Starting a Newspaper

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851


It happened sometime within the last ten or fifteen years, that, in my way through this troublesome world, I became captivated with the idea of starting a newspaper. That I had some talent for scribbling, I was vain enough to believe, and my estimate of the ability I possessed was sufficiently high to induce me to think that I could give a peculiar interest to the columns of a weekly paper, were such a publication entirely under my control.

I talked about the matter to a number of my literary and other friends, who, much to my satisfaction, saw all in a favorable light, and promised, if I would go on in the proposed enterprise, to use all their interest in my favor.

"I," said one, "will guaranty you fifty subscribers among my own circle of acquaintances."

"And I," said another, "am good for double that number."

"Put me down for a hundred more," said a third, and so the promises of support came like music to my willing ear.

One or two old veterans of the "press gang," to whom I spoke of my design, shrugged their shoulders, and said I had better try my hand at almost anything else. But I was optimistic that I could succeed, though hundreds had failed before me. I felt that I possessed a peculiar fitness for the work, and could give a peculiar charm to a newspaper that would at once take it to the hearts and homes of the people.

A printer was called upon for an estimate, based upon a circulation of three thousand copies, which was set down as a very moderate expectation. He gave the whole cost of paper, composition, type setting, and press-work, at $4000.

This fell a little below my own roughly-made estimate, and settled my determinations. Two thousand copies, at two dollars a copy, which was to be the subscription price, would pay all the expenses, and if the number of subscribers rose to three thousand, of which there was not the shadow of a doubt in my mind, I would have a clear profit of $2000 the first year. And should it go to four thousand, as was most probable, my net income would be about $3400, for all increase would simply be chargeable with cost of paper and press-work--or about sixty cents on a subscriber. After the first year, of course there would be a steady increase in the number of subscribers, which, if at the rate of only a thousand a year, would give me in five years the handsome annual income of $9000. I was rich in prospective! Nothing could now hold me back. I ordered the printer to get ready his cases, and the paper-maker to provide, by a certain time, the paper.

As the terms were to be in advance, or rather the whole year payable at the expiration of the first quarter, I promised to begin paying cash for all contracts at the end of the first quarter. Up to this period of my life, I had gone on the strict principle of owing no man anything, and I was known in the community where I lived to be a strictly honest and honorable man. Never having strained my credit, it was tight and strong, and I had but to ask the three months' favor to get it without a sign of reluctance.

Next I issued my prospectus for the "Literary Gazette of Art, Literature, and Science" and scattered copies among my friends, expecting each to do his duty for me like a man. They were also posted in every book-store, hotel, and public place in the city. Said city, be it known, rejoiced in a population of a hundred thousand, of which number I saw no reason for doubting my ability to reach, with my interesting paper, at least three or four thousand, in the end. That was felt to be a very moderate calculation indeed. Then, when I turned my eyes over our vast country, with its millions and millions of intelligent, enlightened, reading and prosperous people, I felt that even to admit a doubt of success was a weakness for which I ought to be ashamed. And I wondered why, with such a harvest to reap, twenty such enterprises were not started.

While in this optimistic state, an individual who had been for thirty years a publisher and editor, prompted, as he said, by a sincere interest in my welfare, called to see me in order to give me the benefit of his experience. He asked me to state my views of the enterprise upon which I was about entering, which I did in glowing terms.

"Very well, Mr. Jones," said he, after I was done, "you base your calculations on three thousand subscribers?"

"I do," was my answer.

"From which number you expect to receive six thousand dollars."

"Certainly; the price of the paper is to be two dollars."

"I doubt, my young friend, very much, whether you will receive four thousand dollars from three thousand subscribers, if you should have that number. Nay, if you get three thousand during the year, you may be very thankful."

"Preposterous!" said I.

"No; not by any means. I have been over this ground before you, and know pretty much what kind of harvest it yields."

"But," said I, "it is not my intention to throw the paper into every man's house, whether he wants it or not. I will only take good subscribers."

"You would call Mr. Barton, over the way, a good subscriber, I presume?"

"Oh yes!" I replied, "I would very much like to have a few thousand like him."

