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In Arizona Territory Optimistic Frontier Editors Fueled the Newspaper Business

By Jane Eppinga
6/14/2017 • Wild West Magazine

The Weekly Arizonian was the first paper to appear, in March 1859.

John P. Clum, a former Indian agent who acquired the weekly Arizona Citizen in 1877 and added a daily edition two years later, quit his job in 1880 to establish the Tombstone Epitaph that May. On the north side of Fremont between Third and Fourth streets he bought a town lot—today a parking lot. He had a hand-cranked printing press shipped from San Francisco to Tucson, then on to Tombstone by oxcart. “I got busy and finally was fortunate enough to contract for the immediate erection on our lot of a light skeleton frame measuring 20 feet by 40 feet,” he later wrote.“Hastening to Tucson, I purchased sufficient heavy canvas to serve as roof and walls for this temporary structure and had the canvas sewed to fit the dimensions of the frame in course of construction. Rushing back to Tombstone, the canvas was then stretched over and around the frame, and the Epitaph was provided with a shelter against the day of its birth. The equipment having arrived, it was not long before the interior of our canvas home presented all the earmarks of an efficient printing establishment.”

With a hefty dose of optimism, editors like Clum came to Arizona Territory armed only with a handpress and a case of type. They had to do everything from gathering the news to writing stories, assembling the type, laying it on the press bed and running off copies. A good editor operating a hand lever might turn out 300 copies an hour. The operation was financially precarious, and the readership parsimonious. Only a sublime faith kept the frontier editor on the job.

In 1856, two years after the Gadsden Purchase opened up southern Arizona lands, mining engineers Charles Poston and Herman Ehrenberg organized the Sonora Exploring and Mining Co. and the Santa Rita Silver Mining Co., which shared expenses, including the purchase and transport of a printing press and the publication of a newspaper to publicize the district’s mining potential. They tapped editor Edward Cross to launch The Weekly Arizonian. At the time this land was part of sprawling Doña Ana County, New Mexico Territory, and Tucson and Tubac were the only settlements of note in the western section. That first press arrived in Tubac in early January 1859. It was a Washington hand-lever press made by the Central Type Foundry and purchased in Ohio by William Wrightson, a director of the Santa Rita Silver Mining Co. In the first issue of the Arizonian (Vol. 1, No. 1, dated March 3, 1859) Cross stated the paper would be devoted to the area’s interests and the development of its resources.

The biggest expense of the frontier newspaper was a printing press, which could cost a couple of hundred dollars for a used model or several thousand for a new one. A paper cutter could run as high as $1,000. Then there was the cost of type, newsprint and ink. If a publisher hired an editor, he might receive a starting salary of $20 to $40 a week, as in the case of John Wasson at the Arizona Citizen (renamed the Tucson Citizen in 1901), which published its first edition on October 15, 1870. Tombstone Prospector owner Stanley C. Bagg said in October 1888 that he paid $150 a month to his press foreman. Louis C. Hughes, who in 1877 began publishing a newspaper that had a number of name changes before becoming the Arizona Daily Star, claimed to pay his top editors $300 per month; however, he only paid editor George Kelly $21 per week in 1887. Compositors (aka printers’ devils) worked by the “em”—the width of a block of type, or about one-sixth of an inch. Male compositors got 50 cents per thousand ems, while females received about half that much. Publishers often failed to meet their payroll. In 1913 Frank Wells bought The Williams News and was soon accosted by an irate, drunken and armed employee who demanded his back wages. After Wells handed over the cash, the desperate employee tried to sell him the gun.

Frontier presses were blatantly political, and much of their livelihood depended on the largesse of a political party. Tombstone’s first newspaper, the Democrat-leaning, cowboy-backing Nugget, launched in October 1879. The next year Clum’s Epitaph provided a Republican counterpoint. The Nugget ceased operations in 1882, but on March 7, 1887, merchant Bagg, hotelier Joseph Pascholy, cabinetmaker Andrew Ritter, Dr. E.C. Dunn and Mayor Charles N. Thomas launched the Democrat Daily Prospector. In 1888 Bagg bought the Epitaph press, type and building from W.J. Cheney for $600. The next year Bagg bought out Pascholy for $100, Thomas for $190 and Dunn for $225 to become sole owner and editor. He changed the paper’s name to the Tombstone Prospector in 1891. Bagg became so disgruntled with fellow Democrats that from October 2 to November 7, 1888, he leased the paper for $500 to the Republican Central Committee.

