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Portsmouth Herald Seeks Its Own Birth Date
Nicole Cloutier with Penny Post first edition / J. Dennis Robinson

 

Journalism as blood sport

Newspapers in the 19th century served as soap boxes for diverse and often contentious political factions. Editors pulled no punches in the war of words, often insulting one another in print. “Politically, we’re so tame,” Tabor says of modern journalism compared to an era when fair and balanced reporting was not necessarily the goal.

The competing Republican daily, the Morning Chronicle, described the start-up Penny Post in 1884 as “well made up and well printed,” while noting that “it flies a republican flag of the largest size.” But in 1892, soon after Hartford took the reigns of the Penny Post, the same rival paper lambasted FW in print as having “a lump of diseased tissue that serves him as a brain.”

According to Brighton, Hartford fought back. He brought legal action for this and other insults and, by the following year, FW managed to gain control of the daily Chronicle. He also took over its weekly publication, The New Hampshire Gazette, established on October 7, 1756 by printer Daniel Fowle. According to Tabor, FW officially purchased the “property, assets, goodwill, and business” of the two Portsmouth papers a few years later for $2,956.

Fuzzy math

This is where the story gets murky and much more digging is needed. No paper or microfilm copy of the Post (elsewhere called The Evening Post) dated beyond 1890 could be found at the public library or the Portsmouth Atheanuem. The Post seems to disappear from the City Directory by 1893. Possibly Hartford abandoned the Penny Post in favor of the two more established papers. The Chronicle was the city’s oldest daily dating back to 1852, while the Gazette, according to its own slogan, was the nation’s oldest newspaper. During this era Hartford is still listed as working at the shipyard and as correspondent to the Manchester Union.

The first mention of Hartford’s new Portsmouth Herald pops up in the 1897 City Directory. There is a large ad in the back of the directory, but it reads simply “Subscribe for the Portsmouth Herald.”  Historian Ray Brighton dates the founding of the Herald as 1897, but the first issue of the Herald on microfilm is dated January 1, 1898. The newspaper owns no original printed copies. The first copy on microfilm promised “More local news than all other dailies combined” and claimed to be “the family favorite.” In 1898 that meant front page stories about dog fights, whist tournaments, navy yard wages, runaway horses, financial stats, fires, and local gossip. One early feature focuses on a Dover man on trial for poisoning a woman with arsenic.

Penny_Post_Front_page_1884

Stop the presses

Another last-minute sweep of the top floor Portsmouth Athenaeum archives has just turned up the earliest known cache of the Portsmouth Herald dated from July 1, 1897 to the end of the year. The heavy cardboard cover has long since broken from its binding. The pages are brown and extremely brittle. They have apparently never been copied onto microfilm. The start-up paper sold for two cents, and a tiny box in the upper right corner read: “Hasn’t 5,000 circulation, but this is good growing weather.”

Yet this fragile, perhaps one-of-a-kind collection from 1897 still does not appear to contain the very first Herald. There may still be earlier copies. There is no bold introduction by the editor as with other Portsmouth papers. A year later on April 5, 1898, FW Hartford announced that the Chronicle and the Gazette were under his management. The daily, he promised, would remain a “clean” and “fearless” republican paper, while the nation’s oldest newspaper would not suffer in his hands “if hustle and enterprise can prevent it.”

But we are left, at this writing, with no precise idea what transpired between Hartford’s purchase of the Post in 1891 and the arrival of the first Herald six years later.

“As far as I know nobody’s ever dug deep enough to get the hard facts,” says Steve Fowle, editor and publisher of the fortnightly New Hampshire Gazette. Fowle has devoted years to studying the complex and contentious history of newspaper publication in Portsmouth. His detailed timeline of 40 local newspapers dating from before the Revolutionary War is a key resource for researchers.

With the constant shifting of newspaper names, offices, editors, and publishers, Fowle says, it is not surprising that mistakes are made. Since 1884 the Herald has moved from Congress Street to Pleasant, back to Congress, down to Maplewood, and out to Pease International Tradeport. Since the digital age, local newspapers have largely disposed of the paper “morgues” that held their published back issues. Print copies of many city newspapers are missing from the archives at the Portsmouth Atheanaeum. And collections on microfilm are often spotty with missing copies and incomplete editions.

“Newspapers are too busy trying to get out the next paper and scurrying around trying to find out who’s doing what to whom on the city council,” Fowle says. “Every day you put out a newspaper you have the opportunity to make a new mistake.”

History is always an abbreviated best guess. Facts get fudged, lost, and truncated. One historian reports what the last one wrote.  Harford considered the Herald an extension of the Post and did not restart the clock when his new daily appeared in 1897. This is a common practice, Fowle says. In the same vein, Portsmouth, first settled around 1630 and named Strawberry Bank, has appropriated the 1623 founding date of nearby Rye.

PORTSMOUTH HERALD HISTORY continued

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