"And Mr. Yates, his next-door neighbor?"

"Yes--he is good, of course."

"That is, able to pay."

"And willing."

"I happen to know, my young friend, that neither of those men will pay for a subscription to anything if they can help it."

"Not to a work to which they have regularly subscribed?"


"That is as much as to say that they are dishonest men."

"You can say that or anything else you please; I only give you the information for your own government. You will find a good many like them. Somehow or other, people seem to have a great aversion to paying newspaper bills. I don't know how it is, but such is the fact. And if you will take the advice of one who knows a good deal more about the business than you do, you will go to wood-sawing in preference to starting a newspaper. You may succeed with the paper, but in ten chances, there are nine on the side of failure."

I shrugged my shoulders and looked incredulous.

"Oh, very well!" said he, "go on and try for yourself. Bought wit is the best, if you don't pay too dear for it. You are young yet, and a little experience of this kind may do you no harm in the long run."

"I'm willing to take the risk, for I think I have counted the cost pretty accurately. As for a failure, I don't mean to know the word. There is a wide field of enterprise before me, and I intend to occupy it fully."

The old gentleman shrugged his shoulders in return, but volunteered no more of his good advice.

A week before the first number of the "Literary Gazette" was ready, I called in my prospectuses, in order to have the thousand or fifteen hundred names they contained regularly entered in the subscription-books with which I had provided myself. I had rented an office and employed a clerk. These were two items of expense that had not occurred to me when making my first calculation. It was rather a damper on the ardency of my hopes, to find, that instead of the large number of subscribers I had fondly expected to receive, the aggregate from all quarters was but two hundred!

One very active friend, who had guarantied me fifty himself, had but three names to his list; and another, who said I might set him down for a hundred, had not been able to do anything, and, moreover, declined taking the paper himself, on the plea that he already took more magazines and newspapers than he could read or afford to pay for. Others gave as a reason for the little they had done, the lack of a promised number, and encouraged me with the assurance, that as soon as the paper appeared, there would be a perfect rush of subscribers.

In due time, the first number appeared, and a very attractive sheet it was--in my eyes. I took the first copy that came from the press, and, sitting down in my office, looked it over with a feeling of paternal pride, never before or since experienced. A more beautiful object, or rather one that it gave me more delight to view, had never been presented to my vision. If doubt had come in to disturb me, it all vanished now. To see the "Literary Gazette" would be enough. The two hundred "good names" on my list were felt to be ample for a start. Each copy circulated among those would bring from one to a dozen new subscribers. I regretted exceedingly that the type of the first form of the paper had been distributed. Had this not been the case, I would have ordered an additional thousand to be added to the three thousand with which I commenced my enterprise.

Saturday was the regular publication day of the paper, but I issued it on the preceding Wednesday. That is, served it to my two hundred subscribers and had it distributed to the daily press. With what eagerness did I look over the papers on Thursday morning, to see the glowing notices of my beautiful "Literary Gazette." I opened the first one that came to hand, glanced down column after column, but not a word about me or my paper was there! A keener sense of disappointment, I have never experienced. I took up another, and the first words that met my eyes were:

"We have received the first number of a new weekly paper started in this city, entitled the 'Literary Gazette.' It is neat, and appears to be conducted with ability. It will, no doubt, receive a good share of patronage."

I threw aside the paper with an angry exclamation, and forthwith set the editor down as a jealous churl. In one or two other newspapers I found more extended and better notices; but they all fell so far short of the real merits of my masterpiece, that I was sadly vexed and disheartened. To have my advent announced so coldly and ungraciously, hurt me exceedingly. Still, I expected the mere announcement to bring a crowd of subscribers to my office; but, alas! only three presented themselves during the day. Generously enough, they paid down for the paper in advance, thus giving me six dollars, the first income from my new enterprise and the pledge of thousands that were soon to begin pouring in like a never-failing stream.

My friends called one after another, to congratulate me on the beautiful appearance of my paper, and to predict, for my encouragement, its widely extended popularity. I believed all they said, and more. But for all this, by the time the second number made its appearance, my list had only increased one hundred. Still, on reflection, this appeared very good, for at the rate of a hundred a week, I would have five thousand in a year.

