American-Statesman at 150: At turn of 19th century, Texas and Austin’s newspaper began to grow up
The first Austin newspaper to carry the hyphenated form “American-Statesman” on its masthead came out on Dec. 7, 1924.
Two stacked banner headlines reflected the split journalistic duties of the newly merged Sunday paper, which carried a mix of community and out-of-town news: “France Stamps Out Incipient Revolution” and “1,500 Expected to Sing Carols Christmas Morn.”
The oversized headlines, sometimes stacked three high, were meant to attract the eyes of passersby, whether the newspaper was offered for sale at a newsstand or by a newsboy on the streets.
Black-and-white photojournalism had arrived by the 1920s, but the photographs breaking up the gray columns of print were far outnumbered by advertising decorated with copious line drawings.
Separate sections were reserved for news, sports — Longhorns football scores often appeared above the fold on Page 1 — automobiles, society (which also encompassed arts and entertainment) and “want ads,” the kind of classified ads that were, until the digital age, the backbone of any newspaper’s profits.
As this newspaper reflects on its sesquicentennial through its periodic “American-Statesman at 150” series, which will culminate July 26, 2021, today our focus will be the second big chapter in that history, “Journey to the Center: 1880-1924.” During this period, the paper grew in size and sophistication, along with the city it served.
This particular 1924 Sunday paper, which combined the efforts of the notionally independent but co-owned morning American and evening Statesman dailies, is a bustling, busy effort with a good deal of regional, national and international news. It offers as much to please the eye as to instruct the mind. And it tells us a good deal about a state capital that, while still small for a city, was growing in size and sophistication.
By the 1920s, Austin’s population had grown to 35,000 people, smaller than its perennial rival up the road, Waco. Already car crazy, the city had paved many of its major roads, starting with Congress Avenue in 1905. Elsewhere in Austin, individual owners paid for paving in front of their properties as well as for their sidewalks, which to this day bear the names of the private contractors who laid them.
These spotty civic improvements were part of a nationwide “City Beautiful” movement, led locally by Alexander Penn Wooldridge, an attorney and bank president who served as mayor from 1909 to 1919. He helped lead the charge to clean up informal dumps that were scattered around the city; to improve health care via the modernized City Hospital; and to add schools, parks, libraries, water service, sewer lines, community centers, athletic centers, arts groups, women’s clubs and other civic amenities.
City leaders did not spread these improvements evenly or fairly. South Austin and, especially, East Austin lagged the rest of the city, as did other districts to the west and north that had served as African American freedom colonies after Emancipation, or those downtown that had become havens for refugees fleeing the chaotic Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).
Toward the center
Editorially, the 1924 Sunday paper was eons away from the first edition of the Democratic Statesman, explicitly the organ for the conservative Texas Democratic Party and the earliest ancestor of today’s American-Statesman, which was born July 26, 1871.
During its first 50 or so years, the paper grew rapidly and was altered extensively.
It expanded from four pages to 44 spread over five sections on its biggest days, a more than tenfold growth. A good deal of the new space was taken up with display advertising, which barely existed in the original Democratic Statesman (1871) or its offspring, the Daily Statesman (1880).
In the same period, the Statesman absorbed two rival newspapers, the short-lived Tribune (1903-14) and the more formidable American (1914-24). It moved into a new modern home at East Seventh and Brazos streets, which nuzzled up to the Driskill Hotel, a prime gathering spot for business, social and political leaders.
Along the way, the American-Statesman’s editorial stance became distinctly centrist. That evolution tracks a national movement among newspapers to become less tied to political parties and more “mainstream,” and therefore with much less obvious bias.
“The movement toward centrism and objectivity was greatly boosted by the creation of newspaper chains and syndicates in the early 20th century,” said Don Carleton, historian and founding director of the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, “with the Scripps-Howard chain being the primary mover. The Scripps chain organized the United Press news service and was a pioneer of syndicated news features and columns that had to be homogenized in content, generally apolitical and basically non-sensational — with exceptions — to appeal to a wide audience of readers in different geographic areas and with different politics.”
Carleton pointed out that the move toward objectivity and away from sensationalism and political polemics — outside the editorial pages — was also greatly influenced by advertisers, especially by national corporations dependent on mass consumerism, which were afraid, for business reasons, of being associated with openly partisan or sensational news coverage.
“Again, there were exceptions to this general trend,” Carleton said. “The Hearst Chain, for example, but it had only one owner.”
Charles. E. Marsh, an editor and publisher from Ohio, and E.S. Fentress, founder of Newspaper Inc. and publisher of the Waco Times-Tribune, now known as the Waco Times-Herald, owned the new American-Statesman. The two had purchased the American in 1919. They went on to run a chain of papers.
