Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Great Plains Quarterly 33:3 (Summer 2013)


© 2013 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska


News editors in the nineteenth century have been viewed as paramount figures in establishing the community life of small towns. While opinions differ over exactly how much influence to ascribe to these newspersons, most historians agree that they held a prominent place. Political parties, as a primary source of funding for newspapers at the time, ensured that reporting provided a favorable spin on things. News editors of the frontier usually mixed together short items on travel, neighboring settlements, politics, editorial commentary, and advertisements, driven by patron political interests and the desire for community growth. In this process, editors functioned as open promoters, not expected to restrain their views with the lens of impartiality—nor expecting in return that readers would question the bright future that they saw as destiny. This brought newspapers into a kind of alliance with railroad companies as both sides campaigned to increase the population in support of their own economic and social interests, with news editors doing the promoting and railroads bringing people and trade prospects. But all of this depended on the cultural backdrop of “manifest destiny” at the time, a composite of American dreams for progress generally equated with the advancement of white settlement westward.

Joseph Ellis (J. E.) Johnson fit this profile of editor-promoter, but he also expanded it, often placing greater stock in advertisements and community observations than in political issues. When he took the reins as editor of the Council Bluffs Bugle in 1853, he shifted the paper’s emphasis significantly toward local business, greatly increasing the advertising space. While the Bugle maintained a definite orientation toward the Democratic Party and its politics in the region, Johnson’s championing of party interests does not distinguish him from his contemporaries. Many other papers relied heavily on anonymous descriptions in praise of their town’s surrounding land, but Johnson more often filled this role himself, traveling regularly and crafting various romantic portrayals of the area.