"Why don't employ canvassers?" inquired one. "There are hundreds in the city who will take the paper if it is only presented to them."

Acting on this hint, I advertised for men to solicit subscribers. Five of those who applied were chosen and distributed through five different sections of the city. I agreed to pay fifty cents for every good subscriber obtained. This was, of course, a pretty heavy drawback upon my expected income, but then it was admitted on all hands that a subscriber was worth fifty cents, as after he was once obtained he would doubtless remain a subscriber for years.

At the close of the first day my men brought in an average of ten subscribers each. The agreement was, that I was to pay them twenty-five cents on the name of a new subscriber being handed in, and the remaining twenty-five cents when the subscription due at the expiration of the first three months was collected. So I had twelve dollars and a half cash, to pay down. But then my list was increased to the extent of fifty names. The average of new subscribers from my agents continued for a couple of weeks, and then fell off sensibly. By the end of two months, my canvassers left the field, some of them sick of the business, and others tempted by more promising inducements.

Many of the country papers noticed my "Literary Gazette" in the most flattering manner, and not a few of them copied my prospectus. This had the effect to bring me in a few hundred subscribers by mail, with the cash, in a large number of cases in advance. About one-third, however, promised to remit early.

At the end of three months, according to promise, I was to pay my printer and paper maker. Up to that time my cash receipts had been three hundred dollars, but every cent was gone. My clerk had to be paid seven dollars a week regularly, and a mail and errand boy, three dollars. Advertising had cost me twenty-five dollars; account and subscription books as much more; and I had paid over fifty dollars to my agents for getting subscribers. Besides, there had been a dozen little etceteras of expense, not before taken into calculation. Moreover, out of this three hundred dollars of income, I had my own personal expenses to pay.

In the thirteenth number of my paper, I gave notice that the three months having expired, all subscriptions were due for the year according to the terms, and called upon subscribers "to step to the captain's office and settle." There were of unpaid subscribers now upon my books, the number of five hundred and forty, and my debt to printer and paper maker was exactly nine hundred and eighty dollars, I having kept on printing three thousand copies, under the belief that the list must go up to that.

Day after day went by after this notice appeared, yet not a single man answered to the invitation. I began to feel serious. Subscribers continued to come in, though slowly, and people all spoke highly of the paper and said it must succeed. But its success, so far, was not over flattering. Finding that people would not take the plain hint I had given, I went over the books and made out all the bills. One thousand and eighty dollars was the aggregate amount due. These bills, except those for the country, I placed in the hands of a collector, and told him to get me the money as quickly as possible. Those for the country, about one hundred in number, I enclosed in the paper. On the faith of this proceeding, I promised the paper maker and printer each two hundred dollars in a couple of weeks.

Four days elapsed without my collector making his appearance, greatly to my surprise. On the fifth day I met him in the street.

"Well, how are you coming on?" said I.

"Oh, slowly," he replied.

"I expected to see you a day or two ago."

"I had nothing of consequence to return. But I will be in on Saturday."

I felt a kind of choking in my throat as I turned away. On Saturday the collector called--he opened his memorandum-book, and I my cash-book, preparatory to making entries of money returned.

"Mr. Anderson," said the collector, "says he never pays in advance for anything."

"But the terms of the paper are in advance after the first three months."

"I know."

"Did you call his attention to this?"

"Oh, yes! but he said he didn't care for your terms. He'd been swindled once or twice by paying in advance, but never intended to give anybody the opportunity to do the same thing again."

Mr. Anderson was a man whom I had known for years. I cannot tell how hurt and indignant I was at such language. He took my paper, knowing the terms upon which it was published, and when I sent my bill, refused to comply with the terms, and insulted me into the bargain. I turned to his name on the subscription-book, and striking it off, said--"He can't have the paper."

"Credit Mr. Baker with six months and discontinue," said the collector, as he passed to the next name on his list. Mr. Baker was a man whom I knew very well by reputation. I had looked upon him as one of my best subscribers. He was a merchant in easy circumstances.

"Why does he wish it stopped?" I asked.

