailand and even inside Cambodia.

Community newspapers have traditionally carried responsibilities to inform, entertain and educate the public. Newspapers are sources of permanent records of Iowa's communities.


  •  Linzee Kull McCraj, “Covering the Community” The Goldfinch 18, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 10-11.