When Dick and Tom Reynolds left Portland with a printing press in 1864, they thought they were going to the mining boom town of Idaho City to open a newspaper.
But Boise co-founder Henry Chiles Riggs had other ideas. He met the brothers at the Grand Ronde River and spent the day riding alongside their ox-drawn freight wagon, making the case for them to set up shop in Boise. Like a modern-day business recruiter, Riggs promised the brothers the support of advertisers in the growing business community.
Abraham Lincoln had just declared Idaho a territory the year before and Boise businessmen were trying to move the territorial capital from Lewiston to Boise.
You can just imagine Riggs’ pitch: Yes, Idaho City was the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, with 7,000 residents. But it was a boom town. It already had a newspaper, the weekly Boise News. Boise was the future!
Established the year before, Boise’s population had already reached 1,000. It was situated on the main mail and express routes, including the Oregon Trail next to Fort Boise. Boise, not Idaho City, was where people were going to come and stay and build a new society. Once Lincoln won the Civil War, Boise might become the capital of a new state.
When the wagon reached the Snake River, the Reynolds brothers were persuaded enough to ride on ahead and listen to what Boise’s businessmen had to offer. The merchants had $1,500 in cash and offered the use of an office building for free for a year.
Their third brother, James Reynolds, was already in Idaho City. He was going to be the editor and he had to agree to the deal. Tom quickly rode the 35 miles to bring his brother on board.
The brothers were in agreement. But the freighter with the press was still headed to Idaho City. Boise’s livery stable owner caught the wagon between Emmett and Horseshoe Bend. He took the money to prove to the freighter that the partners were changing their destination to Boise.
In newly platted Boise, the promised office building turned out to be a log cabin with no floor, glassless windows and an open entry. That allowed Boise residents to crowd into the cabin as the two pressmen set type for the first edition of the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman.
At 2 p.m. on July 26, 1864, the first newspaper came off the press before an audience of residents and business backers. The Idaho Statesman was now connecting its readers to the outside and telling the world about Idaho.
The Statesman’s role
Through subsequent owners, publishers and editors, the role of the Idaho Statesman remains the same: To be the primary source of news for Idahoans. Through its 150 years, the paper has covered it all - from Indian wars to Butch Cassidy’s bank robbery in Montpelier to the 1907 “Trial of the Century” in the death of its murdered governor to the building of dams, the rise of businesses from Morrison-Knudsen to Micron, and the triumphs of the Boise State Broncos and Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong.
Today readers are as apt to peck at their smartphone or tablet to read the news as they are to pick up the newspaper on their porch. But whether they are tapping a keyboard, watching a video or combing through the newspaper, the Idaho Statesman continues to connect them to their community and the world.
A voice at the end of the road
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, which would become its primary franchise, was secondary to informing isolated Idahoans on the latest from the battlefields and the East and the West coasts.
As Idaho grew from a frontier territory to a state in 1890, the Idaho Statesman grew, too. Its second publisher, retired territorial Judge Milton Kelly, was best known for his 1864 decision declaring Boise the capital of the territory over Lewiston, a ruling that was, naturally, supported by the Statesman.
Kelly took the newspaper daily on Jan 10, 1888, two years before statehood.
Calvin Cobb and the first golden age
In 1889, Calvin Cobb and his associates bought the Idaho Statesman, and Cobb made his son-in-law, Joseph Perrault, the editor. Later Cobb and his brother-in-law, Jack Lyon, bought out the others and turned the Idaho Statesman into a major newspaper.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Cobb consolidated his ownership in not just the Idaho Statesman but two other Boise newspapers and signed up with The Associated Press, the cooperative through which newspapers shared stories. Cobb was a friend to presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Idaho’s economy was taking off and Boise and the Treasure Valley were being transformed from a desert to an irrigated green Eden. The Statesman supported the building of the Diversion Dam, the New York Canal, Arrowrock Dam, Swan Falls Dam and Twin Falls Canal Co.’s Miner Dam project. As the Roaring Twenties began, the Idaho Statesman was becoming one of the models of the changes as American newspapers entered the modern era. Cobb, now a vice president of AP, sought to serve his readers first while continuing to promote Idaho.
