Journalists have long embraced a vision of the press as an engine of freedom, a forum through which publics access the knowledge necessary to be effective citizens, debate policy, and hold the powerful to some measure of accountability. As the news media have entered into a prolonged crisis—one primarily arising out of the American media’s longstanding reliance on advertising revenues to cover the costs of journalism—there is growing evidence that democracy is faltering as well. News gathering is being replaced by punditry, and the journalists who once monitored and made public the workings of government are giving way to armies of public relations professionals. Content is everywhere, but reliable information on public affairs increasingly difficult to come by.
But journalism is not merely a precondition for democracy—the raw material, as it were, that fuels debate and gives shape and some measure of transparency to the public realm. Journalism, at its best, is a democratic medium in itself, seeking to erase divisions between media and audiences, giving space to diverse voices and helping to knit together a sphere of publics.
Early newspaper editors saw themselves as facilitating a public dialogue in which they might shape discourse by selecting the most significant reports or reprinting particularly telling arguments but where, in theory at least, all citizens had access not only to the physical newspaper (to read, whether individually or in communal settings) but also to its columns. When William Manning wrote “The Key of Liberty” in 1798, arguing for the laboring many to organize to defend their liberties against the powerful few, and sent it to the newspaper he subscribed to for publication, he was acting well within the norms of his era. While it was not published, the editor felt compelled to offer an explanation (poor health made it impossible to give the manuscript the necessary editorial attention—he died a few months later). Editors even (or especially) opened their columns on matters of urgent public safety, such as the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, when the Federal Gazette opened its columns to citizens and doctors alike, offering information on the epidemic’s progress and diametrically opposed views on the most effective form of treatment.
This tradition continued well into the nineteenth century. Newspapers regularly published letters, essays, and poems from their readers. Readers expected to have some voice in their newspapers and expected editors to be deeply engaged in community and democratic life. This could and often did lead to vituperative partisanship, but dialogue hardly disappeared. Not only did many readers take more than one paper or peruse competing organs at clubs and taverns, but opposing views were often published in the editorial columns—if only to provide a foil for the editor’s dissection.
This discursive practice gradually eroded, displaced by commercialized newspapers and magazines more in the business of selling audiences to advertisers than in facilitating an engaged citizenry. Lengthy political essays and the minutes of legislative proceedings gave way to serialized fiction and human interest stories. Politics was increasingly relegated to the editorial page and public life was filtered and condensed by a corps of professional journalists who gradually became detached from the lives of the many—trained professionals more accustomed to following elites than giving voice to the marginalized and powerless.
But even as metropolitan dailies became increasingly commercialized, more democratic models persisted, particularly in the foreign-language and labor press that served the country’s predominantly immigrant workers. Many of these newspapers not only relied upon readers for their content, but were structurally accountable to them as well. The Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung, for example, was owned by local unions, political clubs, mutual aid societies, choirs, and other groups that met every six months to review the paper’s performance, decide policy, and elect an editor and business manager. The paper, published daily for most of its run (1877–1924), had a small editorial staff, relying on readers and community institutions to provide its news reports and much of its commentary. Readers regularly replaced editors, changed the paper’s political affiliation (from the Socialist Labor party in its early years to anarchist, and then to the Socialist party for its final 14 years), and when readers believed the paper had become too focused on elections and political theory, demanded more emphasis on the local community and labor struggles. When the entire editorial staff was arrested in May 1886, readers such as former McCormick Reaper worker Gus Belz went to the Arbeiter-Zeitung offices and took up the editorial work themselves. German Bakers Local 10 taxed its members a dollar each to help carry the newspaper through the emergency.
Working-class newspapers were an integral part of their communities. Editors spoke at local events and made their offices and printing facilities available to community organizations. Readers wrote much of the papers’ content, assisted with distribution and fund-raising, and often had a direct voice in their management. Many newspapers published lists of donors and subscriptions received in each issue (building a sense of community among supporters, but also verifying that those collecting in the paper’s behalf could be relied upon to promptly forward the funds).
