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The Rise and Fall of The Journal Gazette

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-04-08


Scott Bushnell's history of The Journal Gazette, Hard News, Heartfelt Opinions, has such an awful, rah-rah title that you fear it's going to be one of those flattering, vanity publications that companies spit out about their past, usually coinciding with centennial celebrations or important milestones. It's not, thank God; it's a highly entertaining, clear-eyed account of the paper's curious history, but you have to wonder what the marketing people were thinking when they printed the copy on the book jacket. "How to print the news, raise hell, and really care about the community" is the tag line, and it's not only laughably gung-ho and civic-minded, it's patently inaccurate. Much of The Journal Gazette's history was dominated by pugnacious SOBs who disdained the valor of common-man championing for the slightly less altruistic purpose of making money and attaining power. A more appropriate tag would be, "How to get political power, tell outrageous lies, and cut the throat of the competition," which probably wouldn't sit too well with those wanting to romanticize the paper's past, but it'd be a better reading of what Bushnell's book is about. And what American journalism has always been about, which is why stories about newspapers are so much fun.

There's a great quote at the beginning of this book from George Jean Nathan, which states that "the path of sound credence is through the thick forest of skepticism," and if that sounds like a handy journalistic mantra, it also works for book reviewers. Hard News, Heartfelt Opinions was published with support of The Journal Gazette, with the encouragement of the current publisher, so it's almost impossible not to be somewhat skeptical that the end product would be tidied up. But for the most part Bushnell’s maintains a historian's integrity in recounting The Journal Gazette's story, and he doesn't shy away from showing the unpleasant and harsh truths about the paper and the city. I learned more about our city's dispiriting racial record from this book than from any other source. Bushnell pays particular attention to the Civil War era, when journalism really took root in Fort Wayne, and he gives an unbiased view of the prevailing racism that existed in the city at the time. While there were pockets of abolitionists and equality-believing citizens in Fort Wayne, it must be recorded that Stephen Douglas carried the county in the 1860 election, and that an effigy of Lincoln was burned at the courthouse. Newspapers carried editorials of such racist vitriol that they are truly shocking to readers of modern sensibilities. Fort Wayne was a feared "Copperhead" stronghold, and the military kept a wary eye on the city while the war raged on and on. The author also explains the social difficulties that German-born citizens experienced at the advent of World War I, when Wilson declared that all German Americans should be considered "enemy aliens" and forced to register with the government. Fort Wayne had such a huge German population that the coming war engulfed the city in widespread distrust and paranoia. It's fascinating to read how by chronicling a newspaper's history, Bushnell also provides insights into the curious development of the city and the make-up of its people.

It's hard not to respect the titanic amount of research and scholarship that went into this book. Bushnell navigates the confusing, labyrinthian origins of Fort Wayne newspapers, and does a great job of trying to keep track of the various loyalties that many of the editors/publishers held. John Dawson, of The Fort Wayne Times, was, at varying times, a Whig, a Know-Nothing, a Republican, a Democrat, and a Union supporter. It seems obvious that political influence and journalism went hand in hand, and it's amusing to discover that the papers were so nakedly, unabashedly partisan. I was surprised to discover how many newspapermen were rewarded with government positions, merely because their newspaper carried the day. I also never realized how centrally important Indiana was to the national political scene, especially toward the latter half of the nineteenth century, when a few notable Hoosiers found themselves on the national presidential ticket.

No matter how much I liked the book, however, I can't help but think that I'm reading about some long-ago institution (like Harvester) that once mattered to Fort Wayne but is now virtually irrelevant. Bushnell attempts a few predictions about the future of The Journal Gazette in the latter pages of the book, and his guarded optimism seems wholly unwarranted. The decline in the newspaper business is undeniable, unstoppable; the average age of a newspaper reader is 55, and going up, and there are no new readers. Bushnell seems to believe that the Inskeep family will keep the Journal vibrant and vital, and even with the challenges ahead, the paper will compete with the Internet and survive. This seems impossibly optimistic. Newspapers nationwide were caught flat-footed by the arrival of the Internet age, and they've been struggling ever since to catch up. The News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne's other paper, has been on life support for years now, and I can't imagine how it will survive another decade. This is a transformative time for newspapers, and I'm afraid when it's complete The Journal Gazette and The New York Times and The Indianapolis Star will be nothing more than quaint relics from an earlier era.

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