In 1808, Meriwether Lewis, the former explorer and recently appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory, believed a newspaper could encourage public discourse throughout the region. Lewis called upon Joseph Charles, an Irish-born printer from Kentucky, to begin working in St. Louis. In 1808, Charles founded the Missouri Gazette and set up shop at First and Elm Street, just south of today’s Gateway Arch. Although the paper referenced its printing location as St. Louis, Louisiana, the Gazette marked the beginning of Missouri’s prominent newspaper history. Over the next 200 years, hundreds of publications picked up the mantle of the Gazette, informing readers and encouraging conversation in communities around the state.1
Advocating for Statehood
Missouri newspapers first demonstrated their powerful influence during the path to statehood. In 1817, the Gazette published a petition submitted by citizens to Congress, hoping to establish what would become Missouri’s borders. Many newspapers strongly supported the territory becoming a state and urged Missouri citizens to demand representation in Washington, D.C. Others provided a glimpse at the sectional politics that eventually resulted in the Civil War. The controversy surrounding Missouri’s statehood was centered on slavery and if the predominantly pro-slavery population of the new state would be allowed to continue the barbarous practice of owning humans. In 1821, the central Missouri city of Franklin’s Missouri Intelligencer published an article celebrating the territory’s “prospective” entrance into the Union. Citing the admittance and the view that states should get to decide the fate of slavery on their own terms, the article declared, “we consider ourselves rescued from the hands of our Eastern Friends in a manner to us satisfactory, to them disgraceful.”2
In the decades following statehood, Missouri experienced rapid expansion in publishing. Before the mid-1840s, newspapers across the state were plagued by timely access to current news and often included stories copied from other publications, written lectures, and poetry. However, with the invention of the telegraph in 1847, papers became increasingly focused on current news events, as they provided more up-to-date information to readers. A boom in the number of people living in the state and technological innovation resulted in a large growth of publishing newsworthy information in Missouri. The population had grown from around 65,000 in 1820 to almost 1.2 million by 1860, and the number of newspapers increased with it, growing from 5 to 148.3 The expansion of publications connected Missourians to regional, national, and even international news. In Clay County, the Liberty Tribune began its 171-year run in 1846. The first year of printing included articles about the Mexican American War, as Colonel John Hughes sent letters to Liberty, Missouri that covered the conflict.4
During Missouri’s early statehood, newspapers were heavily biased. They were often the organs of political parties that vied for power and influence. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, parties like the Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans were not legally recognized by the government and lacked institutional structure. As historian Jeffrey Pasley describes, parties had little staffing and day-to-day management. Political factions also had no formal way to communicate about the latest issues being debated around the country; thus, partisan newspapers stepped in. Local newspapers were established by parties and became their voice on the ground, connecting voters, holding the party together between elections, and communicating its stance on regional and national issues.5 By the Civil War, political parties had become more organized, but the stances of newspapers continued to hold great influence among their readers.
The onset of the Civil War resulted in many newspapers intensifying their political voice and expressing their opinions about where Missouri should fall in the North-South conflict. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the only major pro-Union newspaper in a slave or border state, was influential in preventing Missouri from seceding. The publication first began printing in 1852, holding a pro-Republican stance in its early years and later flourishing as a gateway of information between Washington D.C. and the developing West.6 During the war, President Lincoln recognized the power of the Globe-Democrat, famously stating that the newspaper was worth ten regiments of Union troops.7 Other publications followed the Globe’s lead, like the Osage Valley Star, which expressed a pro-Union slant throughout the war. There were a few newspapers that took an opposing stance. The St. Louis Bulletin, one of the most notable pro-Confederate publications, advocated for secession and the preservation of slavery. However, the Federal army’s presence in Missouri soon brought an end to all anti-Union publishing. Throughout the war, Lincoln worked to suppress newspapers in Union controlled areas that supported the Confederacy, as his administration claimed that these actions were militarily necessary. In Missouri, Lincoln gave his commanders ample leeway in establishing press suppression policies, as they tried to influence coverage of the war and prevent publication of newspapers that spoke ill of the Union.8 Censorship left the press to debate the politics of loyalty. Staunch Unionist newspapers like the Globe-Democrat advocated for a full commitment to the US federal government, putting country over the state, adopting the values that made St. Louis a pro-Union stronghold. Many pro-slavery publications also supported the Union, but with much less vigor, as their loyalty was contingent on Missouri remaining a slave state at the end of the war.9
German Language Newspapers
