Nebraska Newspapers: Digitizing Nebraska's History

Publishing History of Newspapers in Nebraska

The first newspaper published in Nebraska was a weekly military journal published by the garrison stationed at Ft. Atkinson, in present day Washington County. Described in the December 10, 1822 edition of the Missouri Intelligencer as a "...manuscript, on a royal sheet, elegantly and correctly executed in point of chirography; and in point of original matter not exceeded by the first eastern publications." The newspaper, along with the fort, did not survive very long. Fort Atkinson was terminated in 1827 and no copies of its newspaper are known to exist today.

Thirty years later, with the opening of Nebraska Territory in 1854, newspapers helped to boost and to develop the new region. The first of these, the Nebraska Palladium, declared on July 15th, "This paper will be strenuously devoted to the support of the great interests involved in the early settlement of this rich, beautiful, and desirable county. It will be an earnest advocate of the immediate establishment of those industrial, social, political, and religious institutions which can avail a permanence to society."

Although it was titled the Nebraska Palladium, there was not a press in the Territory to print the newspaper. Therefore, the first issues were printed on a press in St. Mary, Iowa, a settlement across the Missouri River opposite Bellevue.

A critic of Nebraska's territorial newspapers characterized them as being "rough and pugnacious, but withal manly and efficient." They drew their subscribers mainly from the east and were organs of town companies with a vested interest in seeing Nebraska settled. These early newspapers bear little resemblance to the newspapers of today. Headlines were uncommon, photographs were not a standard feature, and wire news was virtually non-existent. A typical issue consisted of four pages, the first of which was devoted to poetry and articles taken from eastern papers. The third and fourth pages carried mostly advertising. Local news and editorial comment, "puff practice shamelessly" according to one historian, appeared on page two. Produced in an era and a place where few printed materials were available, these newspapers provided a sense of community and a cultural influence for the newly arrived inhabitants of Nebraska Territory.

The mortality rate of the early newspapers was high as competition among editors was intense. The above-mentioned Nebraska Palladium lasted less than a year, suspending operations in April 1855. Some publications, however, have continued a long and healthy existence until today, guided in their formative years by Nebraska's earliest political leaders. Robert Furnas, founder of Brownville's first newspaper, the Nebraska Advertiser, championed the horticultural and agricultural possibilities of Nebraska soil, as well as his own Republican party views. Although the Advertiser doesn't exist today, the Nebraska Farmer, an agricultural journal which still appears monthly, was founded by Furnas in 1859. J. Sterling Morton, the promoter of Arbor Day, edited the Nebraska City News to reflect his political views in support of the Democratic party. It, along with the Falls City Journal, are the only two newspapers among the two hundred newspapers currently being published in the state with roots in the territorial period.

Having a political ax to grind was commonplace for Furnas, Morton, and the majority of Nebraska's newspaper editors. William Jennings Bryan, first an editor for the Omaha World-Herald, split with that newspaper to trumpet the Populist cause in his own newspaper, The Commoner. Willa Cather's first published writings appeared in a newspaper, the Nebraska State Journal, while she attended the University of Nebraska. Her views of late 19th century popular culture were reflected in her reviews as a drama critic.

Special interests of all kinds were reflected in newspapers seeking subscribers who shared the views and/or the background of the publisher. Temperance/prohibition publications, ethnic newspapers, the foreign language press, and women's rights newspapers thrived because an audience welcomed them.

The growth of the newspaper industry paralleled the development of the state. As settlement pushed westward, most communities could boast of having at least one newspaper. Bigger towns often had two, one espousing Democratic views, the other, Republican. (In the 1890s and early 1900s, some towns had room for a third newspaper that supported the Populist Party.) By 1920, 623 newspapers were being published in Nebraska. This was the peak of newspaper publishing in the state, as the industry began a gradual decrease in the number of publications.

Economic hardships in the 1920s and 1930s caused some newspapers to close shop. Other factors contributing to the disappearance of small town newspapers included the decline of the rural population; the appearance of other forms of communication, particularly radio and television; and the rise of metropolitan newspapers.

Today there are about 200 newspapers covering Nebraska news. They continue to provide cohesiveness and to reflect the political, economic, and social thinking of their towns and time.

As one historian has summarized:

"We are glad to believe that every paper in Nebraska has a place in its history, and that no other agency — not even the great corporations with all their wealth and farseeing enterprise, not even the governing men and statesmen who have labored to give Nebraska position, influence, and fame — has wielded a greater influence for the prosperity and importance of the State, than the cloud of news print which every week settles down among its busy population."

Early Nebraska Journalists

William Jennings Bryan

Three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan was born in Illinois in 1860 and moved to Nebraska in 1887 where he was elected to Congress in 1890. Bryan served from 1894 to 1896 as editor of the Omaha World-Herald, using this position to further his political agenda. In 1896, backed by the Populist agrarian movement, Bryan ran for president of the United States, but was defeated by the Republican nominee William McKinley. Bryan was nominated for president again in 1900 but was defeated. After this defeat, Bryan in 1901 founded The Commoner in Lincoln to voice his political views. Bryan again ran unsuccessfully for president in 1908. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson named Bryan as secretary of state. He continued to publish The Commoner until 1923.

