History of Florida’s Newspapers

Newspapers have a long and distinguished history in Florida, dating back to the East Florida Gazette, a Tory newspaper published in St. Augustine while the region was under British rule in 1783. There also is indirect evidence of a Spanish-language newspaper, El Telegrafo de las Floridas, being published at Fernandina in 1817. During this timeframe the Seminole Wars began. Lasting until around 1860, these “wars” were comprised of various intermittent conflicts between the various Native American populations, the black population and the white settlers of the region. After Florida was ceded by Spain to the US and became an American territory in 1821, The Floridian began publication in Pensacola and the Florida Gazette began publication in St. Augustine.

In 1830 Florida was still sparsely populated, with only 34,730 people living in the 15 counties within the territory. Although, according to James Owen Knauss, there were 44 newspapers published during the territorial period. Knauss’s book, Territorial Florida Journalism, is generally considered the single authoritative source for information on newspapers in Florida during this period. An analysis of these territorial newspapers indicates publications focused heavily on promoting immigration and statehood for Florida.

By 1845, the year Florida became a state, Florida’s population stood at 66,000. In the years leading up to the Civil War the number of Florida newspapers, and their influence, had increased greatly. Most had strongly partisan views, including the Florida Whig in Marianna and The Whig Banner in Palatka. By the beginning of the Civil War the state’s newspapers had become sharply political. Democratic papers like The Southern Confederacy published in Jacksonville (1861) were eventually countered by Republican papers like The True Southerner published in Tampa (1868). Jacksonville’s Republican paper, the Florida Union (1864), continues today as The Florida Times-Union.

Although there were only 26 weekly newspapers in publication during the war period they played a large role in the issues of the day, including the defense of slavery and support for secession and war. The Tallahassee Floridian and Journal was an early supporter of secession and many other papers urged citizens to form militias in preparation for war.

During the Civil War, a number of important battles were fought on Florida soil, including the Battle of Olustee, the Battle of Natural Bridge and the attack at Fort Pickens in Pensacola. At least one newspaper, the St. Augustine Examiner, was taken over and published by Union forces. The Key of the Gulf (Key West) also was seized by Union forces and the editors were replaced with pro-Union supporters. One Confederate newspaper became the state’s first African-American title. Josiah Walls, who came to Florida in 1864 with the Third Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops, purchased The Cotton States from a former Union general after the war and published The New Era from Gainesville, in 1873. Newspapers and their publishers then went on to wield heavy influence on the political and social developments of Reconstruction during which Florida’s papers grew to 42.

The period from Reconstruction until the crash of 1929 was a time of substantial growth in Florida. The economic boom and resulting increases in building, expansion and tourism had significant impact on the state. During the mid-1870s the expansion of the railroad system in Florida began, spearheaded primarily by industrialists William D. Chipley, Henry B. Plant, and Henry M. Flagler. In 1876 the state played a decisive role in the controversial presidential election between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford Hayes, when Florida was one of three states with disputed electoral votes. Newspapers were covering, among other events, war, the yellow fever epidemics, the land boom, natural disasters, and the coming of the automobile. The “Great Freeze” of 1894 destroyed a large percentage of the agriculture in Florida, most importantly the citrus trees that had become one of the primary crops. The resulting damage heavily impacted real estate values and slowed the state’s growth. The Spanish-American War, due to the geographic proximity to Florida, greatly impacted the population of Florida and the port city of Tampa was used as the embarkation point for the invasion of Cuba. Other cities were used as reinforced bases or camps and thousands of soldiers and others who had entered the state during the war returned afterward as permanent residents.

By 1905, the year before the first of three major hurricanes hit the state, Florida had close to 600,000 residents and 173 newspapers/periodicals, including 19 daily papers. The post-World War I period saw the number of dailies grow to 33 in 1921 and 53 in 1925, although the land boom collapse dropped that number to 46 by 1927. Another major storm hit in 1926 and in 1928 one of the greatest natural disasters ever to occur in the US hit the Lake Okeechobee region.

As the state evolved from an agrarian to a more urban state, newspaper circulation increased substantially in the large urban areas around Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa and coverage began to focus more on national news than in previous periods. In addition, the larger urban papers began featuring far more foreign news for the first time since the Great War. Since the 1930s Florida newspapers have been responsible for keeping Floridians informed about important events on the local, state, national and international levels. World War II had a significant impact on the state and newspapers led a patriotic outpouring of support. Newspapers also played a key role in the civil rights movement, reported on events in Cuba, covered the space race and the worldwide impact of Cape Canaveral, and detailed the development of Disney World in central Florida.

