I’ve said before that Mark Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee” is my favorite short story. It’s a tall tale that revolves around how Twain—himself originally a newspaper man—saw weekly journalism being practiced down in the Volunteer State.
A major theme of the book revolves around what Twain offhandedly refers to as “exchanges.” It’s a term that’s pretty much ceased to be used in this day and age, but from the late 1700s through the early 20th Century, exchanges were how news was spread from community to community.
Very early in the nation’s life, newspapers were sent from town to town on the stagecoaches that carried the mail. But most of those papers were carried “outside the mail,” that is, a publisher would pay the stage crew in barter or with a minimal amount of cash to carry his paper on down the mail route in a sack or other container that was not the official portmanteau. Mail, by definition, was carried in the official portmanteau, a large, locked valise. Postmasters had the special key for the lock on the portmanteau, and were the only ones who could open it on its journey up and down a mail route.
If and when the paper got to its destination—since it was outside the mail, it’s delivery wasn’t guaranteed—the local publisher would copy pertinent articles into his own paper for publication the next week, and, in exchange, send a copy of his paper back to the first publisher. He’d also send exchange copies of his paper to other publishers.
By this method, news traveled remarkably fast from settled eastern areas west along the mail routes of the era.
But with the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, Congress recognized the importance of spreading the news as quickly as possible by mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. The act required all newspapers, regardless of content, be carried in the portmanteau, thus assuring regular and prompt delivery of the kinds of information Congress deemed vital to an informed electorate.
Even more important, exchanges were allowed to be mailed for free, so papers and the news in them spread quickly. Most weeklies in the 19th Century had a column often headed “From Our Exchanges” that reported non-local news. Non-local news was also spread this way, including national news, political news, and economic news.
The intent of the Federal Government was that the free circulation of news of all kinds was essential to the success of a democracy. In 1788, President George Washington wrote in a letter to Matthew Carey and published in the Columbian Magazine:
I entertain an high idea of the utility of periodical Publications: insomuch that I could heartily desire, copies of . . . Magazines, as well as common Gazettes, might spread through every city, town and village in America. I consider such easy vehicles of knowledge, more happily calculated than any other, to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry and meliorate the morals of an enlightened and free People.
Dissemination of news was considered so essential to the new nation, in fact, that it was enshrined as the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. In order to get freedom of the press and the free flow of information into law, legislation had to be passed. The Act of 1792 was the first time such a sweeping right was given for the free flow of information. In effect, it created the first version of today’s Internet.
Later, Congress mandated that county weeklies could be mailed within their counties of origin free of charge. That was a huge boost to newspapers. While printing costs far outpaced the costs of news gathering in that early era, postage costs were high. For instance, in 1843, James Sheldon Barber mailed letters to his parents from Oswego here in Illinois back to his parents in Smyrna, N.Y. at a cost of 25-cents for a single sheet. This at a time when good prairie land was selling for $1.25 per acre.
So letting weeklies send exchanges and papers in-county to their subscribers free was wonderful way to keep people informed, encourage a vigorous local newspaper industry, and advance the causes of democracy. It also gave Mark Twain some pretty good fodder for short stories.
Things changed in 1970 when the United States Post Office Department was privatized and changed into the United States Postal Service. Like most privatization schemes, it hasn’t worked out very well, although the service gamely soldiers on despite the best intent of Congress to kill it off like the Passenger Pigeon.
One of the consequences of the 1970 act was steadily increasing postal rates for local newspapers. Far from being seen as essential to good government, periodicals were more and more viewed as impediments to mechanized mail delivery. Today, the hoops weekly newspaper publishers have to jump through, over, and around to maintain their Second Class mailing permits are absolutely mind-boggling. It’s almost enough to make a person wonder whether it might not be a good idea to start bartering with mail carriers again like the good old days of 1791.