Once There Were 340 Papers in ND: Now There are
100th Anniversary, 1901-2001
Haas, Jane. "Once There Were 340 Papers in ND: Now There are Ninety." Ashley Tribune, n.d. 9-10.
Newspapers in North Dakota sprang up like mushrooms in the late
1800s along with general stores, hardware stores, banks, hotels,
harness shops, poolrooms, grain elevators, saloons, churches, livery
stables, and professional offices.
Elwyn B. Robinson, in his book History of North Dakota stated that
in 1890, North Dakota had about 125 newspapers and only 50 incorporated
towns and villages. Almost every village, incorporated or not, had
By 1900, 163 newspapers operated in the state, and of those 146
were considered Republican newspapers. That is they were supported
of the Republican party. As Robinson put it, those newspapers supported
the "party of railroads, grain elevators and moneylenders."
Those newspapers were also considered part of the (Alexander) McKenzie
machine and kept it well oiled.
The (Fargo) Forum reported in 1912 that 226 newspapers endorsed
Louis B. Hanna for governor, 33 endorsed the Progressive party,
19 the Democratic party and 62 remained noncommittal. That means
that in a period of 12 years, the number of newspapers in North
Dakota had increased from 163 to 340.
"Walrus-Mustached" Colonel Clement A. Lounsberry established
the first newspaper, the Bismarck Tribune, in July 1873.
Robinson said, "It was easy to start a paper. A printer was
a shirttailful of type and an old Washington handpress was soon
in business, often encouraged by a townsite." Thus the Fargo
Express appeared Jan. 1, 1874, the second newspaper in northern
The Great Dakota Boom from 1878-1886 brought a flood of newspapers,
mostly weeklies. The first northern Dakota daily, the Fargo Argus,
founded in 1879, was the prodigy of James J. Hill's bankroll. Major
Alanson W. Edwards edited the paper.
Robinson said, "In 1881 the Grand Forks Herald became the
second daily. George B. Winship had founded it as a weekly in 1879."
"At the peak of the Dakota Boom, one to three newspapers were
established every week. In 1899 the state had 143 newspapers, nine
of them dailies. By 1909 it had 333 papers, including 12 dailies.
Newspapers were published at 267 places in the state, although there
were only 211 incorporated towns and villages. Many very small places
had papers, and Dogden, populations 80, had two.
"The booms created the newspapers, and the newspapers, in
turn did all they could to help the booms. They put out special
editions and sent them to the East to advertise the new country."
The railroads, as interested as the newspapers in promoting settlements,
kept the editors friendly with free passes. They provided free transportation
for newspapermen going on annual junkets arranged by the North Dakota
German newspapers flourished during the first decade of the 20th
century. When World War I came, anti-German feeling made trouble
for the German papers. The Ashley Tribune and The Wishek News printed
some pages in German. This practice continued in Ashley until 1945.
According to Robinson, "Newspapers reflected the rough society
of which they were a part. Early papers implied haste in weddings,
spoke frankly and often uncomplimentarily of the personal affairs
of its readers. Scandal and stories of rape, murder and divorce
were common. All were free speaking and all fiercely loyal to their
towns and localities."
Five towns had two daily papers each in 1910: Valley City, Minot,
Jamestown, Grand Forks and Fargo.
The weeklies, most of them with circulations under 1000, gave some
national and world news usually coming from a Washington letter
subscription, but otherwise gathered local and regional news for
Most newspapermen who ran dailies in the state in the early 1900s
had learned the printers' trade as young men back East and migrated
to the Midwest, ready to take part in the political life of the
The Grand Forks Herald, North Dakota's largest newspaper in 1901,
capitalized at $100,000 before 1909 and had its own large building
and did job printing.
The League program enacted into law in North Dakota in 1919 dealt
a blow to 61 weeklies in the state. The new law authorized a state
printing commission, made up of League-elected officials to select
the one official newspaper for each county until the next election,
when voters would select it. The law subsidized League newspapers
with a monopoly on legal printing and so forced out of existence
the weeklies that lost that part of their business.
Robinson said, "By furnishing the bulk of all reading matter,
newspapers played a leading role in the intellectual life of North
Newspapers, like other aspects of North Dakota life were affected
by sparsity of population. The few large, influential newspapers
were found in the large centers of population, the many small and
less influential ones in scattered towns and villages. Where they
were too close together, they could not prosper. Between 1915 and
1919 with the completion of settlement, the number of weeklies in
North Dakota dropped from 347 to 293. Half of these were published
in towns of less than 500 people. The decline of the 1920s continued
into the 1950s. By 1960 only 101 weeklies were left in the state.