A line drawn across the Florida peninsula from the mouth of the Suwannee River on the Gulf of Mexico to Daytona Beach creates a northern and southern division more eye-opening than the historical east-west partition. Two-thirds of the total population lived in the northern section at the turn of the century; less than a fifth of total population remains at the close of the century. Newspapers in the northern section tend to have been published continuously in stable communities for long periods.

The diversity in Florida’s newspapers is largely attributable to population movements into the southern section of the peninsula. Retirees, tourists, immigrants, and refugees have converged from numerous points, and there are newspapers serving a variety of groups and interests. Close to two million Floridians currently are of Hispanic origin, and 280 Spanish-language newspapers are listed in the US Newspaper Program database, all published in the southern section of the state and three dating from the last century. The Spanish-language La Gaceta, begun in Tampa in 1922, soon included an Italian-language section among its pages, recognizing fellow immigrants proficient in a language other than English. Fifty-two African-American titles have been identified. Florida currently has several metropolitan dailies with national reputations and nearly 900 weeklies in publication.

In the case of Florida, a focus of this digitization project will be on areas of Florida where late 19th century immigration created multicultural societies. This was particularly true for the Tampa area. As a growing port and metropolis, Tampa and nearby Ybor City bustled with Cuban, Italian, German, and Jewish immigrants working in the cigar industry and in commerce. Many of the Cubans actively supported moves for Cuba’s independence, while workers in both the Cuban and Italian communities embraced the syndicalism and socialism of the early labor union movements. With Henry Plant’s Moorish/Muscovite Tampa Bay Hotel dominating a landscape of cigar factories and clubs, Ybor City reflected a culture of both Gilded Age splendor and ethnic diversity. The history of the area is well documented in classic studies of Florida such as Gary R. Mormino’s and George E. Pozzetta’s The Immigrant World of Ybor City: Italians and their Latin Neighbors in Tampa, 1885-1985 (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987) and Frank Trebín Lastra’s photographic history Ybor City, the Making of a Landmark Town (University of Tampa Press, 2006).

Florida union newspapers, published in Spanish and Italian, reflected a variety of cultures, promoting local associations, and often speaking to the need for unionized labor and better working conditions. Among the newspapers for consideration within this project are El Boletín Obrero (1903), El Federal (1902-1903) and El Internacional (covering the 1925 boom years into the depression), as well as the Italian-language publication L’Alba Sociale, part of the socialist press, with a 1901 run.

After World War I, readership for daily newspapers increased in the Tampa area, especially. This project will consider one of the main dailies, the opening publishing decades (1897-1925) of the Tampa Morning Tribune (eventually the Tampa Tribune). Although politically conservative compared to the papers directed at the cigar worker unions, the Tribune which served a very diverse communities soon became the papers of record, and began to replace others. El Internacional continued as the voice of labor through the 1940s and beyond.

A little to the northwest of Tampa, the Gulf Coast town of Tarpon Springs was founded around a community of Greeks working in the sponging industry; like the cigar industry, sponging provided jobs to a multi-ethnic workforce, drawing in white, black, and Greek workers. Sponging developed rapidly into a major maritime industry in Florida, spawned by diving techniques first introduced by Greek arrivals at Tarpon Springs in 1902, and burgeoning into a highly sophisticated enterprise that included dives of up to 30 fathoms in copper helmet and weighted dive suits fed with oxygen pumped down via air hose. Tarpon Springs was soon noted for its vibrant Greek culture, festivals, and churches. African-Americans worked in sponging as well, and by the 1920s also manned area’s lumber yards and sawmills, as well as establishing small businesses. This project will consider a long run of the Tarpon Springs Evening Leader covering the early 1900s and World War I, and continuing into the 1920s and beyond.

More broadly, the project will consider some additional papers from South Florida. The Key West area, a diversely populated area with many immigrants from Cuba and the Caribbean, is represented by previous digitization efforts, including the Key West Citizen. However, a number of Miami-based papers, notably the Miami News/Labor Citizen (1938-1959), provide a perspective on labor issues including the immigrants living in Miami and those not well-represented in the mainstream press.

Among the religious- or ethnic-based newspapers, previous digitization has already preserved the Jewish Floridian, an important early voice for civil rights and social reform. In this project, the project team will consider adding the Jacksonville-based Southern Jewish Weekly, documenting not only the important Jewish community of north Florida, but also covering the essential time period of World War II and its aftermath. Another run of newspapers from the small Catholic community of San Antonio, Florida, near Tampa is a possibility. And lastly among those newspapers currently identified, the German-American newspaper Florida Staats-Zeitung, continued as the San Antonio Herald (1890-1900) documents the early growth of this settlement, along with the nearby Benedictine abbey of St. Leo.