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A photo of Mencken which he inscribed for friend Philip Perlman, a onetime Sunpapers colleague who would go on to become the first Jewish U.S. Solicitor general. Note the musical notation on his shoulder, the beer and crab mallets on his forearm, and the hebrew word "Kosher" on his hand.
A photo of Mencken which he inscribed for friend Philip Perlman, a onetime Sunpapers colleague who would go on to become the first Jewish U.S. Solicitor general. Note the musical notation on his shoulder, the beer and crab mallets on his forearm, and the hebrew word "Kosher" on his hand. (Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society)

From today’s vantage point, when many American cities struggle to sustain even a single print newspaper, the early decades of the 20th century, when some towns had multiple newspapers competing against one another, look like glory days for local papers.

Yet to refer to any 20th-century daily paper as a “local paper” hides an important truth: The proportion of newspaper content written, designed and printed locally decreased in the early 20th century. Aided by a new technology called the stereotype, syndicates began to sell the same articles and illustrations to hundreds of different newspapers around the country. Meanwhile, publishers like William Randolph Hearst and E. W. Scripps bought up multiple papers to form chains, which shared content among themselves.

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These syndicate and chain systems rendered local papers far less local, homogenizing Americans’ news diets and spreading a consumer culture that retains its hold on Americans today.

The rise of a telegraph network, in the 19th century, first enabled companies to sell content to multiple papers. Wire services such as the Associated Press offered breaking news by telegraph, with the understanding that editors would cut, embellish or otherwise alter the text for their own pages. Some editors simply reprinted material they found elsewhere, running jokes from magazines or serializing entire novels.

Receiving stories by telegraph or via paper “proofs” spared local publishers the trouble of hiring reporters for all their material. But the system still required considerable labor from local papers. Workers would set casts of the type into columns using a linotype machine, and from those casts another set of workers would fabricate a metal printing plate. Eventually syndicates began providing thin metal stereotype plates or the lightweight casts used to make them, called matrices, which let publishers skip the typesetting process altogether.

Using prepared stereotypes also allowed syndicates to sell illustrations, setting the stage for one of their top sellers: the comic strip.

Business boomed. In 1913, there were 40 syndicates in operation; by 1931, there were more than 160. Some were small and specialized, offering only science articles or fiction; others sold a full array of features to thousands of newspapers. Local editors ordered syndicated features out of catalogs, choosing their paper’s sports column, women’s page, cooking feature, children’s page and comic strips. Some purchased their paper’s entire Sunday magazine from a syndicate.

The same printing technologies — stereotype plates and matrices — drove the expansion of newspaper chains in the early 20th century. Once multiple papers could share material efficiently, the benefits of chain ownership multiplied, and so did chains themselves. By 1930 there were 59 different newspaper chains operating in the U.S.

The average American reader didn’t necessarily notice the way syndicates and chains had come to dominate the news. Syndicates were careful to sell their material to only one newspaper per city. But journalists definitely noticed — and many were not happy.

The Baltimore Sun’s H. L. Mencken lamented that newspapers “now clump into miserable chains, like filling-stations and grocery-stores” and no longer cultivated hard-hitting local journalism. Syndicates ultimately cut down the total number of journalists, since one writer could provide the sports column for a hundred papers. While syndicated writers could potentially work from anywhere, in actuality this new system concentrated the profession into just a few cities: New York, Washington, D.C.; and Chicago. Within the industry, syndicated material was often referred to as “canned news” or even “canned junk.”

Syndicates and chains shrank the number of American dailies — including, significantly, newspapers that catered to minority and immigrant groups. Pressure from syndicates was especially tough on the foreign-language press. At the turn of the century, American cities published daily newspapers in German, Yiddish, Spanish, Chinese and Polish, among other languages. But incorporating syndicated material proved awkward or impossible for these papers, who couldn’t translate the dialogue in a syndicated comic strip or the text in an illustrated beauty column, since the words were forged right into the ready-to-print stereotype plate.

As the American population diversified through massive immigration and black migration out of the South, syndicates and chains churned out features that reflected only white, middle-class norms, and made caricatures of all other populations.

We still call these caricatures “stereotypes.”

Julia Guarneri is a historian at the University of Cambridge and the author of “Newsprint Metropolis: City Papers and the Making of Modern Americans.” This essay was originally published for “What it means to be an American,” a project of Zocalo Public Square, the Smithsonian and Arizona State University.

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