In the early 1900s, the Chicago Daily Socialist boasted that it had the largest reporting staff of any newspaper in the city—its 30,000 readers. Like other working-class newspapers, it regularly urged readers to write for the paper. Two years after the daily was founded, the editors noted that they received enough letters and poetry from readers to fill the entire paper each day. But more labor news was needed, and more reports on working and living conditions and union organizing. Similarly, the Croatian-language Radnik published detailed instructions for readers’ contributions. Radnik wanted news reports on working conditions, tyrannical foreman, union activities, and the activities of “semi-fascist” organizations such as the KKK, American Legion, and Rotary Club. Readers were also encouraged to send in more analytical articles on workers’ struggles, but were warned to “not repeat revolutionary phrases. Because it may happen that when you really need them you have exhausted them. The exposure of real facts brings better results than repeating slogans.”
This mutual interdependence between newspapers and reader-contributors was not always easy, particularly when conflicts occurred within the movement. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, readers of the Lithuanian-language Naujienos hotly debated whether to remain with the Socialist party or switch allegiance to the nascent Communists. Minute books of the Society of Blessed Lithuania, union locals, and other organizations document this debate, instructing their representatives on how to vote at the annual meetings of the publishing cooperative—a grand affair which included musical performances, a speech from the editor, and a business meeting before adjourning for a dance. When the Communists narrowly failed to oust editor Pijus Grigaitius at these meetings, they launched their own daily, Vilnis, which was similarly embedded in its own rich network of community institutions.
Such societies typically issued stock to union locals, mutual aid societies, workers’ choirs, party sections, and the like, and held regular meetings where editors reported on their efforts, editorial and business policies could be debated, and the editor could at least in theory be removed if readers were dissatisfied. Even if these editors were typically re-elected, the meetings served to reinforce an ethos of community control and to transform the nature of the relationship between readers (who often wrote on events they were involved in) and the journalists who served them.
Chicago was far from unique in this regard. Every major American city supported an array of foreign-language newspapers serving working-class readers in their native tongues, as did many smaller industrial towns. Pueblo, Colorado, for example, was home to two dozen foreign-language newspapers during the height of its steel boom. English-language dailies and weeklies were published in hundreds of cities and towns, and regional and national publications served more dispersed working class communities. The Industrial Workers of the World’s robust press relied on reader-contributors for its legendary cartoons and songs, as well as for its news reports—published in dozens of languages, from the weekly Industrial Worker (which also published vigorous debates on organizing strategy and union policy) to the daily Industrialisti, which served Finnish-speaking syndicalists and their communities for more than sixty years.
These publics were far from isolated or self-contained. Foreign-language labor dailies competed with more conservative publications, and many subscribers could also read English. Even as the Chicago Tribune regularly denounced the Arbeiter-Zeitung and other labor newspapers and called for their editors to be jailed or worse, its staff monitored the foreign-language newspapers and reported on what they saw. Similarly, the Arbeiter-Zeitung regularly commented upon reports from the English-language press (and from its German-language counterparts). The Tribune advertised its Sunday edition in the Arbeiter-Zeitung for several years, suggesting that they believed an appreciable number of its readers would be open to reading another newspaper.
Working-class newspapers not only served otherwise unmet informational needs, they served as examples of a more democratic media practice which provided their communities with forums in which they could debate the pressing issues facing their communities, shape a common response, and mobilize their participation in the broader society. They were building blocks in a public sphere that perhaps no longer exists, a political process that implicitly recognized a multiplicity of interests and provided spaces in which they could come together— simultaneously preserving their distinct identities and enabling them to take their place in the broader polity.
Such arrangements were hardly unique to the United States. There has long been a steady reciprocal flow of both publications and editors (and, of course, readers) across national borders and oceans. Examples of cooperative ownership of newspapers and other media can be found throughout the world to this day. Readers have long played a vital role in creating and sustaining their own literature, a role that has taken on increased prominence in recent years as community radio, cable television, offset printing, and the internet facilitate the growth of participatory media, lowering financial and technical barriers to entry (though not necessarily to engagement with broader publics).
