From Lincoln to Obama, the Idaho Statesman was there

Despite changing conditions, the Idaho Statesman remains Idaho’s primary source of news and commentary.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comJuly 26, 2009 

Editor's note: A version of this story originally ran in the Idaho Statesman's 145th anniversary section.

James Reynolds set out to supply news of the Civil War, national political campaigns and local happenings to isolated miners in the Boise Basin, Silver City and the Wood River Valley when he began printing the Tri-Weekly Statesman on July 26, 1864, in a log cabin on Main Street in Boise.

His audience was made up of newcomers, many former Southerners more supportive of the Confederacy than the Union. Reynolds was a radical Republican abolitionist who advocated the re-election of Abraham Lincoln and triumphantly reported the Civil War victory that ended slavery.

Since then the Idaho Statesman has covered every election, including the campaign that elevated Barack Obama to the White House as the first African-American president. And many Republican readers in 2008 were as unhappy with the Statesman's editorial-page endorsement of Obama as Reynolds' readers were with his support of Lincoln.

Through subsequent owners, publishers and editors, the primary role of the Idaho Statesman remains - to be the source of news for Idahoans. Along the way, the paper has covered it all - from Indian wars to the development of Idaho, from the 1907 "trial of the century" to the Boise State Broncos victory for the ages in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

As Idaho has changed and grown, so has the Idaho Statesman.

Reynolds got his news of the war and the campaign by mail and by stage, which delivered telegraph dispatches that came as far as Salt Lake City.

The Pony Express had linked East and West just four years earlier. Telegraph wouldn't come to Boise until 1875. The Oregon Short Line Railroad didn't reach the Treasure Valley until 1883 - and Boise would wait until 1926 for its own line. From the typewriter and the teletype to handheld computers and wireless Internet, the Statesman gave Idahoans the information they needed to succeed in business, keep up with world events, live their dreams and enjoy the place they love.

Over the years, the partisanship of the 1800s Statesman moderated with the introduction of the Associated Press's nonpartisan reports beginning at the turn of the century and, later, with the populist advertising strategy of major national advertisers who wanted to reach customers regardless of partisanship. Corporate ownership beginning in the 1960s gave the paper new independence, though many readers complained it weakened its community ties.

Still, the paper's fate was always tied to the success and advancement of Idaho. That relationship hasn't changed since pioneer editor and reporter William Goulder described it in the 50th anniversary edition in 1914.

"What Idaho was at the beginning, the Statesman was. What Idaho became day to day The Statesman became. What Idaho is today, the Statesman is today. It is reflected in every page of the Statesman; and while none of us can speak with certainty regarding the future, there are sufficient reasons upon which to found rational opinion that the glorious future of Idaho will be shared in all of its splendor by The Statesman."


In the beginning, the Idaho Statesman was bringing the news of the outside world to miners, merchants and farmers who were at the end of the road of civilization. Local news, now the main franchise, was secondary to the latest from the battlefields and the East and the West Coasts.

Reynolds had competitors like the Boise News in Idaho City, but merchants invested $1,500 to entice him south to Boise, then the smaller of the two communities.

The publisher also had a vision that would carry the early Statesman forward. Idaho was filled with gold and silver, and Reynolds believed that it would take lots of capital to develop the resources on which a new western civilization could be built.

"We shall undertake to so conduct The Statesman as shall best advance the interests of this community and this territory, knowing that by so doing we shall best secure our own," Reynolds wrote in his first editorial July 26, 1864.

Today mining is a small part of the state's diverse economy and other traditional industries like timber have faded, while information technology companies like Micron Technology and HP have taken their place. Only agriculture remains a relatively stable, statewide industry.


As Idaho grew from a frontier territory to a state in 1890, the Idaho Statesman grew. Its second publisher, retired territorial Judge Milton Kelly, was best known for his 1864 decision declaring Boise the capital of the territory over Lewiston, which was, naturally, supported by the Statesman.

