When I began volunteering at The Historic New Orleans Collection in November, my station was directly in front of the cherrywood desk used by Eliza Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson when she was publisher of the Daily Picayune, from 1876 to 1896.
My proximity to this piece of New Orleans history was striking to me because I had lost my job at The Times-Picayune, successor to the Daily Picayune, just a month earlier, when The T-P cut back publication from seven days a week to three. What would Nicholson have thought about the “digital-first” strategy at the paper, which her family continued to own until 1962?
She would have considered the strategy carefully. She was deeply concerned with the financial sustainability of the Daily Picayune, which was at least $80,000 in debt when she inherited it from her husband, former publisher Col. Alva Morris Holbrook, upon his death on Jan. 6, 1876.
Nicholson took a personal interest in the broad distribution of the newspaper. This is reflected in a passage from a letter sent to her by business manager Thomas G. Rapier on Nov. 10, 1886, apparently dealing with a problem with distribution to Hot Springs, Ark. This letter was probably sent to her at her second home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where she raised her sons Leonard, born in 1881, and Yorke, born in 1883.
“I will attend to the Hot Springs business at once,” Rapier wrote. “We have the paper on sale at almost all (points?), but in such far away places there are generally very few sold. It makes one feel bad to be getting back nearly all that are sent. Sometimes the dealers, after having received two or three a day for a month, and only selling 8 or 10, order them stopped. However, we try to keep a paper within the reach of everyone in this section of the U.S.”
Nicholson presided over tripling of the Daily Picayune’s circulation, from 6,000 daily and 6,000 Sunday in 1878 to 19,000 daily and 30,000 Sunday in 1891. In 1893, she opened the newspaper’s first out-of-state news bureau at Jackson, Miss., giving her newspaper stronger ties to its sizable readership in Mississippi.
In evaluating the digital-first strategy, Nicholson would have proved to be no Luddite. The Daily Picayune was one of the first 100 New Orleans telephone subscribers when the office at 66 Camp St. was connected in 1879; Alexander Graham Bell had patented the device in 1876.
A Jan. 25, 1887, special edition celebrating the “semi-centennial” of the Picayune noted, “In November, 1886, the entire Picayune establishment was lighted by electricity, employing 170 incandescent lamps of the Brush-Swan system.” Charles Brush had invented brilliant electric arc lights that were almost all used for street lighting. Brush-Swan incandescent bulbs were manufactured from 1885 to 1895.
Linotype, invented in 1884, was introduced in the Picayune’s plant in 1892, as were typewriters, although Nicholson did not use them.
“I have never used a typewriter or dictated to a stenographer in transferring my thoughts to paper,” Nicholson was quoted as saying in the July 1889 issue of Phonographic World, a magazine devoted to the interests of shorthand and typewriting.
“In the actual course of composition, at those moments when the overpowering desire to speak out the thoughts that burn within comes over me, ideas come trooping through my mind much more rapidly than my pen can keep pace,” Nicholson was quoted as saying. “I seldom transcribe a full word, jobbing a half-finished one as my pen runs along in the attempt to express as quickly as I can think all that I would fain commit to paper. I am therefore compelled to re-write all my compositions myself, as it must be evident to you from my method of composing it would be impossible for an amanuensis, however willing, to do it for me.”
Faced with a recommendation to alter the fundamental nature of her business, Nicholson would have proved to be unafraid to make tough decisions in support of what she believed in. After Holbrook’s death in 1876, friends and family urged her to cut her losses and move on.
“With good intentions, friends in New Orleans and in Pearlington (Miss.) urged her to go into bankruptcy, take the thousand dollars she would be allotted by law, and retire gracefully,” Tulane University journalism professor James Henry Harrison wrote in 1932, upon the occasion of the dedication of the Pearl Rivers Memorial in City Park.
“Torn by sorrow and anxiety as she was, Mrs. Holbrook did not want to do that.” Harrison wrote. “She desired to clear away the shadow of debt from her husband’s name. Moreover, she had come to like the newspaper atmosphere and the varied contacts of the business world. The thought of a return to unalloyed domesticity was not pleasing.”
Although she later spoke of her fears about the undertaking, she forged ahead with an inspiring show of confidence.
“The tale is often told of how Mrs. Holbrook, sitting in her husband’s place, called the whole body of Picayune employees into a conference the first day of her administration,” Harrison wrote. “With Mr. Nicholson (Picayune managing editor George Nicholson, whom she married two years later) and Don (Jose) Quintero at her side, she faced the little crowd of men and boys and told them what she meant to do. She said that any one who preferred not to work for a woman was welcome to resign with full recommendations. Several took her at her word before the rest promised to be faithful and efficient under the new regime.”
