Local Newspapers Were The Original Social Media

Local newspapers were the original social media. It reminds me of how, in early America, even personal letters would get published in the newspaper and sometimes without consent. A letter coming from a faraway friend or family member might mean news for the whole community. Or else it would make for great scandalous material your opponent might get a hold of (read about America’s founding era).

Privacy wasn’t always highly prized in centuries past. What was going on in your life was everyone’s business and so everyone had a right to know what you’ve been doing, as you had a right to know what everyone else has been doing. Apparently, you were wise to write your letters as if anyone might read them. That is still wise advice in writing anything today, something we’re regularly reminded of when some Tweet comes back to haunt someone as news.

More generally, newspapers were where people looked to learn about anything and everything, as there were few other sources of information. A daily newspaper told you what was going on in your little world and indeed the focus was almost entirely local. Whatever was even mildly significant would get reported. Look at that old newspaper — they really packed in the articles with small print and few pictures.

This still can be seen in some small communities. When my family and I were traveling out West, we passed through an isolated Indian Reservation, probably with a small population. There was a correspondingly small local newspaper. All the articles were about such things as a teen winning an award at school, the public library having purchased some new books, the ladies knitting club planning a bake sale for next Wednesday, etc.

This kind of news is only newsworthy because, in a tight-knit community, everyone is familiar with everyone else. These people are your neighbors and coworkers, friends and family. They go to the same church you do. Their kids go to school with your kids. You see them at the post office, bank, and store. It’s common knowledge about what goes on at Mrs. Jeffries’ card club, who attends, and the kind of person Mrs. Jeffries is. It’s part of a web of local information, what might be called gossip.

Now we have social media for that purpose where you keep close tabs on those you personally know. I might have little sense of what is going on in the lives of my brothers and their families if not for their Facebook postings, despite all of us living close to one another. It could be amusing to publish a monthly newspaper for reporting of family news where all the articles are based on the details gathered from social media, although I think there would only be one edition of the publication before everyone blocked me.

* * *

by Johnny Joo

1940s painesville ohio newspaper

One thing I found interesting was that stories were published about such mundane things, such as – “Mrs. Jeffries Is Hostess To Club” where it goes on to tell about Mrs. Ralph Jeffries and her card club, which she had hosted at her house on a Wednesday night. A following article talks about a family hosting a Sunday dinner at their home.

1940s painesville ohio newspaper

1940s painesville ohio newspaper

The paper also throws out a whole bunch of personal information about people:

“Miss Suzanne Miller of Cleveland has returned to her home after spending two weeks at the home of her grandmother, Mrs. H. G. Early, and her cousin Alice Young, of 111 E. Jackson St.”

“Mr. and Mrs. George Yager are now residing at their newly furnished apartment at 236 Courtland St.”

and many more to go along with those ^

If things like this were shared today, people would be throwing a fit (never mind that people share their entire lives on social media)

5 thoughts on “Local Newspapers Were The Original Social Media

  1. The current dominant system operates as if the past consists only of the images they own and/or show. as a result ‘narratives” are formed then erased as need be.

    Old media as social media can be understood relative to what communities then thought of as important, gossip (or both) and so on.

    There’s a photo of a theater piece from Paris, circa, 1920-25 with many of the heavyweight Moderns participating and the backdrop was a large fake front page that proclaimed: Millionaire buys Atlantic ocean!

    In the current moment we are breathlessly told it’s all happening “now” and it’s all “new” and “shocking” – (see Jia Tolentino, or breathless headlines about Trump’s corruption or how some “new” HBO “event” is the “newest thing” – until planned obsolescence takes over).

    Of course it’s also crucial to keep in mind there used to be hundreds of newspapers to spread “social media” and many papers had morning and evening editions.

    Hunter S. Thompson got to NYC in 1960-61 and had a dozen papers to apply to for freelance work and as a not unimportant side issue, he was able to just walk into the news room and talk to people who were for the mos tpart willing to talk and help.

    Try that today and it’s like trying to break into a bank.

    Regardless, the presentation may have changed but it’s still the same old same old.

    • Human society doesn’t change as much as we think it does. That is an insight that I come back to again and again. It’s hard to look much at history to realize how familiar it can feel.

      As one might get there ‘news’ from multiple online sources, in the past people got there news from many newspapers. Even the tiniest town might have 2 or 3 newspapers in the local area. Here in Iowa City over a century ago there was a population of about 7,000 residents and, as I recall, about a dozen newspapers.

      Then radio and television came along. But even most of that media was also local for many decades. There used to be a massive amount of diverse local media. And it was almost entirely independent, not only mostly with a local focus but also owned and operated locally, much of it not being run for profit.

      There are differences. Yet there are many similarities. The main difference is that the world feels less localized now. But in some ways, I know more of what is going on in my surrounding community with internet access than I did before without it. I could be inundated with local info, if I allowed myself. I’ve even met local people on social media.

      • The illusion and/or marketing of “change” is based on, marketing and its needs but also on a kind of relative curve.

        An Enlightenment era philosophe can, I think, be forgiven for believing in “progress” as can someone looking back from say the middle of the last century – and yet, at the same time, plenty of smart people at the same moment shrugged in depressed resignation because the world was clearly still barbaric, and the only discernible differences were in the lethality of the means of destruction.

        A “smart phone” is not proof of civilization or advance.

        Especially if it’s being used to circulate the same old bs you can find on parchment or cunieform;-/

  2. Hi Mr. Steele.
    This is not a reply to today’s post. Not sure how else to communicate with you. I am interested in your thoughts on Andrew Yang. Would love to see a blog entry about him. Please consider. Thanks. Eric B.

    • Andrew Yang? I’m not sure I have strong opinions that are clearly formulated. I’m only superficially informed about him. What interests you about him? Are there any good pieces you’ve seen on him? I’ll keep it in mind and see if any thoughts develop on the matter.

      By the way, if you have general or off-topic comments/questions, post it on the Open Thread. It’s accessible by clicking on those three lines on the left side of the screen, assuming you’re looking at a computer screen rather than a smartphone.

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