The Power of the Press?

The city of San Diego’s first newspaper was the San Diego Herald, whose initial issue appeared on May 29, 1851.

“The Herald was at first a four-page four-column paper, published every Thursday,” according to William E. Smythe’s 1908 book, History of San Diego: 1542-1908.

A newspaper just four pages in length might sound short today, but in the context of printing technology at the time, and the limited readership in a then-small town, it was state-of-the-art.

Another feature of the paper which might be a surprise to today’s readers but was standard in papers of the day was an unclaimed letters column. And it was a big one.

The very first issue of the Herald, Smythe wrote, “included a list of 320 letters which had accumulated in the San Diego post office.” It filled “five and three-fourths columns.” That’s almost a page and a half of a four-page paper.

Interestingly, Smythe noted that while two columns were devoted to advertisements for local businesses, ads for San Francisco businesses took up “eight and one-fourth columns,” or roughly two and a quarter pages, again in a four-page paper.

Of course, again, San Diego was a small town with a small business community whose residents might need to buy certain goods from San Francisco firms. But another factor was at play here. It seems that the Herald’s editor and publisher, John Judson Ames, had a lot of contacts among the movers and shakers in San Francisco. In fact, Smythe noted that Ames “spent all the time he possibly could in San Francisco.”

One of Ames’ San Francisco contacts was James Gwin, then a United States Senator from California who supported a proposal to divide the state, annex Baja California and the Sandwich Islands and “make San Diego the capital of the territory,” according to 1982 essay by Teri Thorpe in The Journal of San Diego History. The scheme also involved “the construction of a southern transcontinental railroad terminating at San Diego.”

Gwin’s and Ames’ plan never came to fruition. And an 1860 a gold strike near San Bernardino led Ames to pack up his press and move up there, where the paper became the San Bernardino Herald. San Diego would be without a newspaper for the next eight years.

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