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A Deeper Significance in the Neighborhood

“We want country correspondents and are offering good inducements,” announced the Wahpeton Times in July of 1913. “Write us about it.”

This is something I have talked about previously--the rise of country correspondents in journalistic and community life. This began shortly after settlement and reached its zenith in the progressive era, the early years of the twentieth century. Newspaper editors sought to broaden their reach, and that of their communities, by engaging people to write the news from smaller communities roundabout, thus establishing a news network with a definite center. Scribblers from the hinterlands vied with one another for column space.

Editors were enthusiastic about country correspondents in the early years of the twentieth century. “Country correspondents are wanted in every precinct,” appealed the Washburn Leader in December 1907. “We want the news and are determined to make the Leader indispensable in the homes of the people of McLean County.”

A year later we find the Golden Valley Chronicle offering payment--cash money, an unusual inducement!--to country correspondents, along with “envelopes, stamps, and paper,” saying, “We want a correspondent in every locality in the county.”

Editors with a developing network sought to fill gaps in coverage. In May 1909 the Hope Pioneer appealed for “one or two good country correspondents in the northeast part of the county.” Welcoming a new correspondent from Hague, the Emmons County Record in March 1915 declared, “The country correspondent is one of the most important departments of a country newspaper.”

All this sounds so cozy and heartening, but the system of local contributors recounting progress and movements had its difficulties. Country people had their own priorities, such as getting in their crops. The Langdon Courier Democrat in August 1915 acknowledged “a noticeable scarcity” of reports because “just now harvesting and threshing have the right of way over everything else.” As the Dickinson Press explained, “Country news can wait but haying and harvest cannot.”

Blizzards often stopped the news, too. In March 1920 the Bowbells Tribune regretted that its country news appeared in only “abbreviated form.” Items mailed on Monday or Tuesday had been delayed by the weather, but the editor promised to run them the next week.

The great vexation of editors with their country correspondents was the tendency of local writers to air their private jokes and personal causes, sometimes in sneaky fashion. In 1903 the Courier Democrat enjoined its correspondents to “confine what they write to what are known to be items of fact. . . . Don’t let the idea possess the writer that the paper is an avenue through which they can malign a neighbor, settle an old score with some person whom they have grown to dislike.”

Another editor banned his correspondents from reporting the romantic entanglements of his neighbors. Particularly troublesome were correspondents who encoded local grievance in seemingly innocent terms. The man in charge at the Emmons County Record in 1922 said he had to blue-pencil items “that appeared harmless enough to us, but had a deeper significance in the neighborhood.”

Now this sounds interesting. There may be more to these country correspondents than we have recognized.

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