When the Louisiana Press Association organized in 1880, newspapers had already been spreading the news and advertising in the state for more than 100 years, and there had already been several previous attempts to establish an organization to represent the interests of the printed news industry in Louisiana.
Nearly 30 years before the creation of the LPA, an 1853 gathering of editors was referred to by a New Orleans newspaper as a printers’ convention, but those in attendance chose the name Louisiana Press Union. However, the committee named to draft resolutions for the Press Union never met, so the effort died. After the failed 1853 effort, four subsequent efforts at organization died when initial interest turned into subsequent inaction.
The Early Days
Finally, in 1880, 15 editors met in Baton Rouge managed what five previous groups had not: they settled on the group’s name, elected officers, and wrote an organizational constitution. They also made an introductory visit to the State Capitol and a pair of informational outings to the Louisiana State University campus and to the state penitentiary. That first group of LPA attendees attended from the state’s roster of 13 dailies, a tri-weekly and 94 weeklies.
Leon Jastremski of the Baton Rouge Capitolian was the new group’s president from 1882 to 1891, and with the earlier failed attempts at organization still a relatively fresh memory, Jastremski was credited with "holding the press together and almost forcing it to meet year after year until a definite organization was established and the membership list was built up." Another important early leader of the group was L.E. Bently of the Donaldsonville Chief; he served as LPA secretary for more than 20 years, from 1880-1884 and again from 1900 to 1917.
In its early years, the LPA focused on many of the state’s issues that are still important today: economic development, education, flood control and immigration. Other issues of the day were child labor and women’s suffrage. Sometimes the issues were more obscure: the LPA was first in the state to request a statewide geological survey, and to recommend that the number of sheets in a ream of paper be counted at 500 instead of 480.
In addition to the public issues, the LPA looked after itself and its members. It watched for, opposed, and fought against any infringement of press freedom in the State Legislature – as it still does to this day. The group asked for justice in legal printing rates and policed its members who practiced cut-throat competition. An early resolution asked members to desist in "the hurtful practice of doing public printing below legal rates and for less than rates to individuals” and especially to discontinue the practice of “offering bonuses or doing the job free of charge."
The LPA also preached professionalism because relations among some competing publications were not always very collegial. It was a time when many newspapers had strong affiliations with the political parties, and editors sometimes wrote harsh words on their editorial pages about other papers’ positions – because they felt that THEIR way to a better Louisiana was better than the other editors’ way. The newspapers’ dueling eventually diminished after political expression had been declared contrary to the rules of the association and another early resolution asked members to, "as a body, use our best efforts to advance and maintain the dignity of the press.”
Programs for the early annual conventions usually consisted of wearying speeches on political and cultural problems of the day, and literary compositions and poems for which prizes were given. So the convention-goers liked any excuse for an excursion: cruising on a steamer on the Mississippi River, taking a four-coach special to San Antonio, or journeying to the St. Louis World’s Fair or even to Cuba. Convention delegates took pleasure in picnics, grand balls, tours of the convention city, salt mines and sugarcane plantations. In 1885, Charles W. Schwing of the Iberville South lamented "meeting for the sole purpose of having a frolic."
Perhaps the fun was as an antidote to the nature of the programs. Upon his return from the 1901 convention, the Opelousas Courier’s editor Sandoz reported: "A number of excellent papers were read, new members were admitted and the usual routine business was transacted in the old stereotyped way, but nothing practical was done to advance the interest of the true journalist or to make the profession more attractive to the steady workers in its ranks, though with striking unselfishness a number of public interests were seriously considered and carefully looked after."
When the state health officer spoke to the convention on "Our Imperative Sanitary Duties" in 1914, the indignant outcry from St. Francisville True Democrat editor Elrie Robinson was: "...why should he address the editors, essaying to teach the already taught. Nine out of ten speakers at past meetings would not know the difference between type lice and a glue pot. ...Speakers should talk shop, shop, and more shop."
In the 1900s the LPA endorsed the National Editorial Association and sent delegates to St. Paul, MN; adopted the motto "Truth" and official colors of green and gold; labored for schools of journalism at the state’s universities; and investigated the idea of newsprint made from cotton stalks. The editors continued to protect their self-interests from a multitude of threats to the press and deplored what they termed an "editorial tax" as "nothing short of putting a premium on ignorance."
In 1917, the association expressed an interested in having a central office. But H.M. Blain, head of the LSU Department of Journalism, reported to that year’s convention that the time had not yet come.
In 1918, LPA President Savery M. Lewis of Ruston wrote to notify the membership of the cancellation of that year’s convention due to “conditions necessitating conservation and economy of food, time and labor to the end that the country's resources and production may be utilized to the greatest possible extent for the support and comfort of the fighting forces of America and her associates in this vital and righteous contest."
