National Newspaper Week

The CMU Libraries, and particularly the Clarke Historical Library, have a long and distinguished history of preserving and making Michigan newspapers available for research.

Newspapers have long been at the heart of American citizenship. A famed French visitor to the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s of the American pioneer settler;

…he is, in short, a highly civilized being, who consents, for a time, to inhabit the backwoods, and who penetrates into the wilds of the New World with the Bible, an axe, and a file of newspapers.

There is little doubt that Tocqueville’s comment about newspapers was correct. In 1836 Harriett Martineau, A British traveler who visited the United States and whose published account of her journey found little to like in America, wrote of Michigan newspapers:

At Ypsilanti, I picked up an Ann Arbor newspaper. It was badly printed but its content were pretty good; and it could happen nowhere out of America, that so raw a settlement as Ann Arbor, where there is difficulty in procuring decent accommodations, should have a newspaper.[1]

If a newspaper was part of the pioneer’s essential survival kit, no one accused them of being impartial. For example, in 1832, the Detroit Free Press, faced with reporting the defeat of the Democratic Congressional candidate it had endorsed, avoided printing anything about the election for three weeks. Eventually, the Free Press put the best possible partisan spin on the news by saying:

The Democratic Republicans can draw abundant consolation from the circumstances attending the campaign; from the certainty that they have effected an organization, and that they will hereafter be prepared at all times to meet the enemy and beat them.[2]

The tendency to spin the news often led to bitter personal rivalries between newspaper editors. On February 2, 1853, Wilbur Storey, was named editor of the Detroit Free Press. What led some to read his paper, aside from the local news and his ventures into sensationalism, was his ability to say meaner things with fewer words. In his first published editorial, he claimed that he desired to “cultivate relations of the utmost courtesy,” but within weeks of his arrival, he was embroiled in the first of many lawsuits brought on by his allegation that a rival editor had been imprisoned in the New York State penitentiary. When Storey received news of the lawsuit he responded in his paper by writing, “we have yet to learn that it is possible to libel a wretch who is the living personification of falsehood . . . a living, moving gangrene in the eyes of the community – a stench to the nostrils of decency.”

One of Storey’s opponents described him in a similarly courteous way:

…that he is insufferably egotistical, arrogant, self-sufficient, conceited, overbearing, and dictatorial. That he is without refinement, cultivation, tact, delicacy, good sense, or sound judgment. That he is oblivious of his work, wrong-headed to a degree, obtuse and tyrannical. But with these slight qualifications, he is quite considerable of a fellow[3]

It was in the twentieth century that historians came to appreciate the importance of newspapers. Who first said, “newspapers are the first draft of history,” or something like it, is hard to determine. Regardless of who said it first, they, and everyone who said it afterword had it right. For all the slanted stories, all of the mean-spirited prose, and the long list of faults, newspapers are America’s passion and printed collective memory. Americans still open the paper, even if they may do it metaphorically on a digital device, to learn about the day’s events.

The Clarke Historical Library has more than a half-century of Michigan newspapers preserved on microfilm and has made close to 40 percent of the Michigan newspaper titles freely available online. Just under 700,000 of those pages are available on the Clarke’s website.

To find these treasures of local history, and occasionally wonderfully vindictive prose, visit the Michigan Digital Newspaper Portal which is maintained by the Clarke Historical Library and connects individuals to all known digitized Michigan newspapers. In some cases, a fee may be charged to enter the relevant website while the CMU Libraries newspaper site, is free and maintained by the Clarke.

As long as Americans read their newspapers, the CMU Libraries will have a steady business making sure that those first drafts of history are preserved for future use.

1. Louis W. Doll, A History of the Newspapers of Ann Arbor, 1829-1920 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1959), 3 Storey, “living wretch” quote is Frank Angelo, On Guard, 69-70
2. Detroit Free Press, July 28, 1832, as quoted in Frank Angelo, On Guard: A History of the Detroit Free Press (Detroit: Detroit Free Press, 1981): 33.
3. Justin E. Walsh, To Print the News and Raise Hell: A Biography of Wilbur F. Storey, 129.

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