Kelly took the newspaper daily on Jan 10, 1888. A year later, he sold the newspaper to Calvin Cobb and associates, including son-in-law Joseph Perrault, who served as editor.

Cobb brought the Idaho Statesman into the 20th century by advocating objective reporting. He signed the paper up with the Associated Press and became active in the organization nationally, eventually serving as president.

"We want our readers to believe we have given the facts as nearly as they can be ascertained at the moment," Cobb wrote in an editorial.

Still, he kept the Idaho Statesman a Republican newspaper, committed to supporting its candidates "when they are worthy."


The Idaho Statesman made its reputation in the early 20th century with an international news story in its backyard. Former Gov. Frank Steunenberg was murdered with explosives outside his Caldwell home Dec. 30, 1905, and immediately radical union miners were suspected because of his role in a violent campaign to quell riots.

Statesman city editor Harry Crain and his team of reporters, photographers and stenographers provided readers with gavel-to-gavel coverage that rivaled any of the national media's. In the end, the jury of 12 Idaho farmers found Haywood and his associates not guilty, a decision that J. Anthony Lukas, author of the book "Big Trouble," said prevented a class war in the United States and allowed moderate union forces to prevail over radicals.

As Cobb and the Statesman prospered so did Idaho. The Statesman supported the building of the Diversion Dam, the New York Canal, Arrowrock Dam, Swan Falls Dam and Twin Falls Canal Co. Miner Dam project.

"Our best work was in getting telegraph, telephone and railroads into Boise, and finally the main line," Cobb later wrote.

Cobb, a friend to presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, flourished as one of Idaho's leading citizens during this period, but he ruled as a autocrat, according to former Statesman editor E.F. McDermott. And his tie to Roosevelt didn't stop him from blasting the progressive when he left the Republican Party in 1912.


"His objective was to make the Statesman the finest small town newspaper in the nation," McDermott wrote. "If he did not succeed in this, he came very close in the early twenties."

Yet even though the newspaper saw economic development as one of its missions, it also played a key early role in preserving Idaho. The Statesman first ran Robert Limbert's four-page, 17-photograph feature story about Craters of the Moon April 10, 1921.

He called the area in the Arco desert, "a vast expanse, silent, dead, except for an occasional bird, a country with cold volcanic mountainsÉa riot of color and fantastic shape so unearthly as to make one believe himself on another planet."

Cobb underwrote another Limbert expedition in June, which led to a major article in National Geographic. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge designated it a national monument calling it "Idaho's National Park."


The growth of national department stores like Sears, Roebuck and Co., and Montgomery Wards had its own impact on the tenor of journalism at the Statesman and other newspapers in the early 20th century. These stores' marketing strategy aimed at attracting the common man, said Bill Hathaway, a former Idaho Statesman reporter and author of a book about the Idaho Falls Post Register.

"All of these stores appealed to the basic principles of populism," Hathaway said. "There was more than a small grain of politics in this."

Cobb's diminishing partisanship over the years fit into his major advertisers' strategy, Hathaway said, by attracting readers who would never have put up with the extreme partisanship of the 19th century editors.

After Cobb's death in 1928, his daughter Margaret Cobb Ailshie committed to follow his editorial policy. A socialite in Boise and Chicago, Ailshie loved the arts and advanced them in the Statesman by hiring her friend and confidant Betty Penson Ward as society editor.


The Idaho Statesman continued to grow under Ailshie as she started the Idaho Evening Statesman in 1942 and then merged its operations with the Boise Capital News, the long-time Democratic newspaper in Boise. The Idaho Statesman's Sunday circulation hit 50,000 in the late 1940s, when the city's own population was only 34,000 people.

Television would begin to compete with newspapers as a news source in the 1960s, but the Statesman thrived throughout the 1940s and 1950s with nearly a monopoly on providing news to Boise readers. Its coverage of state issues was unmatched with reporters like John Corlett and his popular column, "Politically Speaking," recognized as the most influential in the state.