"He says he merely took the paper by way of encouraging the enterprise, and never supposed he would be called upon to pay for it. He told Mr. James, who asked him to subscribe, that he had more papers now than he wanted, and Mr. James said, No matter. He would have it sent to him by way of adding another respectable name to the list."

"Very well," said I, as I entered the name of Mr. Baker in the cash-book, "pass on."

This went fairly ahead of anything I had ever dreamed of. I was too much surprised even to make a remark on the subject.

"Mr. Cooper was as mad as a March hare when I presented his bill."

"Indeed! Why?"

"He paid your agent when he subscribed!"

"Did you see his receipt?"

"Yes. The agent took a hat and paid him the difference."

"The scoundrel! And charged me a quarter in addition, for returning the subscriber!"

"These canvassers are a slippery set."

"That's swindling!"

"The fellow won't quarrel with you about the terms, seeing that he enjoys the hat."

"Too bad! Too bad! Well, go on."

"Mr. Davis paid two dollars, but wants you to stop at the end of the year. He merely took a copy at the start by way of encouraging the enterprise. Thinks highly of the paper, but can't afford to take it longer than a year."

"Very well."

"Mr. Everett has paid."


"Mr. Faber says he never subscribed, and does not want it. He says, if you will send to his house, you can get all the numbers. He told the carrier not to leave it from the first."

"I paid an agent for his name."

"He says he told the agent that he didn't want the paper. That he took more now than he could read."

"Swindled again!"

"Mr. Granger says he never saw the paper in his life."

"It's sent regularly."

"Some mistake in the carrier. Mr. Harvey paid, and wishes the paper discontinued."

"Very well."

"Mr. Ilgin says he can't afford to take it. His name was put down without his consent."

I had received this name through one of my kind friends.

"Mr. Jeffries paid a dollar, and wants it stopped."


"Mr. Keith paid; also, Mr. Lowe and Mr. McFee."


"Mr. Newcombe says the paper is not left for him; but for a young man who has gone West. Thinks you had better stop it."

I erased the name.

Mr. Olander paid the agent."

"He never returned the money."

Mr. Potter and Mr. Quinn, ditto."

"Never saw a penny of their money. Paid a quarter apiece, cash, for each of these subscribers."

"Mr. Reisel says the paper is not worth reading. That he wouldn't pay a penny a year for it. I advise you to stop it. He never pays for anything if he can help it. Mr. Sommers paid. Mr. Thompson paid up to this date, and wishes it stopped. Never ordered it. Mr. Unser paid. I called upon a great many more, but they put me off with one excuse or other. I never had a much worse lot of bills."

A basin of cold water on a sentimental serenader could not have produced a greater revulsion of feeling than did this unlooked-for return of my collector. Nineteen dollars and fifty cents, instead of about two hundred dollars, were all he had been able to gather up; there was no promise of success in the future on any different scale. I received the money, less ten percent for collecting, and was left alone to my own reflections. Not of the most pleasant kind, the reader may well imagine. For an hour I brooded over the strangely embarrassing position in which I found myself, and then, after thinking until my head was hot and my feet and hands cold, I determined to reduce, immediately, the edition of my paper from three thousand to one thousand, and thus save an item of thirty dollars a week in paper and press-work. To send off my clerk, also, to whom I was paying seven dollars weekly, and with the aid of a boy, attend to the office, and do the writing and mailing myself. I then went over the subscription-book, and counted up the names. The number was just seven hundred and twenty. I had but a little while before replied to a question on the subject, that I had about twelve hundred on my list. And I did vaguely imagine that I had that number. I knew better now.

To describe minutely the trials, sufferings, and disappointments of the whole year, would take too much time and space. The subsequent returns of my collector were about on a par with the first. Finding it impossible to pay the printer and paper maker, as promised, out of the advance subscriptions falling due at the end of three months, I borrowed from some of my friends about four hundred dollars, and paid it, stating, when I did so, that I must have a new contract, based upon a six months' credit.

I found no great difficulty in obtaining this from the paper maker, to whom I spoke in confident terms of my certain ultimate success. The printer required half cash, which I agreed to pay.