Today, the working class press is but a shadow of its former self, as is the labor movement it serves. However, the patterns of collaboration, of participatory communication, that characterized these publications are still with us—in the ethnic and foreign-language press, in social media, in citizen-journalism initiatives. Groups such as the Media Mobilizing Project strive not merely to support organizing efforts through their productions, but to incorporate poor and working people into every aspect of their work and through that process to transform the consciousness of both the participants and audiences.
My suspicion is that it is the separation of communicators from audiences, the professionalization of an activity that is fundamental to our humanity, that is the anomaly. If we are to reinvigorate the public sphere—to build a truly democratic polity—we must establish not only a theoretical right to communicate but the practical means to do so, and at least the possibility of being heard, thereby reviving the intermediate publics and public spaces through which people were once brought into political discourse and action.
Jon Bekken is Professor of Communications at Albright College, co-author of The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First 100 Years, and co-editor of Radical Economics and Labor. A former editor of the Industrial Worker, he has published several scholarly articles on the history of the American working-class press, alternative journalism, newsboy unions, and related topics.
Victor Pickard, “Structural Collapse: The American Journalism Crisis and the Search for a Sustainable Future,” in Peter Berglez, Ulrika Olausson, and Mart Ots, eds., Sustainable Journalism: Journalism for a Sustainable Future and a Sustainable Future for Journalism, 351–66 (forthcoming).
Tanni Haas, “The Public Sphere as a Sphere of Publics: Rethinking Habermas's Theory of the Public Sphere,” Journal of Communication, 54 (March 2004), 178–84.
Michael Merrill and Sean Wilentz, eds., The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic Writings of William Manning, "A Laborer," 1747–1814 (1993).
David Paul Nord, “Readership as Citizenship in Late Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia," in ,Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers, by David Paul Nord (2001), 199–224. Mark A. Smith argues that the debate was more tightly managed, despite an appearance of open discourse. Mark A. Smith, “Andrew Brown's ‘Earnest Endeavor’: The Federal Gazette's Role in Philadelphia's Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 120 (Oct. 1996), 321–42.
Gerald J. Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century (1992).
Jon Bekken, “The Professionalization of Newsworkers in a Global Communication Community,” Ecquid Novi, 19 (1998), 24–33.
“Gus Belz Dead,” Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung, Oct. 10, 1888, p. 1–2; John B. Jentz, “Bread and Labor: Chicago’s German Bakers Organize,” Chicago History, 12 (Summer 1983), 29–31. See also my article Jon Bekken, “The First Anarchist Daily Newspaper: The Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung,” Anarchist Studies, 3 (Spring 1995), 3–23. All translations from Chicago’s foreign-language press are taken from the Chicago Foreign-Language Press Survey, now available online at http://flps.newberry.org/.
“A Call to the 30,000,” Chicago Daily Socialist, Jan. 21, 1908, p. 1; “Suggestions to Contributors,” Chicago Daily Socialist, March 7, 1908, p. 4. In practice the newspaper often fell short of this democratic ideal, an issue I discuss in Jon Bekken, “‘This Paper is Owned by Many Thousands of Workingmen and Women’: Contradictions of a Socialist Daily,” American Journalism, 10 (Winter-Spring 1993), 61–83.
“To Our Workers’ Correspondents: Instructions and Suggestions,” Radnik, Jan. 11, 1927; see also “To Our Correspondents,” Radnicka Straza, Oct. 14, 1914.
Jon Bekken, “The Working-Class Press at the Turn of the Century,” in William S. Solomon and Robert W. McChesney, eds., Ruthless Criticism: New Perspectives in U.S. Communication History (1993), 151–75.
Peter Cole, David Struthers, and Kenyon Zimmer, eds., Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW (2017); Joyce L. Kornbluh, ed., Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology (1964; 1998).
Mark Deuze, “Ethnic media, community media, and participatory culture,” Journalism, 7 (no. 3, 2006), 262–80. I offer an overview of alternative and participatory media in Jon Bekken, “Alternative Journalism,” Oxford Bibliographies in Communication (2015).
Peter N. Funke, Chris Robé, and Todd Wolfson, “Suturing Working Class Subjectivities: Media Mobilizing Project and the Role of Media Building a Class-Based Social Movement,” tripleC, 10 (no. 1, 2012), 16–29.