And the newspaper continued its efforts to support the growth of the community economically and intellectually. Ailshie through the newspaper advanced nearly all the money to build Bronco Stadium for then Boise Junior College. And the paper encouraged the businesses that were driving Boise's growth, including Boise-Cascade, Morrison-Knudsen, J.R. Simplot and Albertsons.

But the 1950s also marked a troubling moment in the history of Boise and the Idaho Statesman. The newspaper's coverage of the so-called "Boys of Boise" scandal began with its Nov. 2, 1955, headline, "Three Boise Men Admit Sex Charges." Many prominent and powerful men in the community were prosecuted for homosexual activities and the Statesman's coverage was later criticized for contributing to the hysteria that ruined people's lives.


After Ailshie's death in 1959, her long-time general manager, James L. Brown took over, only to sell the newspaper to the Michigan-based chain of Federated Publications in 1963. This shift from local ownership had some immediate effects.

"When we came in, the paper had become a very conservative organ in the community," said Gene Dorsey, the first editor under Federated. "I wanted the newspaper to not be as oriented toward conservative philosophy, to be more independent in supporting candidates for local, state and national office."

When the Statesman backed Frank Church for re-election, Democrats were shocked with the shift, Dorsey said.

He also increased the size of the news staff and brought in new blood.

"It became a better paper under Gene," said Ben Cross, then professor of journalism at the University of Idaho and now retired in Moscow.

Editorially, the newspaper still supported business development during the 1960s, but also took a new tone toward the environment and wilderness preservation. In 1969, the Statesman editorialized in favor of banning DDT.

And it challenged then-Gov. Don Samuelson for his advocacy of dredging Idaho rivers for gold. When a mining company wanted to build a molybdenum mine in the heart of the White Clouds, the Statesman and editorial writer Ken Robison became one of the main voices against it.

"An expanding economy and environmental protection can go hand-in-hand," Robison wrote.


Gannett Newspapers took over Federated Publications in 1971, and the Statesman had a new corporate owner. Its emphasis on local news coverage focused the Statesman even more on the Treasure Valley.

But that didn't stop the paper from covering the biggest state disaster in the 1970s, the failure of the Teton Dam on June 5, 1976.

By now, Idahoans were increasingly getting their national news on television. The role of newspapers was slowly shifting, and in the 1980s, circulations nationwide were dropping. Though Boise was growing and the Idaho Statesman appealed to readers with its outdoor and entertainment coverage, readers were less loyal.

University of Idaho Journalism professor Kenton Bird attributed part of the drop to the Gannett formula of coverage: shorter stories, reader voices and diversity quotas.

"The formula of a Gannett paper works contrary to developing reader loyalty," Bird said. "People relate to their community paper like they do a sports team."

Later Gannett editors and publishers recognized the dual role of keeping long-time Idahoans satisfied while turning newcomers into Idahoans. They beefed up the coverage of the Legislature, added even outdoor reporting and promoted long-time voices like columnists Tim Woodward and Pete Zimowsky.


The newspaper that had started out advocating community-building measures like trees and sidewalks kept pushing for auto airbag safety, early childhood education and immunization, the growth of Boise State University and workers compensation for farm workers. A three-day series of editorials calling for breaching four dams on the Snake River to save Idaho's salmon and protect Idaho's water brought national attention. Its coverage of Sen. Larry Craig's arrest and guilty plea in a Minnesota airport bathroom and other encounters made the newspaper a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007.

In 2005, Gannett sold the Idaho Statesman to Knight-Ridder. Less than a year later, the McClatchy Co. bought Knight-Ridder including the Idaho Statesman.

Today, the Idaho Statesman and its Internet companion,, continue the tradition of serving as the main source of news about Idaho in the state and beyond, and partnering with the community to encourage Idahoans in business and life.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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