While editors and publishers initially insisted that subscribers and advertisers pay up front, they soon learned that to stay in business they would have to operate on the credit system. Hard currency was in short supply on the frontier. However, initial subscriptions to the Arizonian were $3 a year and had to be paid in cash. Advertising rates for one square of 10 lines or less were $2 for one insertion, $4 for three insertions, $10 for a quarter year and $30 for one year. Most likely, though, founding editor Cross was paid in produce, beef, chicken, pork, etc. Delivery of the paper was at best haphazard and frequently late.

Few Arizona Territory newspapers prior to 1900 counted more than 500 paid subscribers. In 1877 George Tyng, editor of Yuma’s Arizona Sentinel, counted only 43 paying subscribers, some of whom were three months in arrears. His advertising income totaled only $70 per month. John H. Marion, editor and publisher of the Prescott Morning Courier, had a penchant for sarcasm. He made a special appeal to advertisers on June 5, 1869: “Our foreman says he must have a cradle for his baby, a new set of teeth for his old cow, a few broomsticks for his better half and a glass eye for himself.” Nevertheless, in 1886 four Tucson papers—the Arizona Citizen, the Arizona Daily Star and Weekly Star, and the Arizona Mining Index— all claimed circulations of more than 1,000. In 1895 The Southwestern Stockman in Wilcox boasted it had the widest circulation in the territory—2,980. In 1890 and 1891 The Arizona Republican in Phoenix claimed it had two to three times the circulation of any other newspaper in the country.

Newspapers frequently changed ownership. An argument Weekly Arizonian owner-editor Cross had with prominent Tubac citizen Sylvester Mowry led to a bloodless duel between the two men on July 8, 1859. Less than two weeks later Mowry and William Oury purchased The Weekly Arizonian for $2,500, which included the press and type, and moved the paper to Tucson, publishing the first issue from there on August 4. Around 1871 the newspaper sold its printing press to Carlos Velasco, publisher of the Spanish weekly Los Dos Republicas, for $100. He later sold the press to Artemus E. Fay, who took it to Tombstone to launch the Nugget on October 2, 1879. In 1887 Tom Weedin sold the Arizona Weekly Enterprise in Florence for $3,000. In Phoenix in the mid-1890s The Arizona Gazette went on the auction block for $6,750, and The Enterprise brought $5,000 at a sheriff’s sale.

What really kept the frontier newspapers afloat was the subsidy from government printing jobs. When Arizona’s first territorial officials arrived in Prescott in 1864, they brought with them a printing press and type, with which they established the Fort Whipple Arizona Miner along with an appropriation to print the laws and notices of the territory. Federal policy allowed the secretary considerable discretion in assigning public printing, which was supposed to be fairly distributed throughout the territorial papers. He could not pay more than $1 per folio page, but he could advance as much as 20 percent of the cost. The first legislature spent $1,121 to print its proceedings and an additional $2,994.75 for the session laws. When the capital moved to Tucson in November 1867, the territorial legislature allotted $3,500 to $4,000 for government printing to the Arizona Citizen. In 1887 the Prescott Morning Courier collected $15,000 for federal printing, $500 for printing the school law, $4,000 for the new territorial code and another $4,000 for official reports. There was considerable criticism over the lack of accountability in the distribution of these funds. When the onetime federally appropriated funds dried up, so did many of the newspapers.

In the 1890s the advent of the linotype machine made the mass production of newspapers possible. Other technological advances included the telephone and the typewriter. Electricity converted the presses from manual to power production. No longer were newspapers subservient to the political machines. One thing did not change—the intense desire of editors, publishers and reporters to provide readers with the news of Arizona.


For further reading see Those Old Yellow Dog Days, by William Henry Lyon.

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.

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