This arrangement I fondly hoped would give me time to make my collections, and, besides paying off the debt already accumulated, enable me to acquire a surplus to meet the notes given, from time to time, for paper and printing.

At the end of a year, my list, through various exertions and sacrifices, had arisen to twelve hundred. On this I had collected eight hundred dollars, and I calculated that there were about sixteen hundred dollars due me, which, I thought, if all collected in, would about square me up with the world. This I thought. But, when I came to go over my bill-book and ledger, I found, to my utter dismay, that I owed three thousand five hundred dollars! This must be a mistake, I said, and went over my books again. The result was as at first. I owed the money, and no mistake. But how it was, I could not for some time comprehend. But a series of memorandums from my cash-book, and an examination of printers' and paper makers' bills, at length made all clear. I had used, on my own personal account, four hundred dollars during the year. Office rent was two hundred and fifty. My carriers had cost over a hundred dollars. My boy one hundred and fifty, and ninety had been paid to the clerk during the first three months. Sundry little items of expense during the year made an aggregate of over a hundred. Paper and printing for the first three months had been nearly a thousand dollars, and for the last three quarters about twenty-two hundred dollars.

To go on with this odds against me, I had sense enough to see was perfect folly. But, how could I stop? I was not worth a dollar in the world; and the thought of wronging those who had trusted me in full reliance upon my integrity, produced a feeling of suffocation. Besides, I had worked for a year as few men work. From sunrise until twelve, one, and two o'clock, I was engaged in the business or editorial duties appertaining to my enterprise, and to abandon all after such a struggle was disheartening.

After much deliberation, I concluded that the best thing I could do was to sell out my list of subscribers to another and more successful establishment in the city, and, for this purpose, waited upon the publisher. He heard me, and after I had finished, asked my terms. I told him fifteen hundred dollars for the list. He smiled, and said he wouldn't give me five hundred for the whole concern, debts and all. I got up, put on my hat, and left him with indignant silence.

To go on was the worst horn for me to grasp in the dilemma in which I found myself. To stop, would be to do so with some three or four hundred people paid in advance, for portions of a year. I was tormented, daily, by my printer, for money; and in order to meet the notes which had already fallen due, I had been compelled to borrow temporarily from my friends. Unable to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion--in despair, I summoned creditors and friends around me, and laid before them a full statement of my condition. There were some long faces at that meeting; but no one felt as I did. I shall never forget the suffering and mortification of that day, were I to live a thousand years.

The unanimous determination of the meeting was that I must stop, collect in the money due, and divide it pro rata among my creditors. I did so; announcing, at the same time, the heavy financial embarrassment under which I had been brought, and earnestly soliciting those who owed the paper, to settle their accounts immediately. To the few who had paid the fraction of a year in advance, I stated how much I had lost, and appealed to their magnanimity for a remission of the obligation I remained under to furnish the paper for the time yet due to them. It was but the matter of a few cents, or a dollar at most to them, I said, but it was hundreds of dollars to me.

Well, and what was the sequel to all this? Why, to sum up what remains to be told, in a few words; only two hundred dollars out of the sixteen hundred were collected, and from those who had paid small trifles in advance, I received dozens of letters, couched in the most offensive terms. Some charged me with being a swindler, and said, if I didn't immediately send the money overpaid, or some other paper in the place of mine, they would publish me to the world. Others said they would be in the city at a certain time and require me to refund; while many, residing on the spot, took out their money's worth, by telling me to my face what they thought of my dishonest conduct. One man issued a warrant against me for thirty-five cents, the sum overpaid by him.

So much for my experience in starting a newspaper. A year and a half before, I had a clerkship which brought me in seven hundred dollars a year; was easy in mind, respected by all my friends, looked upon as an honest man by everyone who knew me, and out of debt. I started a newspaper in a moment of blind infatuation, and now I owed above three thousand dollars, my good name was gone, and I was dispirited, out of employment, afraid to walk the street lest I should encounter someone I owed, and as wretched as a man could well be. I soon after left the city, and sought employment hundreds of miles away. So much for my experience in starting a newspaper.