'Give Readers Courage': When Grit Newspaper Sold Peace and Positivity
In the 1960s, roughly 30,000 kids had a job in which they were effectively their own bosses. Each weekend, they would canvas neighborhoods to deliver a weekly newspaper to existing customers or solicit subscriptions from new readers. Some even stood on street corners to peddle their wares.
Their clientele was impressive—about 728,000 people, which would eventually grow to 1.5 million by 1969. Many of them insisted they didn’t read TIME or Reader’s Digest. Instead, they opted for what the carriers were offering. It was called Grit, and it was in sharp contrast to the news landscape of today.
Grit carries no sensationalistic news of wars, though several have taken place since its launch in 1882. There is little to nothing about murder, or juvenile delinquents, or tragedies. Columnists don't take politicians to task.
All that was left was good news. Or, as founder Dietrick Lamade once told his staff: “Always keep Grit from being pessimistic. Avoid printing those things which distort the minds of readers or make them feel at odds with the world. Avoid showing the wrong side of things, or making people feel discontented. Do nothing that will encourage fear, worry, or temptation. Whenever possible, suggest peace and good will toward men. Give our readers courage and strength for their daily tasks. Put happy thoughts, cheer, and contentment in their hearts.”
This was not your typical newspaper.
Hot Off the Presses
At the time Grit launched in the 1880s, having a philosophy of bringing readers positive headlines was a bit of an aberration. “Yellow” journalism and muckraking was the standard; publishers tried to upstage one another with tawdry stories that lacked basic fact-checking and headlines meant to incite fear or anger among readers. New York Journal owner William Randolph Hearst—who was said to have been the inspiration for Orson Welles's 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane—has even been blamed for drumming up support for the Spanish-American War thanks to his sensationalized stories of strife in Cuba.
Dietrick Lamade didn’t embrace Hearst’s approach to selling newspapers. Lamade, a German immigrant, was an assistant press foreman for Williamsport, Pennsylvania's The Daily Sun and Banner. In December 1882, he was assisting in a Saturday supplement titled Grit, which was lighter in tone than the daily edition and featured comics and local interest stories.
When The Daily Sun and Banner decided to cease publication of Grit in 1884, Lamade resolved to make a bold move. With the help of the man who edited the Grit supplement as well as a local printer, he bought out the local printing press of another, recently-defunct newspaper and also acquired the rights to the Grit name. (To this day, no one is quite sure where the name came from, other than as a reference to the “true grit” of rural Americans.)
Lamade wanted to stop printing someone else’s paper and issue his own. For a total investment of $1250, he got his wish: The Grit Publishing Company was born. Within a few months, he had a circulation of 4000. By 1886, it was 14,000.
The very first issue of Grit was concerned with some of the more modest details of life in Williamsport, like cold weather impacting the conditions of streets in town. By the early 20th century, a typical issue might consist of up to 24 pages with a lot of news, comic strips like Donald Duck and Blondie, and even poems. It might also contain a separate “story section” insert with feel-good human interest content.
Later, when it did address matters of world consequence, the spin was usually upbeat. Even a mention of Nazis during World War II was in the context of how “Nazi youths” were being “demilitarized at a camp set up in France.”
But early on, it looked like Grit might not survive into a new era. A newspaper startup accrues debt, and Lamade’s venture was no different. To increase revenue, he decided to stop thinking strictly about his base of operations in Williamsport and about how to best go out nationally.
The answer was, of course, responsible child labor.
As early as 1891, Lamade decided that adult sales agents traveling by train to spread the Grit word weren’t enough. Neither were contests that awarded lucky readers prizes like a rifle, piano, or bedroom set. Though readers were attracted to the games of chance—circulation increased to 53,000 in states east of the Mississippi and then to 100,000 by 1900—Lamade wanted to take advantage of a national circulation. Though he kept a local Williamsport edition and even one for the state of Pennsylvania, he wanted a third—one that would reach the entire country.
