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Brinton Newspaper Law

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On this date in 1919, North Dakota newspapers were quickly dwindling in number. Almost 29 papers had gone out of business or changed ownership since April 1 of that year. The wave of failing newspapers began as a result of the Brinton Newspaper Law, which was passed in March of 1919 by the State Legislature. The law sought to reduce the number of official newspapers per county to a single publication. Prior to that, each of the fifty-three counties had three official newspapers, each printing notices required by the state, such as foreclosures and bank statements.

The official publications could expect to receive between $10,000 and $20,000 per year from public printing alone, not to mention the subscription fees from readers forced to rely on a single designated paper for the required legal and business information. Consequently, when the State Printing commissioners finished choosing the official publications for each county, more than 200 papers were expected to suffer substantial losses. In essence, the Brinton Newspaper Law was bad news for any publication not chosen, but highly beneficial for the lucky few.

That the Brinton Law created a monopoly of sorts was no accident. The powerful Nonpartisan League had newspapers in more than half of North Dakota's counties, and many of the commissioners were shareholders in NPL newspapers, ensuring that the NPL papers were favored. And with opposing newspapers failing, the NPL’s official newspapers gained control over the information that reached readers.

In the spring of 1919 327 newspapers had been recording the important events and everyday business of the state's population. By 1954 that had dropped to 129. And today, there are about 85 papers remaining.

And even though the Nonpartisan League effectively corralled the state press, becoming America's first real example of a "kept press," it failed to save the organization from the adverse criticism that eventually led to its decline in power.

Dakota Datebook by Carol Wilson

The Starkweather Times, July 18, 1919.
Laws Passed at the Sixteenth Session of Legislative Assembly of North Dakota, Bismarck Tribune State Printers, 1919.
North Dakota Newspaper Association: https://www.ndna.com/newspapers/

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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