EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was previously published at Richland Source in 2013.
The evolution of media access in Richland County is the story of how connectivity has magnified in a broader and wider web, while simultaneously becoming more personal and unique.
In 1813, if you wanted other people to know what you had to say, your best chance was to print it on a broadside and post it on both sides of a bridge where the most people had to cross. Today, the bridge is invisible, etheric, and very nearly, everywhere.
Richland County has seen an array of changes since its inception more than 200 years ago, but maybe none would be more astonishing to a pioneer as the way we get our news today.
A settler in the forest of north central Ohio would not have any frame of reference to even begin imagining something like a Wi-Fi tablet. To that settler, a hand-held device was a hatchet, maybe a pocket watch.
If an 1813 frontier person heard any news at all, it would be long after it happened, and mostly by word of mouth. Richland County had a very unique source of news in that respect. The source was an itinerant orchardist whose daily travels took him, not only up and down the rivers of the Mohican, but over several hundred miles of the inhabited Northwest Territory.
His name was John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. His sudden appearance at any campfire, cabin, or village crossroads brought the latest breaking news from everywhere else that civilization was taking root in the state. He also single-handedly comprised the first lending library system of this region, providing the mystic texts of his favorite religious authors. Famous for "news fresh from heaven," he unbound his books into smaller pieces and circulated the leafs as serialized reading from cabin to cabin.
News of the wide world made it to town by way of newspapers from the East, that came by a circuitous and haphazard mail delivery system, anywhere from a week to a month late. The county's first P.O. Box, where mail was stashed, was a renowned white oak hollow log on the square in Mansfield. When a newspaper arrived in town, word was spread and folks gathered to hear the "latest updates" from the other side of the Alleghenys read from atop the stump, like a live broadcast.
A Richland County Paper
By 1817, roads were wide enough to get a regularly-scheduled stage coach through the county. Thus, newspapers from afar became a more reliable and timely source of information. As soon as the local population grew and stabilized enough to warrant a local newspaper, the first paper appeared with a circulation of 350 throughout Richland County.
It was called The Olive, and, considering that there was nothing like an olive growing within 1,000 miles of Richland County, it may seem like an odd name. But, with a little understanding of the times, it makes a lot more sense.
In 1818, almost all U.S. newspapers came from one of two different sources: Democratic Party zealots, or Whig Party enthusiasts. News of every sort was wholly slanted to the purposes of one political party or the other, and so the reporting of anything that happened was bound to aggravate half of the people around. That's why most towns of any size had two newspapers.
That is also why when Mansfield launched a single, all-inclusive county paper in The Olive. They set out very consciously to remain fair, even-handed, and non-partisan. Politics is war and, instead, Mansfield offered an Olive branch of peace and reconciliation.
It was a novel concept, and it worked for a couple of years. But, as soon as it went under, there was a new one-sided rag that sprang up, and then another to oppose it. For the next 100 years, there were always at least two newspapers in town busily undermining each other.
The Democratic Party newspaper in the county was the Shield and Banner. In the 1840s, the Democrats were considered the conservative party. Even this far North, they were vehemently opposed to the ending of slavery.
The Whigs, who eventually became the Republicans, were considered wild and progressive. These anti-slavery agitators had their own newspaper called the Herald. Their offices were on the South side of the public square in Mansfield, across from the Shield offices on the North side, so they could all keep an eye on each other.
Whatever the Herald opined on one week, the Shield's next issue would run a counter attack. This made for a continuous, and not always very polite, conversation across the square and across the great political divide of the times.
This battleground of words across the park periodically erupted into a spirited contest, when each party crowded into the square to support their candidates in what was called a pole raising. The idea was to take a flag with their candidate's name on it, and see who could get it highest into the sky by raising it up a flagpole made of many tall poles lashed together.
It was always a loud event, and often miraculous, that a flag could go up 80 feet in the face of such overwhelming hard cider and public drunkenness.
The railroads came to Richland County in the 1840s and '50s and, consequently, news traveled more quickly. As papers from everywhere else arrived at the station, the stories were hustled up to the square to be set into type for local sales to the community.
The speed of news made another quantum leap at this same time and a new era was launched with the advent of the telegraph. Suddenly, it was possible to get word of far-off battles within minutes of the action by wire. It was truly the dawning of the 'breaking news' bulletin. As battles waged and history teetered, people were willing to be roused day or night, at a moment’s notice, to hear news, summoned to the telegraph office on the square by the firing of the city's cannon.
A lot of big talk was made about that cannon when the war was at its start, boasting that it would make the Rebels keep their distance from the Mansfield square. But, in truth, it was only 18 inches high and went by the name of 'Burtie' or sometimes 'Bertha' (a serious abridgment of the word Liberty.)
Proliferation of Newspapers
As the county grew throughout the 1800s, in terms of industry-driven economy and population, so the county seat grew. Sure enough, its news business took off accordingly. In the 1870s, there were actually four newspapers in Mansfield, including the Courier, written in German, and a sensationalist weekly tabloid called the Sunday Morning Call.
Communities around the county all tried on different rags for varying periods of success, including the Bellville Star (which started in 1877). Shelby had two papers in the 1870s, precursors of the Globe, and Plymouth had the Advertiser since 1851. Lexington and Butler both ran a Times for a while.
Soon enough, everybody was interconnected by streetcars, interurban cars and then automobiles. As the streets teemed with commerce, the city was busy enough to have a small army of newsboys shouting headlines over the din of traffic.
Throughout these decades of technological evolution in America, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party very gradually switched places to become each its opposite.
Democrats from staunch conservatism became the progressive force, and the Republican Party that began as a liberal power came to represent the conservative element in America.
In Richland County, the Republican Herald eventually became the News, and the Democratic Shield turned into the Journal, with offices just three blocks away from each other on Walnut Street.
By the time these two newspapers merged into the News Journal in 1932, the county and the nation had a brand new source of getting the news: by 1930, sixty percent of American households had a radio.