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The Role of Local Newspapers — Then and Now

Hamilton County is lucky to have several local sources for news in spite of newspapers’ demise nationwide. Between 2004 and 2015, the United States lost more than 1,800 print outlets for various reasons, including corporate mergers.

While the journalism industry has changed dramatically over the last few decades, it has always played a vital role in our community.

What was news in the late 1800s

In the past, not everything seemed fit to be in print. Consider the rumors surrounding suffragist and civil rights activist Tennessee Claflin, who became wealthy and famous as the mistress of multi-millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt. (Like a Kardashian, she was famous for being famous.)

According to multiple sources in 1872, the publisher of the Noblesville Ledger, William J. Bodehamer, was Claflin’s ex-husband, but there is no actual record of such a relationship. Was this accurate? Was this newsworthy? In fact, the blurb was a straight-up hoax and meant to be an insult to Bodehamer.

The front page of the Noblesville Daily Ledger from November 11, 1918.

Hamilton County Historian David Heighway explains. “In the 1870s, it’s important to know that newspaper publishing was something of a contact sport. The public understood this and enjoyed it thoroughly,” he says. Editors competing for readers’ attention took all kinds of liberties.

“In the early 1880s, the Noblesville papers evidentially got tired of topics like the new telephone system and trotting races. The Republican-Ledger went all out in October of 1883 and wrote a series of articles titled ‘Noblesville’s Bagnios,’” Heighway writes.

The series of reports outed supposed houses of ill repute and the people who led them. A competing paper, the Independent, accused the Republican-Ledger of fake news, to which they responded by saying the Independent supported such debauchery.

Heighway says that even these poorly substantiated reports can be useful to historians.

“Comparing these stories to legitimate sources like census and marriage records can develop fuller biographies of the people involved and perhaps get a sense of what motivated them. One of the women, Elizabeth Hudson, was a widow with three children who had spent part of the previous year on the county Indigent List,” Heighway says.

December 31, 1909, edition of the Hamilton County Times.

In a January 8, 1875, issue of the Noblesville Ledger, a “Mrs. Wienawski” of Fishers Switch warns mothers and wives in her community of the dangers that alcohol poses to their sons and husbands. Six years after her warning was published, a man died, 32 were wounded, and two buildings were destroyed after a feud between two saloons.

Wienawski’s firsthand account is valuable to the historical record for several reasons.

“Mrs. Wienawski’s letter was a view of Fishers just a couple of years after its founding. Even more, it’s from a woman’s point of view — presumably. It is one of the first mentions of saloon problems in that area. In addition, it has a great description of how people celebrated the holidays,” Heighway says.

One of the shorter-lived publications in Hamilton County was the Iconoclast. It is notable because it was completely out of character for the city, Heighway says. Unlike other editors of his time, the Iconoclast’s W. H. Lamaster railed against temperance and wrote in favor of being skeptical of religion.

In an August 12, 1881, editorial in the Noblesville Republican-Ledger, a writer calls Lamaster a “notorious infidel” planning to publish a “full-fledged infidel paper.” Such slanted journalism reflects at least some of the sentiment of the moment.

2023’s local newsgatherers

The value of a local paper goes far beyond their contribution to the historical record. Stu Clampitt is Publisher of the Hamilton County Reporter Newspaper.

The October 26, 2023, edition of The Hamilton County Reporter.

“When a small town or city loses their newspaper, they lose a sense of their own community,” he says. If everything you read is national or from the perspective of people who don’t have a vested interest in your community — aka, they don’t live there — the stories they cover aren’t as connected to the community and its readers.

On the pages of the Hamilton County Reporter Newspaper, Clampitt says, there is an abundance of faces and very short stories that no one else is going to cover. Recent stories included the 100th anniversary of Arcadia’s Delta Chapter of Phi Beta Psi and the Westfield Lions Club's 93rd anniversary celebration.

Led by Sports Editor Richie Hall, high school sports also get a lot of attention. "I haven’t seen anyone with the passion and organization skills and ability to build relationships with the staff that Richie has," Clampitt says. Hall makes sure the county's six public school districts as well as some private and outlying schools get covered.

“You’re seeing your own neighbors and organizations you care about and are involved in. This is especially important in Hamilton County, where people are moving in at a high rate,” Clampitt says.

Having a regular record of happenings and news is important to a community. Tim Timmons, Publisher of The Noblesville Times, says that no one source of news can provide someone with a holistic view of their world.

“Local news is part of the network that keeps a community informed,” Timmons says. In addition to top news stories, the Noblesville Times’ reporting includes government meeting agendas, upcoming festivals and even school lunch menus.

There is no doubt that future historians will continue to look to newspapers for information on people and events from our past. Today’s newspaper editors and publishers, however, are most focused on the here and now.

The October 26, 2023, edition of The Times of Noblesville.

Both the Hamilton County Reporter Newspaper and The Noblesville Times print one issue weekly and then distribute a daily online issue. The publishers say that how a reporter covers a story has vastly changed over the years.

“We don’t have that old newsroom where there are a bunch of people and a lot of energy. Today, we get everything done because we find people who we know can do the job without someone standing over their shoulder. A lot of what we do is on the phone or over the Internet. Often we already know all about the event before we get there. It’s more efficient than it used to be,” Clampitt says. It has to be. “Everyone wants everything instantly.”

In the past, Timmons says, if a reporter worked at a metro or a larger newspaper and needed information, they would go to the paper’s librarian, who would dig through the archives and deliver information to the reporter.

“Now, we can go online and Google a topic or go to a specific website,” he says. “There are also a lot more electronic interviews by phone and email. In the past, face-to-face was preferred — and yelling in the newsroom was standard.”

History is important to today’s reporters. Timmons says his team might go online to the Indiana Newspaper Archives database to search for data related to things such as tax rates or murder rates in the county. During an election cycle, Clampitt says they use official records to report on trends in voter turnout. Or if a building is being demolished, they might look to old newspaper stories to research the history of the structure.

On the morning we spoke, Timmons had just left the office of the Brown County Democrat. During his short time there, a man came in requesting a copy of a newspaper from the 1970s that included his grandmother’s obituary. A second reader asked for a copy of the paper for her son who had moved away. The son had recently married, and his mother had a tradition of collecting a copy of the Democrat on each date that represented important moments in his life.

While the newspaper business has totally evolved over the last 200 years, its attachment to our local Hamilton County community and ability to tell stories that shape who we are remain intact.

The Hamilton County Bicentennial is proudly supported by Duke Energy, Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, Hamilton County Tourism Inc., and Hamilton County Historical Society.


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