His idea was to recruit children—and not just any kids, but kids in rural areas with populations that weren’t necessarily being served by major metropolitan newspapers. This was difficult early on, as Lamade didn’t have a direct line to the boys and girls who could act as juvenile sales representatives. He made his appeal in the pages of Grit, hoping that a young reader might want to have a side hustle. Those who signed up got a chest pin and were expected to fill out sales forms weekly, sending the money collected along to Grit. For each issue, which cost 10 cents, the salesperson would remit 7 cents to Grit and keep 3 cents for themselves. An average kid might sell anywhere from 5 to 450 copies every week.
During the Great Depression, this was welcome income, though it was far from easy work. In 1995, one former Grit salesperson, Tom Flowers, recalled that his 5-mile route took up most of his Saturdays. “I could have covered it faster, but I stopped to eat and talk at all my costumers’ houses," he wrote.
Flowers was just one of many captivated by the Grit solicitations. One 1932 ad read:
“Boys—Sell Grit—Earn cash, also a watch, rifle, glove, wagon, knife, scooter and many more free prizes. Fellows, you can have a paying business of your own by selling Grit on Saturdays. Over 19,000 boys are now making money and winning prizes. Besides their free prizes, many of them earn $1 to $5 every Saturday.”
Then Lamade found the ultimate outreach program: Comic books.
Comics were gaining popularity in the 1940s and 1950s and becoming one of the most pervasive entertainment mediums—and Lamade and his Grit staff realized that advertising in comic books was the most effective recruiting tool they had. The ads incited readers to take up the Grit beat, hawking the papers to their neighbors for a small cut of the profits or prizes.
There was even some propaganda involved. According to Johnson City Press columnist Bob Cox, Grit once published a comic featuring a boy who longs for the same kind of adulation given to a friend of his at a local Boys Club. After becoming a Grit newsboy, he achieves it.
From 1932 to 1969, Grit’s circulation went from 400,000 to 1.5 million with the help of a small and militant assembly of kids who quietly weaved their way door-to-door to entice new readers. The strategy made Grit one of the few publications that didn’t need to rely heavily on advertising or mail order.
In making their appeal directly to a consumer, Grit tapped an untapped market. By one estimate, 65 percent of copies were sold in towns with populations of less than 1000.
A Family Affair
From its inception, Grit prioritized an all-ages editorial policy. Long after Lamade retired in 1936 and died at age 79 in 1938, the paper continued to offer positivity. Grit was helped along by his sons, George and Howard Lamade and, eventually, his grandsons.
“It's reading and entertainment for all members of the family,” editor Kenneth A. Rhone told The New York Times in 1970. “And it's our proud boast that they'll find nothing offensive in our pages—we keep it clean.”
By the 1980s, an issue sported headlines like “Twins: Twice the Fun for Mom and Dad” and “Indiana Cop Uses Puppets to Solve Crimes.”
George Lamade saw the paper through its best stretch. In the 1970s, following George's death at age 71 in 1965, Grit's fortunes began to change. In addition to outliving its older readership, rising postal and printing costs narrowed the paper's profit margins. Increasing competition from new periodicals, television, and video games led to a dip in Grit's circulation. By 1980, the paper was down to 650,000 subscribers. Worse, it was down to just 12,000 child salespeople.
In 1981, the Lamade family stepped down after Grit was acquired by ADVO Print Inc., marking the end of its 97-year run as a family operation. Two years later, the paper was purchased by Stauffer Communications; in 1996, Stauffer sold it to Ogden Publications of Wheeling, West Virginia. By 2006, Grit was no longer a newspaper but a bimonthly magazine, a format it continues to this day.
Given the increasingly alarming headlines of 21st century reporting, it’s easy to understand Grit’s enduring appeal. The paper wasn’t designed to elevate a reader’s blood pressure but to reduce it—or, in Dietrick Lamade’s words, to “suggest peace and good will towards men.” Paging through an issue of Grit, a reader got the feeling that there was still some good news worth hearing.