German language newspapers emerged as some of the strongest supporters of the Union. Missouri has a long history of non-English speaking newspapers that correlates back to the large number of German immigrants who flocked to the state in the early 1800s. German immigrants began moving to Missouri in vast numbers during the 1820s, following the publication of Gottfried Duden’s widely read A Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America. Duden was a German writer, and his book highlighted the new state as a particularly promising destination for immigrants. German-language newspapers played a critical role in these communities, helping immigrants protect their linguistic and cultural identities and form a sense of community. German immigrants and their American born descendants who wrote in these papers were often outspoken in their disdain for slavery. This was exemplified by one of the earliest German publications, the Licht-Freund, which began printing out of Hermann, Missouri in 1840 and advocated for the abolition of slavery. Although Missouri Germans were diverse in their political and religious beliefs, ranging from radical ‘48ers who supported the European revolutions of 1848, to the religiously conservative Saxon Lutherans, most German immigrants in Missouri adopted an antislavery stance. Many German immigrants joined Unionists groups in the state during the Civil War. American-born Missourians often viewed German immigrants as outsiders and some even discriminated against them, but despite this, a majority in the German community were forthright in their loyalty to the US. As the slavery debate raged in the border state, many fought for the Union. Following the Civil War, German-language newspapers continued to flourish for decades in cities like Jefferson City, Booneville, and St. Charles. However, the 1910s saw the forced collapse of the German-language press in the state. The advent of World War I resulted in a strong disdain for German American heritage across the country and increased concerns about their loyalty in the war against Germany, which caused the shuttering of numerous newspapers in Missouri.10
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Missouri witnessed the founding and merging of some of its most prominent newspapers. Publications in cities such as Kansas City, St. Louis, and Springfield, emerged as the dominant newspapers in each urban area. The Springfield News-Leader printed its first edition on April 4, 1867, with O.H. Fahnestock acting as the paper’s first publisher. In 1947, a fire destroyed much of the mechanical plant where the paper was printed, resulting in a major adjustment to its production location, as the News-Leader was printed in Tulsa, Oklahoma and trucked to Springfield every day for months until a new plant was completed in 1948. The paper outlasted that inferno, mergers, and Depression-era financial struggles, and continues to publish daily editions. Today, the News-Leader still serves as the preeminent newspaper for the state’s third largest city and the wider Ozark region.11
In 1878, Joseph Pulitzer purchased the 15-year-old Dispatch and merged it with the Post to form the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.12 The paper quickly took on Pulitzer’s progressive attitude, fighting for reform and justice. The Post-Dispatch officially embraced these values in 1907 when Pulitzer wrote “The Platform.” Similar to those adopted by political parties, “The Platform” acted as a moral guide for journalists working at the paper in its early years and is still embraced today. It makes a commitment to “the public welfare” and “never being afraid to attack wrong,” which resulted in journalists promoting racial justice and women’s rights in the early twentieth century. “The Platform” also gave Pulitzer and the paper an ethical foundation as they challenged powerful institutions. This included clergy in St. Louis who were pushing for prohibition and even President Theodore Roosevelt, who was exposed for corruption relating to the Panama Canal.13
The Kansas City Star was first printed in 1880, with the name alluded to in its evening publication schedule. Early versions of the paper faced competition from the Times and Journal in the morning and the Mail in the afternoon. Issues were available for two cents a copy and focused on local events. William Rockhill Nelson, one of its two founders, saw the Star as a chance to profit and make a difference. The paper soon began campaigning for improvements such as municipal parks and a boulevard system. Nelson bought the Kansas City Times in 1901, creating a news empire that he labeled the “24-hour Star.” That 24-hour cycle allowed the paper, and Nelson, to dominate the region politically, and would continue until the Star became a morning-only daily in 1990.14
Black Owned Newspapers
Though the Post-Dispatch and Star took over the press in Missouri’s two largest cities, they often lacked coverage of the state’s Black communities. Thus, African American newspapers stepped in. Since the nineteenth century, Black Missourians have published their own newspapers. For instance, Advance and Welcome Friend operated out of St. Louis in the 1870s and 1880s and served the state’s growing Black population. Black newspapers covered local and national news that was relevant to African American communities and featured advertisements for Black businesses. The newspapers were often published in predominantly Black neighborhoods. For example, in 1919 Chester Arthur Franklin founded The Call, which was established in, and still operates out of Kansas City’s 18th and Vine District. African American papers did not exist only in Kansas City and St. Louis, however. During the first half of the twentieth century, newspapers such as The Searchlight, Southeast Missouri World, and the Home Protective Record were prominent in Sedalia, Sikeston, and Hannibal. In an era in which white newspapers typically neglected to report on news in the growing Black communities and often perpetuated racist stereotypes when they did, Black publications served a valuable purpose for Missouri’s Black communities. Today, The Call, the St. Louis American, and other African American newspapers carry on that legacy of amplifying the voices of Black communities in Missouri.15
Newspapers as Facilitators of Change