Willa Cather

Born in Virginia in 1873, Willa Cather moved with her family to Nebraska in 1883. While attending the University of Nebraska, Cather began her career as a journalist writing a column and reviewing plays for the Nebraska State Journal. She also served as the managing editor of The Hesperian and associated for a brief time with the Lincoln Courier. Following her graduation in 1895, Cather moved to Pittsburgh to work on Home Monthly. In 1906 she moved to New York where she joined the editorial staff of McClure's Magazine, eventually becoming managing editor. Cather's career as a novelist began with the publication of Alexander's Bridge in 1912. She is remembered for My Ántonia (1918), A Lost Lady (1923) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Cather received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours.

Robert W. Furnas

Orphaned at the age of eight, Robert W. Furnas (1824-1905) held a succession of jobs in Ohio, including the editorship of the Whig newspaper the Times, before moving to the Nebraska territory in 1856. Furnas settled in Brownville and began publishing the Nebraska Advertiser and the Nebraska Farmer. The Nebraska Farmer was Nebraska's first agricultural periodical and is still published today. Furnas was elected to the territorial legislature where he wrote legislation establishing the Nebraska Board of Agriculture. He was the first president of the agriculture board, the first president of the Nebraska State Historical Society, a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska and one of the founders of Arbor Day. In 1872, Furnas was the Republican nominee for governor and easily defeated his Democratic opponent. Not seeking re-election in 1874, Furnas remained a leading Nebraska booster.

Gilbert M. Hitchcock

The son of a prominent Omaha family, Gilbert Monell Hitchcock was born in 1859. Hitchcock began his career as a lawyer, but soon left that field to establish the independent Omaha Daily World in 1885. In 1889, Hitchcock bought the Omaha Herald and merged the two papers to form the Omaha World-Herald, which today is Nebraska's largest and Omaha's only daily newspaper. Hitchcock served as editor of the World-Herald until 1892. After abandoning its independent beginning, the World-Herald became strongly Democratic and remained so until Hitchcock's death. Hitchcock was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives three times, serving from 1902-1904 and 1906-1910. He then served as U.S. senator, winning elections in 1910 and 1916. Hitchcock served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where he supported the League of Nations. Hitchcock was publisher of the Omaha World-Herald until his death in 1934.

John Alexander MacMurphy

John Alexander MacMurphy was born in New Jersey in 1837 and moved to the Nebraska territory at age 20. MacMurphy served in the Civil War and after receiving a medical discharge served for a time as a war correspondent. He returned to Nebraska in 1864 and opened a store in Omaha. MacMurphy then tried farming, but in 1869 became a local reporter for the Omaha Herald. In 1870 and 1871, he wrote a series of letters to the Omaha Republican during Gov. David Butler's impeachment trial under the pseudonym "Tip-Top". In 1871, he bought the Blair Times and in 1872 he bought the Nebraska Herald. The Herald, Plattsmouth's Republican newspaper, was one of the oldest and most influential in the state. After leaving the Herald, he bought the Schuyler Sun. In 1886, he sold the Sun and bought the Wahoo Independent and the Wahoo Tribune, consolidating the two papers into The Wahoo Wasp. He left the Wasp in 1888 and the same fall founded a stock paper in South Omaha called the Hoof and Horn. MacMurphy was influential in state politics and involved in the founding of the State Press Association, serving as secretary in 1873 and president in 1878.

Will M. Maupin

Will M. Maupin's Nebraska newspaper career spanned more than sixty years and included work at a number of newspapers across the state. Born in Missouri in 1863, Maupin began his Nebraska newspaper career in 1886 at the Falls City Journal. Maupin wrote the popular "Limnings" column — a series of anecdotes, editorials and poems — for the Omaha World-Herald and later published a book of the same name. Maupin was a friend and supporter of William Jennings Bryan and began working on Bryan's The Commoner in 1901. Maupin served as State Labor Commissioner from 1909 to 1911. By 1918, Maupin had moved to Gering, where he established the Gering Midwest and served as director of the Bureau of Publicity under the Nebraska Conservation and Welfare Commission. He served as the first custodian of the Scotts Bluff National Monument in the 1920s. He then returned to Omaha to work for the Omaha Bee, writing a column similar to "Limnings" called "Sunny Side Up." In 1934, Maupin ran successfully for the State Railway Commission. After his six-year term expired, Maupin returned to newspapering, editing the Clay County Sun until his death in 1948.

Julius Sterling Morton

Nebraska booster and Arbor Day co-founder J. Sterling Morton was born in New York and moved to Nebraska in 1854. Morton was editor of the Nebraska City News, a publication he used to promote the growth of Nebraska. Morton was appointed acting governor of the Nebraska Territory in 1858. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland appointed Morton U.S. secretary of agriculture, making Morton the first cabinet member from west of the Missouri River. After serving four years as secretary of agriculture, Morton returned to Nebraska City where he published a weekly journal The Conservative. He also wrote for Chicago newspapers, served as a Washington representative for the Burlington railroad and helped to establish the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Edward Rosewater

Edward Rosewater, Republican politician and editor of the Omaha Bee, was born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in 1841. At age 13, he immigrated with his family and later served under generals Fremont and Pope in the Civil War. Moving to Omaha in 1863, Rosewater was the Western Union manager, Associated Press agent and a correspondent for several eastern daily newspapers. In 1871, Rosewater founded the Omaha Bee, which under his guidance grew into the leading Republican newspaper in the Midwest. The Bee supported progressive ideas such as creation of a school board for the Omaha Public Schools and direct election of senators, but it opposed women's suffrage. In 1919, the Bee published a series of sensational stories of racial incidents in Omaha. Rosewater served on the Republican National Committee and was organizer for the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898. Rosewater ran twice for the U.S. Senate, both times unsuccessfully.