“His objective was to make the Statesman the finest small-town newspaper in the nation,” wrote E.F. McDermott, a former Idaho Statesman editor. “If he did not succeed in this, he came very close in the early ‘20s.” Cobb died in 1929. His legacy was left in the able hands of his daughter, Margaret Cobb Ailshie.
A woman at the helm
A look around America and the world in 1930 would find very few women executives. Women had gained the right to vote, but they were still encouraged to stay in the home and out of the job market - and clearly out of the board room. But Ailshie was her father’s daughter. People who knew her called her fearless. During World War I she had served with the Red Cross and later made several trips to Europe and Asia. A socialite in Boise and Chicago, she lived in Boise for all but the first six years of her life.
Ailshie told her editors and reporters she did not want to publish a “dull newspaper.” She made it happen by hiring her friend and confidant Betty Penson Ward to edit the popular society and arts section. Ailshie kept her father’s Republican philosophy and editorial policy.
The Idaho Statesman celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1939, as the storm clouds of yet another war gathered in Europe.
Ailshie hired Jim Brown as her manager in 1940. A salesman for the Intertype Co., which supplied the Statesman with typecasting equipment, Brown brought technical and business experience to the newspaper’s leadership.
The Idaho Statesman grew under Ailshie. A few other papers came and went. In 1942, Ailshie started the Idaho Evening Statesman and then merged its operations with the Boise Capital News, the long-time Democratic newspaper in Boise that the Cobbs had controlled since early in the century.
Now the Idaho Statesman was the source for a world full of news that had meaning for every Idaho family, and readers could choose morning or evening editions. The Idaho Statesman’s Sunday circulation hit 50,000 in the late 1940s, when the city’s population was 34,000. The Idaho Statesman moved into a new building on Sixth Street near the Idaho Capitol in 1952 as its coverage of state issues was unmatched.
John Corlett was the political editor and his popular column, “Politically Speaking,” was recognized as the most influential in the state.
In 1959, Margaret Cobb Ailshie died, and the Cobb family’s remarkable leadership of journalism in Idaho ended.
When the Idaho Statesman celebrated its centennial July 26, 1964, its special edition honored its history, its founders and its place in Idaho. But it was no longer a locally owned newspaper. Brown inherited the Idaho Statesman from Ailshie and sold it to Michigan-based Federated Publications in 1963.
Ken Robison, a Statesman reporter in the 1950s, returned to the Idaho Statesman from The Associated Press in Denver as Federated was increasing the size of the staff in 1965. He soon became editorial page editor and, for the first time, the Idaho Statesman had an editorial board. It included Robison, Dorsey, managing editor Dick Ronnick and news editor Walter Johnson.
A new tone
Editorially, the newspaper took a new tone, including supporting environmental causes and wilderness preservation. Robison’s predecessor, Bob Anderson, had written an editorial in favor of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1965. In 1969, the Statesman editorialized in favor of banning DDT. It challenged 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 Cloud Mountains, the Statesman opposed it. “The Beauty of the White Clouds Should Be Preserved,” the headline on its March 20, 1969, editorial read.
That ‘70s Statesman
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.
Political reporting tradition
John Corlett covered the Idaho Legislature for the Idaho Statesman from 1937 to 1975, when he retired. Bill Hall, editorial page editor for the Lewiston Tribune, called Corlett the “best reporter ever to cover the Idaho Legislature.” He first covered Frank Church when the teenager won an essay-writing contest. He died in 1999 at 90, outliving Church by 15 years.
Steve Ahrens came to the Idaho Statesman in 1967 as its night reporter. He became political editor in 1975, covering the Idaho Legislature and the dawn of political careers of Idaho leaders such as Sen. Jim Risch, Sen. Larry Craig and the administrations of Govs. Cecil Andrus and John Evans. He left the Statesman in 1983 to serve as the longtime president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. When he retired, he joined the Statesman’s Editorial Board.
Rod Gramer began his journalism career with the Statesman in 1975, covering stories ranging from the Teton Dam to Steve Symms’ upset win over Sen. Frank Church. He served as political editor and editorial page editor until he left in 1988 for a career in television.
Randy Stapilus served under Gramer as a political reporter then took over as political editor from 1986 to 1990. Dan Popkey came to the Statesman in 1984 as a police reporter and covered politics since 1987, reporting on 25 sessions of the Legislature.