And that was the last LPA gathering for the next 10 years. Despite a 38-year run from 1880, the “first” LPA fell to the same general disinterest of the other pre-1880 efforts at organizing the state’s newspaper industry. After the 1918 gathering was cancelled, the LPA did not convene for several years. But in 1926, editors in north Louisiana met and organized a North Louisiana Press Association. Not to be outdone, the downstate editors followed suit with a South Louisiana Press Association the following year. The next year, the two groups met together in 1928 to revive the old LPA under a new constitution, with the two associations becoming north and south divisions of the larger organization.
First “Field Manager” Named In 1936
After the editors and publishers began meeting again in 1928, the topic of a central office for the organization was discussed at the conventions year after year until, the LSU School of Journalism agreed in 1936 to provide a field manager service for the LPA. Bruce McCoy, an experienced newspaperman and trade association executive from Wisconsin, was named head of the LSU Journalism Extension Service and became the LPA’s first field manager.
With a unified front in the 1930s, the LPA successfully fought a gag law and tax on advertising revenue by Gov. Huey Long, helped a public push for a uniform driver’s license law, and focused on an amendment requiring all police juries, school boards and other public bodies to publish their proceedings and financial statements. The precursor of the popular LPA Better Newspaper contest was born in this period, with establishment of an annual “newspaper clinic” at which members could submit issues for critique and be awarded blue ribbons.
With Bruce McCoy at the helm, the LPA weathered World War II and its shortages and rising costs. But those torments were offset by better revenue from legal and advertising revenues, paid‑inadvance circulation and job printing.
McCoy, a teacher, journalist and LPA promoter, turned the association's attention to bringing previously disinterested editors into the group. Area meetings and visiting programs helped membership grow. Top-flight journalism and typographical professionals brought their expertise to Louisiana newspapers. The legal rate and official journal laws were modernized.
Ronald G. Hicks was named as the new LPA field manager when McCoy retired in 1962 after a quarter-century at the helm. Hicks said LPA's purpose was that of any trade association: to do for its members in concert what individual members, left to their own resources, could not do for themselves.
Hicks encouraged a “working” board of directors, and a vast amount of useful information went out to publishers in the LPA’s information bulletin and revamped monthly magazine. The office serviced national advertising accounts, lobbied for newspaper interests at the Legislature, held spring and fall clinics and conventions, revised its contests for wider participation to stimulate professionalism, made available a group insurance program and credit protection service, and compiled an advertising rate directory.
These were the years of still more cost increases and newsprint shortages, a rise in the number of “shoppers” with non-paid circulation, second thoughts of publishers switching from letterpress to offset, and revision of the state’s official journal statute.
LPA Goes Independent In 1972
That was also the time when many members began to feel that the LPA should separate from the influence of LSU, and have its own office and manager. Thus, the LPA was incorporated in 1972, Hicks stepped down at the end of 1973, and 1974 began with the installation of Colorado Press Association assistant manager Max Franz as the first fulltime manager of the newly independent LPA.
The board kept a zealous watch over an onslaught of legislation and the Constitutional Convention. The board revised the membership dues structure, increased associate memberships, repeatedly sought a study of the journalism curriculum in the state’s universities, and offered assistance to newspapers that were troubled with open records problems, public body executive sessions and ineligible newspapers being named as official journals.
The annual conventions were not without some occasional discord. In 1974, when it became know that a renowned belly dancer was scheduled to performing at an after-hours gathering, several publishers objected and her appearance was cancelled. At that same convention, a motion during the business session to NOT purchase a headquarters was tabled. With no blocking motion in place, the organization gave up space on Main Street that it has been leasing since the split from LSU and purchased a new headquarters location on North Fifth Street.
To help cover the costs of purchasing and settling into new quarters, renovation of the building and hiring staff, the board investigated money-making schemes such as a clipping service and publicity mailings. A major source of income was and continues to be its ad placement service.
Upon Max Franz’s departure in 1978, Steve Charton was hired as executive director and Jill Wilson as Office Manager. But Charton served only briefly and Jill Wilson assumed full leadership of the organization’s operations for the next 15 years.
Major topics of the day at board meetings continued to include convention planning, and the organization’s efforts to battle for newspapers’ interests in the Legislature: protecting official journals and legal advertising, and promoting open meetings. The LPA also continued to be interested in the journalism programs at the state’s universities and colleges, and organized editorial and advertising clinics and workshops across the state.
In 1982, it was suggested that the LPA would benefit from the services of a fulltime legal representative and legislative lobbyist, and Baton Rouge attorney John Koch became both – as the lobbyist in 1982 and legal counsel in 1986.
Recognizing changing business practices by their own members, the organization in 1985 changed its rules to allow active membership in the LPA by publications that had at least 50 percent paid circulation – the previous figure had been 80 percent paid.
1988 A Very Good Year
1988 was a very good year for the LPA and its members in the Louisiana Legislature. When an Occupational License Tax was adopted in 1986 that included newspapers, the LPA and Koch worked diligently to get the “tax on free speech” changed, and they succeed two years later when editors and publishers were exempted from the tax. The 1988 session also saw three of four proposed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) bills passed, and a change to the legal minutes laws that would have hurt newspapers was beaten back.
