Newspapers during the Great Depression

Airdate: May 1

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.

During the Great Depression, newspapers struggled alongside other businesses throughout the country, as many of their customers were having to pinch pennies like never before.

At the time of this 1974 interview, Harlon Fentress was chairman of the board of directors of Newspapers Incorporated, which owned the Waco Tribune-Herald. He recounts his days in the advertising department of the Waco News-Tribune during the early thirties:

"We had a good many promotions because business was bad in those days, and we would create events which would supply advertising. Well, let's say we had a Father's Day coming up. Most of the merchants didn't pay much attention to it. We would create a Father's Day special edition or a special section of the paper. Things of that nature."

In addition to the Waco papers, in the 1930s Newspapers Incorporated owned several small-town newspapers in Texas. Fentress recalls the challenge of collecting payments in Breckenridge, where the bulk of distribution was rural:

"Our circulation man would start out with some old model car—it was probably an old Willys-Knight or something like that—with a half stock trailer on behind it. He would come back in the evening with a couple of sheep, a dozen chickens and four or five dozen eggs and slab of bacon. (laughs) They paid for their subscription that way."

Longtime Waco newspaper editor Harry Provence describes the Waco Times-Herald, the afternoon paper, during the Depression years:

"The staff was trimmed to the very bone, and the people who were still there, who'd been there during the early thirties, recalled 10 percent salary cuts more than once just to keep the thing going. As a matter of fact, in 1938 we had a 10 percent salary cut—out of a clear blue sky in June of '38. I got married and got a salary cut all in one easy operation. (laughter) They never got to the point of requiring us to buy our own pencils, but they doled them out like they were selling them to us. And it was just against the rules to spend any money that you could possibly get out of. The papers were small; there wasn't enough advertising to—well, if we got a sixteen-page paper we just thought the millennium had come. Most of the issues, if you go back through our files, are eight, ten, and twelve pages, year after year, during—all during the thirties."

Provence explains the journalism term close editing and its importance during the thirties:

"The minimum number of words to convey the—the story. As I said awhile ago, we had small newspapers; our standing orders were to get all the news in the paper, and that meant that the superfluous language just had to go. And we wore out a—many a black pencil marking through whole paragraphs and sentences and words."

The Waco News-Tribune and Waco Times-Herald weathered the economic slump of the 30s and merged together in 1973 to form the Tribune-Herald. No doubt Fentress and Provence could have drawn parallels between the Great Depression and the recent Great Recession concerning their impact on the newspaper industry.

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