“I never felt so little, so weak, so inadequate, as in the first days when I realized the task I had before me,” Nicholson told Eliza Putnam Heaton in an interview on Oct. 8, 1887. “The decisions that I had to make, the sight of so many men looking to me for orders, the queries that came up continually on which side of this question and that the paper should declare itself, these things taught me while I taught myself how to answer them.”
The support of her staff was a great help to Nicholson as she faced the challenges of her new position. In the faces of questions about Nicholson’s leadership, Quintero, the chief editorial writer, “quickly made up his own mind as to how quarrels might be handled,” Harrison wrote. “He put his dueling pistols in order and let it be known that he would gladly meet any detractors of the Picayune or its new publisher. His offer seems to have served the newspaper well. Sneers and gibes that hinted at various things and called the Picayune an ‘old woman’ disappeared.”
Catherine Cole told the story this way in the April 1888 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book: “When a rival paper so far forgot the amenities of journalism as to sneer at the Picayune for having a woman editor, the personalities suddenly ceased, and she learned long afterwards that a member of her staff had made the rounds of the newspaper offices declaring that he would resent all flings at the lady who was at the head of the paper, and as he had already quite a reputation as a duelist who was a dead shot and an expert swordsman, his hints were accepted.”
So, faced with trends in the news industry that threatened the Picayune’s sustainability as a business enterprise, Nicholson would have found much to appreciate in the “digital-first” strategy. She would have relished the opportunity to communicate with readers in far-flung places, and would not have rejected the idea on the basis of social or technological conservatism.
The most important factor in her decision, however, would have been the effect on the content of her product and its service to readers and advertisers.
Nicholson was first published as a poet. Poems under her pseudonym of “Pearl Rivers” began to appear with frequency in the Daily Picayune in the summer of 1870. Two years later, she became literary editor of the Picayune and brought the works of great writers such as Mark Twain and Brett Harte to its pages.
Nicholson’s central innovation as publisher of the Daily Picayune was establishing features with particular appeal to women, who had a growing role in the New Orleans market in the wake of the Civil War.
“She helped to develop the Sunday newspaper as a medium of entertainment for the entire family,” Harrison wrote. “Before the Civil War, a ‘family newspaper’ had been merely a journal which strove to be understandable to all, and fit for a whole family to read. Toward the end of the century, forward-looking editors and publishers began to conceive a new ‘family’ paper—a newspaper with features specially adapted to the interests of women and children as well as men.
“Their idea was the outgrowth to some extent of the struggle for increased circulation; it evolved gradually, as more and more newspapers entered the competition for advertising and as advertising became recognized as the all-important source of revenue.
“Previously, newspapers, although read to a considerable extent by women, had been regarded as primarily for men. Now the day was dawning when the housewife would be acclaimed perhaps the main buyer for the family. The extent of her influence was just beginning to be comprehended.”
“The Civil War had shattered the Southern antebellum ‘woman’s sphere’ of home, family, church, and second place to the male,” Lamar Whitlow Bridges wrote in 1974 in his Southern Illlinois University Ph.D. thesis on Nicholson and the Daily Picayune. “The Civil War had thrust Southern women into new public and private responsibilities.”
Nicholson was particularly concerned with the plight of women who found themselves poorly educated to handle these new challenges. Bridges wrote: “She received numerous letters, she said, from countless young girls ‘who have been gently reared, who have been given the ordinary useless education women get, and who are thrown on their own resources without one solitary qualification for earning a living.’ Such cases she labeled ‘the most helpless and the most pathetic class of people in the world.’”
By 1896, Harrison wrote, the Picayune, “with its columns and departments, its illustrated feature stories, its profuse use of popular fiction, had most of the elements one finds in a modern syndicate-served journal, in an era when many of its contemporaries contained little besides illustrations to redeem them from the stodginess of the Civil War era.”
In 1879, Nicholson introduced the first society column in a New Orleans newspaper, much to the dismay of the reticent upper classes of the city, who did not feel “their exclusive affairs and private recreations were … material to be displayed in a newspaper for everyone’s reading and everyone’s comment,” Harrison wrote.
However, Harrison continued, “Some of the Northern papers were carrying notes on New Orleans social affairs, when they could get them. This was an invasion of her field to which a live editor could not tamely submit. Moreover, it gave her the excuse of presenting such news more accurately and with greater personal insight. The opposition, she felt, would gradually melt away as people became accustomed to the innovation, and as the almost universal human pleasure in seeing one’s name in print took effect.”
