History shows change brings better newspapers – Quad-Cities Online

I sit down to work each day at the desk that was once that of John W. Potter, publisher of the Rock Island Argus. If only this desk could talk.

I’m well familiar with the history of The Argus, which dates back to 1851 — a history that took on a new chapter with the recent sale of the Dispatch-Argus to Lee Enterprises. I’ve read and written about former publisher J.B. Danforth, who used its pages to oppose the Civil War – not on the issue of slavery but states’ rights. I have dug through dusty archives and traveled the country to tell the story of William Jobe, an Argus printer who went off to fight for the Union army and sent home lengthy dispatches about bloody battles. I’ve written a book on the history of gangster John Looney, whose nemesis was Minnie Potter, John’s wife and Argus publisher in the 1910s and ‘20s.

Mr. Danforth owned the paper from 1852 to 1869. The Argus changed hands several times, was combined with The Islander, and briefly suspended publication in 1881 before being rescued by the Potter family, which would feature three generations of John W. Potters. The original John W. Potter, publisher of the Freeport Bulletin, bought the paper and sent his son, John W. Potter, to run it. The paper absorbed the Daily Union (founded in 1862) in 1920.

Change is part of the history of this and other local newspapers.

When I first came to town in 1986 after The Dispatch bought The Argus from the Potters, I was put in Mr. Potter’s office on the second floor of the old Argus building. I hated the closed-in office because I thrive on the energy that flows among those covering the news.

As operations were consolidated, the newsroom moved to the main floor of the downtown Rock Island building and I took over Marguerite Potter’s old office. The ceiling was open; the top half was glass. It was not private, but just right.

Today, my Moline office also has a large glass window overlooking the newsroom. The door is always open so staff can wander in and I can hear what’s going on. Two Michael Blaser prints on the wall are constant reminders of the hustle-bustle of downtown Rock Island during the riverboat era. A drawing by 1920s-era cartoonist Carl Ed hangs on another wall. Then there’s Mr. Potter’s desk.

A history of The Rock Island Argus written in 1925 noted, “The Argus was among the first newspapers in the middle west to drop the practice of what was known as ‘personal journalism’ when printing the news unalloyed by personal observations and confining what was printed in the news columns to facts, became recognized as the ideal of the newspaper business.”

Besides ownership, much has changed in the newspaper industry. In my years alone, we have gone from hot metal letterpress printing, to offset presses, four or more generations of computers and now digital presentation. Don’t even get me started on photography! All have been improvements.

The 1925 Argus history noted the paper “has ever been abreast of the times. Changes for the better, in policy, in equipment and in methods of management have always been adopted by those who happened to be in control when new theories along these line came to their attention.”

Ninety-two years later and 166 years after the paper’s founding, that statement still rings true. Our new owners brought with them the message “Keep doing what you’re doing” while initiating new processes that have been proven at Lee-owned newspapers across the country.

I don’t take the history represented by this desk lightly and history has played out similarly at The Dispatch. Acquisition of both papers by the Small family brought advancements in their own time.

Running a newspaper has always involved doing the very best you can to serve readers and advertisers while working smart and using resources wisely. That hasn’t changed in over 160 years. Joining the Lee chain is no different than when J.B. Danforth bought the paper from its founders, when the Smalls merged The Argus with The Dispatch, and certainly much preferred over when the Potter family scooped The Argus off the scrap heap.

This industry – like virtually every other — will continue to change as it has throughout history. That history shows that each subsequent sale has resulted in an improved product. I expect that to be the case again.


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