With two major high-tech companies on either end of Boise in the 1980s, the Idaho Statesman sought to meet the needs of a changing readership. Pete Zimowsky’s outdoor columns and features became one of the most popular parts of a paper committed to serving outdoors-obsessed readers. Tim Woodward graduated to columnist and feature writer, and his tales of Boise and Idaho kept longtime Idahoans and newcomers attuned to Idaho’s folkways and unique places.
Women lead again
Pamela Meals became publisher in 1994, the first woman since Ailshie. She was the first of three women Gannett would pick to lead the Idaho Statesman as businesses across the nation got better recognizing the value of women. Margaret Buchanan followed Meals and, when she left for Cincinnati, Leslie Hurst took over.
Mike Petrak was briefly publisher after Gannett swapped several papers - including the Statesman - with Knight Ridder in 2005. When McClatchy bought Knight Ridder in 2006, Mi-Ai Parrish become publisher. She was succeeded by Mike Jung. Debra Leithauser served as publisher of the Idaho Statesman from 2015-2017. Rebecca Poynter has served as publisher since April 2018.
In the 1990s, Gannett’s policies favoring shorter stories and more feature news reduced the volume of enterprise and watchdog reporting (reflected in a 1990 banner front-page headline reporting a local television anchor moving to another channel). But in 1993, John Costa came from Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, where he had led a team that had won a Pulitzer Prize.
The Idaho Statesman began running investigative stories on auto airbag safety, early childhood education, immunization and workers’ compensation for farm workers. It also looked at the demise of major employers, such as Morrison-Knudsen, the global construction and engineering company born in Boise.
Costa soon left for Bend, Oregon, where he was editor in chief under former Statesman publisher Gordon Black. All of the editors who followed him, all women - Karen Baker, Carolyn Washburn, Vicki Gowler and Rhonda Prast - followed the approach that Costa made part of the Statesman’s DNA.
The reporter who has often carried this mantle was Popkey. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for his coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise under editor Washburn. In 2007, Gowler assigned Popkey to explore the unsubstantiated reports that Sen. Larry Craig was a homosexual. A blogger’s allegations had run in newspapers across the nation and the state, but Gowler asked for facts. She gave Popkey four months to investigate; when he was done, he had interviewed men who said they had sex with Craig and offered evidence. But Craig was adamant that the men were lying.
Gowler held the story, wanting better evidence before making such explosive claims. When news broke that Craig had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after being charged with soliciting an undercover officer for sex in a Minnesota airport bathroom, the Statesman published Popkey’s story. It was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news.
The sports boom
Sports also had grown into big news in the 1990s, with the arrival of the Steelheads hockey team, the rebuilding of the Boise State Broncos and the arrival on the scene of Kristin Armstrong, a young cyclist from the University of Idaho who qualified for the Olympic Trials in 1999. Boise State University’s football program was gaining national respect, beating Top 10 teams and going undefeated.
Americans were learning about the Broncos through the Statesman stories and columns of Chadd Cripe and Brian Murphy and photographs on the front pages of newspapers like The New York Times by Idaho Statesman photographers.
When Gannett sold the Idaho Statesman to Knight-Ridder Corp. in 2005, almost no one realized the speed with which newspapers would face major changes as part of the digital revolution. Less than a year later, the McClatchy Co. bought Knight-Ridder.
Today the Statesman is printed at the Times News plant in Twin Falls, transmitted digitally. Reporters and photographers transmit from the scene of the news, sending stories, photos and videos from smartphones and laptops. Editors can communicate and edit 24/7, from anywhere they can get a wireless signal. Readers send photos, texts and tweets to the paper and offer their own take on the news in real time, from the scene of a traffic jam, from the Capitol, from Bronco Stadium.
A far cry from those first days, when news bulletins arrived at the Statesman’s dirt-floor cabin after days on horseback. The Idaho Statesman was born in 1864 when its future readers and advertisers asked it to adapt — from a would-be Idaho City paper to become a Boise institution.
The Statesman, with its companion books, magazines, websites and apps, continues its tradition of reinventing itself to be Boise’s and Idaho’s source of news about the community, the state and beyond.