Nicholson also introduced a children’s fiction section, “In Lilliput Land.” Stories in this section on Feb. 9, 1896, included “The Learned Pig’s Story,” “Lula’s Birthday Guest,” and “Davy,” the tale of a little boy inclined to naughtiness, who repented and grew to be a fine man.
Nicholson was also behind the whimsical weather frog, an illustration so popular that it wound up in advertisements, cartoons, and Carnival parades.
Nicholson took a detailed interest in the content of the Daily Picayune. “Each day’s issue was read painstakingly and sent back to the office marked with commendations and reproofs,” Heaton wrote in 1887. “She never failed to compliment what she believed to be good work, in any part of the paper.”
A letter to Nicholson from T.G. Rapier on Nov. 10, 1886, suggests her interest in illustration of the newspaper. “As you want to go into the pictorial business,” Rapier wrote, “suppose we give this concern a trial and place an order with them to send us three or four cuts regularly each week, all cuts of people who suddenly become famous, as soon as they are ready. We could also get at once, and keep for future use, the cuts of people like Queen Victoria, Emperor William etc. Just think the matter over and let me know your wishes at your convenience. Of course you will bear well in mind that the same cuts will not look near as well when printed by a fast stereotype press, on ordinary newspaper, with ordinary ink, as they do on this sample sheet.”
In the same letter, Rapier appears to discuss the selection of a freelance writer to cover “that Jackson RRd business.”
“Evans is a better solicitor than writer but writes well enough for that kind of business,” Rapier wrote. “I am not sure that he knows much about (fruit?) culture or agriculture generally, & he may possibly make some blunders. But these things we will have to risk + the good that will result from having something in about each place will be of service.”
In keeping with her branding of the Daily Picayune as a family paper, Nicholson avoided sensationalism. “Divorces, love triangles, scandals, even pregnancies could not be mentioned,” Bridges wrote. Crime news was common, but it was not displayed garishly.
Historian John Smith Kendall noted that the paper had “an extensive series of rules, reservations and prohibitions for the government of its employees,” that deviations from the norm by prominent individuals were ignored, and that crimes were reported “with regard for the feelings of persons.”
An 1892 Picayune editorial referred to prostitution as a “social evil … that cannot be fully discussed in a newspaper made for reading in pure homes.”
Although the extent of Nicholson’s avoidance of sensationalism is archaic now, the point stands that she was willing to lose some readership in the interests of providing the product best-suited to the needs of her readers and advertisers.
The health of the New Orleans economy was a central concern for Nicholson. She celebrated the success of Capt. James B. Eads in enlarging the shipping channel of the Mississippi River so larger ships could enter, and unsuccessfully promoted a five-mill tax for construction of a railroad line to the west. When voters rejected the tax in a special referendum, she promoted a private subscription drive for the project.
In coverage of yellow fever outbreaks, Bridges wrote, “the Nicholsons’ publication was quick to denounce any Northern newspaper which it felt had exaggerated the severity or the extent of the spread of yellow fever.
“What the newspaper feared, of course, was the slowdown in commercial activity that quarantines and ‘scare’ stories produced,” Bridges wrote. “As for the citizenry, the newspaper itself admitted that the people had a rather passive attitude about the fever, which many residents considered inevitable and a yearly visitor. Protection of domestic trade, after a while, took precedence, and the Daily Picayune often seemed more concerned with economic self-interest than with human lives.”
In the end, it is likely that Nicholson’s decision on the “digital-first” strategy would have been guided by the wishes of her advertisers.
Advertisers have not flocked to the “digital-first” approach, according to David Carr, media reporter for The New York Times. “The industry tried chasing clicks for a while to win back fleeing advertisers, decided it was a fool’s errand and is now turning to customers for revenue,” Carr wrote in May. “But in order to charge people for news, you have to prosecute journalism.”
Nicholson probably would have pursued digital strategies for the Picayune that would provide the product best-suited to the needs of her readers and advertisers. She would create Internet products that are straightforward and easy to navigate; promote understanding of complicated topics such as school reform, crime reduction, and flood protection; and cover emotionally difficult topics in a way that nurtures the intimate, trusting relationship between the medium and its readers.
Based on her track record, she would have been successful. The newspaper that was $80,000 in the hole when she inherited it was worth a reported $147,000 upon her death of influenza on Feb. 15, 1896.