Upon Jill Wilson’s retirement in 1993, Pam Mitchell-Wagner, who had joined the staff as Advertising Director in January 1989, was elevated to Executive Director. Her charge was to move the LPA from an association micro-managed by the board to a fully functioning association with the board focused more on governance issues and less on day-to-day organizational operations. The board held numerous strategic planning sessions to work toward that operating status.
In 1995, the LPA took pride in the installment of one of its own, Sam Hanna, to the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame. Hanna, publisher of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday and several other publications in the northeastern part of the state, and a syndicated columnist in papers across the state, was highly regarded for his knowledge of state politics and the workings of Louisiana government. He was active in LPA matters as a board member and supporter of the newspapers’ interests in the Legislature. That same year, the LPA finally issued a handbook on Louisiana newspaper laws that had been in the works for a few years.
In the early 1990s, the state had targeted the entire block on North Fifth Street, where the LPA was located, for long-range development, and in 1996 the organization sold the North Fifth property and moved to its current home at 404 Europe Street. That was also the year that the LPA first appeared on the World Wide Web – the internet – with its own web page.
In 2003, Jeff David, publisher of the Livingston Parish News in Denham Springs and an active LPA member, brought positive attention to the state’s newspaper industry as he ascended to the presidency of the National Newspaper Association.
When Mitchell-Wagner became Executive Director, the LPA had fulltime staff of three and advertising sales – on behalf of the member newspapers – of less than $250,000 a year. Those figures grew to a staff of 17 and ad sales of $17 million annually.
In 2005, the LPA staged a mega-convention to mark its 125th anniversary. The theme for the gathering in Lafayette was “What’s black and white and “read” all over?” and attendees did their best to dress in black, white and red.
Double Hurricane Hit In 2005
But only a few months later, times changed for many newspapers in the state when Hurricane Katrina smashed through southeast Louisiana in late August, followed by Hurricane Rita into the southwestern part of the state three weeks later. The storms left wind, storm-surge and flooding damage in their wake in their respective target areas. The aftermath became a very busy time for the LPA, as it aided affected member newspapers with an assistance hotline, dues waivers, and other services. The office staff attended to basic needs for the Times-Picayune staff in hard-hit New Orleans, helping find housing for staff members – and even their horses. The LPA became the official issuer of press credentials for all media – local and national, print and broadcast – and the LPA office served as the mail/package drop-off point for newspapers that when their delivery services were interrupted. The organization set up the LPA Foundation, from which it awarded grants to help affected newspapers maintain operations. That year’s LPA president, David Specht Jr., awarded his President’s Award at the annual convention to the entire office staff for their work in the hurricane aftermath.
As the Katrina-Rita recovery has continued, the LPA has spent much time on education. There were seminars for newspapers’ writing, advertising, and circulation staffs, and Wagner spent much of her decade educating individual newspaper staff members on basic matters: What is public notice? How do I charge for it? Should I run this crash-scene photograph that includes a victim’s body in it? I’m from out of state, how do newspaper laws work in Louisiana?
With the advent of term limits for the Louisiana Legislature, there was an erosion of institutional memory concerning the importance of open meetings, public notice and public records and the LPA’s legislative work increased greatly. During the same period, newspaper ownership and staffs were changing, and the LPA’s staff, board and committees worked unceasingly to educate the new lawmakers, the newspaper staffs, and the out-of-state corporate owners with one-on-one meetings with legislators and round-tables for newspaper staff and open sessions for the public-at-large across the state. As a result, the LPA’s work in the legislature tripled.
Mitchell-Wagner, who retired in 2017 with nearly three decades of service to the LPA – 25 years of them as Executive Director – brought notice to the LPA when she served as president of the National Association of Executive Directors, the Newspaper Association Managers group, and the Louisiana Society of Association Executives – from which she received the President’s Award in her final year at the LPA.
Even as the state has continued to rebound from Katrina and Rita, the LPA has faced new challenges. The internet has changed how news is collected and distributed and how goods and services are advertised. Those factors and changes in newspaper ownership has led to how newspapers are served by the LPA and how they are represented on the board and its committees. And in 2018, Will Chapman, a third-generation Louisiana newspaper publisher and himself a former president of the LPA, succeeded Pam Mitchell-Wagner as the executive director of the organization.
The newspaper industry has changed in many ways in the years since the founding of the LPA, and the Louisiana Press Association will continue to look after the changing interests of its changing members as it has for the past 140 years.
NOTE: Lou Major Jr. spent nearly 30 years at the Bogalusa Daily News, from 1973 to 2002. He served on LPA’s board and was president for 1998-1999. He crafted this history of LPA by updating an earlier LPA history written by Lynn Nelson for the LPA’s 100th anniversary. Major Jr. also reviewed LPA board minutes and annual convention reports from the 1970s through the 2000s, and got recollections from Pam Mitchell-Wagner, who was the LPA’s Executive Director from 1993 to 2017.