(originally published 12/27/2019)
Last week’s look at the 1918 Kansas City Times Christmas edition showed how, despite the passing of a century, there is much that is the same in the events, themes, and poignant moments that are part of the holiday season here. This week looks at something that has changed dramatically, and permanently – the local newspaper. The year 1919 turns out to provide a good snapshot of the heyday of the newspaper business, as well as a good opportunity to highlight some fine contemporary journalism, for your further reading.
First, keep in mind that Kansas City’s newspaper culture dates back at least to the 1850s. Since then, there have been more newspapers printed here than can fairly be counted in Kansas City, Missouri alone. At one time, practically every town in America had its own paper, and the towns around Kansas City were no exception. Included here is but a sample chosen to demonstrate the amazing diversity of voices we heard in those long-ago newspapers.
Still published today, the Kansas City Call began in 1919 to serve Kansas City’s African-American population. The Kansas City Public Library has posted a thorough summary of the Call’s distinguished history in its series on the Pendergast Years, which I encourage everyone to read (see link below). The Call was just one of 22 similar papers in print at the time. Of the three I am familiar with – the Call, the Kansas City Sun, and the Rising Son – their content is essentially the same as the mainstream, white population-focused Kansas City Times of the same period. Each has a balanced mix of everything the 20th century newspaper became. They covered current affairs and local news, and interspersed the pages with bits on social happenings and plenty of advertisements demonstrating the vibrancy of their respective community.
It seems almost every ethnic group had its own publications, with newspapers published in the native language, to help in the transition from an old life to a new one. The Italian and French communities each had at least one newspaper, the Swedish had at least three, the Germans four. The Jewish community had several in 1919, including the Jewish Chronicle, still published today. The Westside has had many Spanish-language newspapers over the years, but in 1919, there was El Cosmipolito, which billed itself as “the newspaper for Mexicans.” An academic article (see link below) by Dr. Michael Smith of the University of Oklahoma provides a detailed history of the El Cosmipolito and its importance to the Mexican community who had come to Kansas City since the days of the Santa Fe Trail, and came now for work on the railroads, in the steel plants, and in the farm fields. (If you follow the hyper-link, be sure to click “translate the page.”
From the beginning of the 20th century until the onset of World War II, social reform was the focus of many newspapers. There were papers for Baptists and Catholics, for Republicans and Democrats. For the ranchers, the meat packers and the oilmen. For members of the U.S. Army, the local labor unions, and even the Socialist Party. The Workers World began in 1919 as a weekly publication of the Socialist Party in Kansas City. The editors (one originally from Wichita), went on to be prominent figures in the national Community Party. The publication changed as the party itself transitioned after World War I, but the Marxisst Internet Archives site (link below) provides access to all the 1919 issues but one.
The next time I hear someone claim to have captured the essence of “Missouri values,” or any other place-based attempt to narrowly define identity, I will think of these wonderful, wide-ranging newspapers and the voices they raised for their communities. And while I miss many of the qualities of a good daily newspaper, and still believe we’d be the better for keeping that brand of journalism in the mix, I have to tip my hat to the 21st century, and an internet that provides a place for those wide-ranging voices.