Monday, September 9, 2019

George Putnam Assumes Control of Capital Journal in 1919

Here's an anniversary worth noticing. As Gatehouse and Gannett merge and continue to strip-mine local newspapers, and Salem Reporter works to develop a newish digital model, exactly 100 years ago one of the most important newspaperman in Salem history, George Putnam, purchased the Capital Journal. It was announced on September 8th, 1919.

Putnam Center at Willamette University
is named after George Putnam
As founder of the Statesman, and for his larger place in Salem history, Asahel Bush might be the greatest, but he didn't own his paper for nearly as long as Putnam owned the Journal. On longevity at the newspaper Putnam wins then, and he also engaged a deeply important moral issue in the second KKK of the 1920s, and wins on that also. During Putnam's heyday, Charles Sprague at the Statesman was a worthy rival, and we should probably give more attention to the Putnam-Sprague competition also. Putnam belongs with them as one of our giants in local journalism.

September 8th, 1919
From the Oregon Encyclopedia:
George Putnam was the epitome of the fighting editor during the Progressive era in Oregon. His battles with an entrenched political machine in Medford cost him a night in jail, a libel conviction, and physical assaults. A small and nonviolent man, Putnam announced that “open season for editors has ended as far as [this] editor is concerned, and the closed season is on.” He bought a revolver, placed it on his desk, and the assaults ended....

In 1919, Putnam sold the Medford paper to purchase the Salem Capital-Journal, so he was a new editor in the capital city when the Ku Klux Klan began efforts to dominate Oregon politics. Putnam immediately became the state’s strongest newspaper opposition, ridiculing the secret society and its “senseless and silly public appearances in nightgown regalia.” His ridicule extended to fellow editors, particularly in Portland, for timidity in facing the KKK....

Putnam sold the Capital-Journal to Bernard Mainwaring in 1953 but continued to write a personal column until his death on August 18, 1961, in a fire that destroyed his Salem house. The paper was sold to Gannett Newspaper Company in 1973 and combined with the Oregon Statesman to create the Salem Statesman-Journal.

Here are two editorials that show the striking shift in tone, emphasis, and ethics that his ownership entailed.

Editorial before Putnam, July 28th, 1916

Editorial under Putnam, October 16th, 1922
(You can also directly compare attitudes on "Birth of a Nation"
in this shameful and deeply racist editorial from before Putnam
on July 22nd, 1919)
It was a mixed bag, however.  He led the fight against the Renoir Venus and leveraged a kind of misogyny in his rhetoric. From the Salem online history:
The Capital Journal newspaper called her "fat and naked"....
Mr. Putnam, publisher of the Capital Journal newspaper, loved a community fight and this was a beauty. His concluding comment was, it was "just another art lover sneer at Salem for rejecting an unsuitable memorial to Oregon’s early pioneers. It was not prudery on the part of Salem citizens. The valuable free national publicity for Salem is appreciated. For most part, of our citizens prefer sneers to Venus as a pioneer memorial."
Oregon Encyclopedia talks about his work on Labor in terms that are a little ambiguous. Was it work against real corruption? Or just another way to control and check Labor itself? (Do you know more about local labor history?)
In later years, the Salem editor was, according to newspaper historian George Turnbull, “probably the leader” among Oregon editors in urging control of lawless behavior on the part of some labor leaders, often called “labor goons” in parlance of the day. Rivalry between AFL and CIO unions often exploded into violence. The burning of the Salem Box Factory in 1937 brought matters to a head and Putnam strongly backed Gov. Charles Martin in his hiring a special prosecutor for the case. Martin was defeated by a liberal Democrat, Henry Hess, in the 1938 primary; that led to the election in November of Republican Charles A. Sprague, Putnam’s Salem rival as publisher of The Oregon Statesman.
The Encyclopedia suggests Sprague led in the post-war period:
Sprague's intense involvement in civil liberties began as World War II ended. His editorials opposed forces trying to prevent Japanese Americans from returning to their homes following wartime incarceration. He led Oregon newspapers' opposition to McCarthyism in the 1950s, and in 1962 was the first recipient of the E.B. MacNaughton Award of the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The state of journalism is precarious just now, and a look back at one of the giants here is worth your while.

Previously here:

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