Only 18 of them were published in towns of less than 500, and no
town had two weekly papers.
The 45 larger weeklies in the 1960s commanded circulations of over
1,400 and prospered. Commonly job printing grossed one third of
The vital role of weeklies in the early years was to report national
and international news to a large segment of the population that
never saw a daily paper. They were plain papers that used few advertisements
Robinson said, "The weeklies were generally owned by their
editors, seasoned newspapermen who took a real interest in the development
of their communities and the state."
Back in 1886, the newspaper publishers organized the North Dakota
Press Association, the forerunner of the North Dakota Newspaper
Association, to promote their mutual interests. One of its leaders
in the 1920s and 1930s, Mark Forkner, was editor of the Langdon
Republican, a leading weekly in the state.
In 1919 the weeklies had an estimated circulation of more than
200,000 compared to 60,000 for the dailies. A burst in daily circulation
in the 1940s and 1950s upped the North Dakota dailies circulation
to 164,000, most of which was within the state. By 1961, 85 percent
of the 173,000 households in North Dakota subscribed to a daily
newspaper. Included in that figure is the Minneapolis Tribune.
In 1960 the circulation of weekly papers had fallen to 150,000.
Large numbers of the North Dakota weeklies went to former residents
living outside the state. Today the weekly press run for the Ashley
Tribune of 1500 compares favorably to its sister paper the Wishek
Star that distributes about the same number of papers each week.
The Tribune sends 25 percent of its papers to readers out of state.
Editor Tony Bender said, "It is an indication that hometown
ties run deep. If people live away for decades, they are still concerned
about Ashley. They donate to fundraisers and support the community.
"They are willing to buy a better product (the newspaper)
and spend $35 a year for a subscription. That also shows that their
support of the community stretches across the country."
Robinson said that the growth of daily circulation brought about
a silent revolution. They broke down the remoteness and isolation
of life on the sparsely settled prairie, brought urban ways and
attitudes to rural people and exerted a pervasive conservative influence
upon the thinking of a population with a long tradition of radicalism.
The (Fargo) Forum, the Grand Forks Herald, the Minot Daily News
and the Bismarck Tribune reach beyond their own retail trading zone,
and Robinson said, the large dailies restrict circulation of weekly
newspapers in the smaller trading centers.
In 1910 the state had a dozen daily papers--two each in Fargo,
Grand Forks, Jamestown, Minot and Valley City and one each in Bismarck
and Devils Lake. Within a few years, the cities that had two papers
each had only one.
Roy P. Johnson, a veteran Forum reporter, stressed the importance
of dailies. "They are the herald, the band and the drum that
make the noise for a city and keep it before the rest of the country.
They shout and exult over its accomplishments, howl down the critics
and often growl at those citizens who hurt the city. They put the
city's best foot forward." That can also apply to the role
of weeklies in the state.
Most United States newspapers are now publicly owned, and according
to Publishers' Auxiliary, circulation and readership is in a downward
Stanley Schwartz, Publishers' Auxiliary editor, said, "Even
if you're on the right track, if you're standing still, eventually
you'll get run over."
Newspapers in their struggle to stay alive have advanced from hand-set
lead type, to linotype typesetting, to Compugraphic phototypesetters
to plain-paper typesetting and electronic layout programs often
referred to as desktop publishing.
The number of weeklies in North Dakota between 1960 and 2001 has
steadily declined but at a slower rate than in earlier decades.
The number of dailies did not vary except in 1972 when one more
daily started up, but it only survived until 1975.
Year Dailies Weeklies
1960 10 106
1970 10 98
1980 10 90
1990 10 84
2001 10 80
Publishers' Auxiliary predicts a slow continual decline in print
newspaper readershsip, a result, in part, of news appearing on hundreds
Bender said, "Right now the actual paper newspaper is more
efficient to read than on a slow clunky bulky computer. You can
page through a newspaper faster and even a laptop with a great screen
still is no improvement over a paper."
"However, as technology improves, it will be a great opportunity
for newspapers to explore the Internet and reach a generation that
might otherwise not be touched by a print newspaper."
"The bottom line is that professional news reporting is always
going to be crucial in a democracy. Truth and an unwavering willingness
to tell and hear the truth, provides hope and initiates change,"
Reprinted with permission of the Ashley Tribune.