Newspapers of all kinds, white and Black, held a critical place in conversations happening in Missouri during the twentieth century. They played a major role in the day-to-day lives of Missourians, providing important and timely news updates for their readers. Debates over national matters such as the fight for Black civil rights played out in small towns and major metropolitan areas across the state. Thus, newspapers were central to shaping public opinion. The Civil Rights Movement was in full force in the early 1960s and activists spoke out and took action in many American cities. One of the most significant events in St. Louis was the Jefferson Bank demonstration, where protesters marched outside of the financial institution hoping to gain attention for ongoing labor disputes. Numerous St. Louis newspapers covered the protest, and columnists debated the effectiveness and validity of the demonstration. Coverage varied based on if it was a white or Black owned newspaper. For example, an editorial in the Post-Dispatch from October 25, 1963, called for an end to the protests in the name of “public peace and progress.” While in the same month, the American took the opposite stance and supported the actions of the civil rights protesters, saying, “let the solemn picketing continue.”16
Throughout the twentieth century, newspapers have played a vital role within Missouri municipalities and hundreds of publications operated in the state. Although nightly television news and later twenty-four-hour cable news broadcasts gave Missourians other outlets to gather information, local newspapers still served as reliable institutions in cities and small towns. Missouri newspapers maintained a continued significance to their communities. This is evidenced by the natural disaster in Joplin, Missouri in 2011. An F-5 tornado ripped through the city, and the Joplin Globe acted fast. Staff of the Joplin Globe continued to go to work, even after some lost their homes, as they understood the responsibility they had to their community. The next day’s paper was only an hour late off the presses, as journalists at the Globe helped the city digest the disaster immediately after and for weeks to come.17
Print Newspapers on the Decline
Over the last twenty years, the expansion of high-speed internet has led to a decline in newspaper publication across the United States. Many people now get their news from social media and other online sources. Advertisers, once the backbone of the newspaper industry, have turned their attention from print to digital. This new reality has not passed over Missouri. According to the University of North Carolina, there were 256 newspapers published in Missouri in 2004 and as of 2019, that number dropped to 220. There has also been a 25 percent decrease in newspaper circulation across the state from 2004 to 2019 and it now has fifty-three counties with a single paper.18 Even with a decrease in publication, newspapers continue to publish for the people of Missouri, as they have done for two centuries. Those like the Liberty Tribune, Kirksville Daily Express, and Marshall Democrat News have served a local purpose, while others like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch gained national acclaim. The Kansas City Hispanic News, Kansas City Call, St. Louis American, and Red Latina provides coverage for underrepresented groups such as Black and Latinx Missourians. Similarly, Il Pensiero helps many St. Louisans stay connected to their Italian heritage. Even as the news landscape changes, newspapers continue to hold an important place in the culture and conversations happening around the Show Me State. Missouri has demonstrated a proud history of journalism and acts as a portal into the past and a foothold for future newspapers throughout Missouri.
- Tim O’Neil, “Look Back 250 – St. Louis Gets Its First Newspaper in 1808,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 22, 2020, https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/illinois/look-back-250-st-louis-gets-its-first-newspaper-in-1808/article.
- Missouri Intelligencer, (Franklin, MO), April 16, 1821, https://shsmo.newspapers.com/clip/24067510/statehood-celebration-toasts-at/.
- Duane Meyer, The Heritage of Missouri (St. Louis, MO: River City Publishers, 1982), 268-72.
- KCUR 89.3, “After 170 Years, The Northland’s Liberty Tribune Prints Last Paper,” June 27, 2017, https://www.kcur.org/community/2017-06-26/after-170-years-the-northlands-liberty-tribune-prints-last-paper.
- Jeffrey L. Pasley, “The Two National ‘Gazettes’: Newspapers and the Embodiment of American Political Parties,” Early American Literature 35, no. 1 (2000): 51-52.
- St. Louis Media History Foundation, “The Globe-Democrat’s Golden Century,” https://www.stlmediahistory.org/Print/PrintArticles.
- Dennis K. Boman, Lincoln and Citizens’ Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2011), 47.
- Erika J. Pribanic-Smith, “The War within the State: The Role of Newspapers in Missouri’s Secession Crisis,” in A Press Divided: Newspaper Coverage of the Civil War, ed. David Sachsman, (New York: Routledge Publishers, 2017), 47-70.
- “German American Experience Research Guide,” The State Historical Society of Missouri, accessed January 4, 2022, https://shsmo.org/research/guides/german-american.
- News-Leader, “Celebrating 150 Years: A Springfield Newspaper’s Timeline,” January 19, 2017, https://www.news-leader.com/story/news/local/ozarks/2017/01/07/springfield-newspapers-timeline/96163096/.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, “Saint Louis Post-Dispatch,” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Saint-Louis-Post-Dispatch.
- Editorial Board, “Editorial: Times Have Changed, but Pulitzer’s Platform Remains Our Rock of Truth,” STLtoday.com, January 1, 2020, https://www.stltoday.com/opinion/editorial/editorial-times-have-changed-but-pulitzers-platform-remains-our-rock-of-truth/article_53c95e4a-62d1-51bc-b2b6-93b0f920f64d.html.
- Kansas City Star, “Our History,” https://www.kansascity.com/article7944.html.
- “African American Experience Research Guide,” The State Historical Society of Missouri, accessed January 4, 2022, https://shsmo.org/research/guides/african-american.
- Missouri Historical Society, “A Strong Seed Planted the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis, 1954-1968.” OAH Magazine of History 4, no. 3, 1989): 26-35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25162677.
- Missouri Press Association, “Deadline in Disaster,” Video, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4D37UI3N0Ek&t.
- “The Expanding News Desert,” University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, accessed January 4, 2022, https://www.usnewsdeserts.com/states/missouri.