The Democrats still controlled local and state politics in Texas, but they were now split into three factions: the relatively progressive business establishment; adherents of “Fergusonism,” a cult-of-personality populism built around James “Pa” Ferguson and Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, each of whom served as governor; and a pro-Ku Klux Klan cadre that proved especially powerful during the early 1920s.
The American-Statesman was solidly on the side of the progressive business establishment.
“It’s important to note that ‘progressive’ didn’t mean what it means today,” Carleton said. “In Texas, it was anti-boss machines (in) South Texas, anti-Klan, anti-union and anti-Ferguson. It supported the Prohibition movement and racial segregation, and it was pro-infrastructure improvement — such as the Good Roads Movement — pro-growth and boosterism, and it was basically a quest by business elites and their allies for ‘order’ — which included the City Beautiful Movement — and stability, which also helped business. And ‘big’ city newspapers — as opposed to rural small-town papers — in Texas as elsewhere, were leaders in this type of business progressivism. The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Houston Post were among the most important.”
The election in 1922 of Earle Bradford Mayfield from Tyler to the U.S. Senate was a signal achievement for the second coming of the Klan. Originally meant to intimidate freed slaves after the Civil War, the group later also directed its terror against Catholics, Jews, immigrants and those who opposed Prohibition. (The book to read is “Ten Dollars to Hate: The Texas Man Who Fought the Klan” by Patricia Bernstein.)
In 1921 in the Austin Statesman, Mary Jimperieff wrote a laudatory profile of Mayfield, whose connections with the Klan were not universally recognized at the time, while he was still a Texas railroad commissioner. Yet the newspaper did not endorse him for the Senate seat. In fact, in a July 1922 editorial with the headline “Stop! Read! Think!” the Statesman came out strongly against candidates who were associated with the “Invisible Empire” and who did not stand up against mob violence and lynching.
Similarly, the American, founded to support the Woodrow Wilson wing of the Democratic Party, did not endorse Mayfield.
“Wilson was popular in Austin,” Carleton said. “Although Wilson was seen as too progressive by the conservative faction in the Texas Democratic Party, the majority of the state party’s power brokers were fervent supporters of Wilson, and they played a significant role in getting him the party’s presidential nomination. Accordingly, Wilson’s administration was full of Texans, including Austin’s Col. Edward M. House, although he didn’t have an official job.”
As for the Klan, the next year proved to be its high-water mark in Texas. It had grown to as many as 150,000 Texas members, and it controlled city governments in Fort Worth, Dallas and Wichita Falls, but not in Austin. An undated photo, most likely from the 1920s, shows Texans in Klan robes marching up Congress Avenue toward the Capitol.
Locus of power
The American’s viewpoint reflected a worldview more sophisticated than that of its future partner, the Statesman.
According to the Handbook of Texas, the first issue of the American was published May 31, 1914, under the direction of newspaperman, legislator and diplomat Henry Hulme “Hal” Sevier, husband of Clara Driscoll, a philanthropist and businesswoman best known as the “savior of the Alamo” and founder of Laguna Gloria, now the Contemporary Austin.
Sevier left the paper in 1917 to work for the U.S. government information services. A friend of Col. House, he assisted House at the peace conference in Paris after World War I. Earlier in his career, Sevier had been connected with future Vice President John Nance Garner.
These kinds of national and international power links were new to Austin and to Texas.
“As a rural state dominated by an agricultural economy — cotton, cattle, lumber — Texas was not a major player at the federal level until the beginning of the 20th century,” Carleton said. “The discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901 and the wealth that it generated changed everything in Texas. Not only did it increase immigration, launch the state’s rapid urbanization and expand industrialization, it also increased its power in the Congress and the White House. It gave members of the state’s congressional delegation much more influence.”
Although still a small city in the 1920s, Austin had already parlayed its main assets, the state government and UT, into regional forces for information and power.
And by 1924, the combined American-Statesman had become the overwhelmingly dominant media outlet in town. Although it could devote potent resources to a sensational story such as the unsolved murders of the Engler family at Moore’s Crossing, southeast of town, which became a national story, it was not yet known for investigative journalism.
Radio usurped some of the print media’s capacity to monopolize breaking news during the 1920s, just as television and the internet did in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Yet newspapers, including their digital services, remain dominant in local news to this day.
In Austin, that dominance can be dated to 1924.
“The daily newspaper has been and continues to be a business,” Carleton said. “The name of the game is to beat your competitors, even to the point of running them out of business. And beating them means dominating them.”
About this series
The American-Statesman is marking its 150th year of publication with a series of stories examining the newspaper’s history and its role in Austin’s rise.
The first installment of this series examined the newspaper’s founding and its first issue on July 26, 1871, and its role in post-Civil War politics in Texas. Future installments will appear regularly in the months leading up to the newspaper’s 150th birthday on July 26, 2021.