Friendly Wrangling Among Marin Newspapers

By Robert L. Harrison

Illustration from the 1894 San Francisco Call

Nationally, there has been a slow demise of print newspapers. This is in vivid contrast to the time when most read the daily newspaper as their primary source of news. In the late 19th century the Bay Area was served by several dailies. San Francisco, for example, enjoyed at least six major papers: The Morning Call; the Daily Examiner; the San Francisco Chronicle; the San Francisco Evening Bulletin; the San Francisco Post and the Daily Alta California (suspended publication in 1891).

Marin Journal masthead, January 2, 1890

Marin County, with an 1890 population of just over 13,000, was served by three quality weeklies: The Marin Journal; the Marin County Tocsin and The Sausalito News. The small city of San Rafael, with just 3,290 residents enjoyed two papers offering opposite views on many issues. The Marin Journal represented the Republican Party point of view while the Tocsin stood firmly for the policies of the Democrat Party.

For several years after the Tocsin’s 1879 founding, the Journal annually praised its competitor. In Journal’s July 14, 1881 issue the editor Simon Fitch Barstow (1832–1902) offered: “The Tocsin, since it came under the management of Mr. [James H.] Wilkins, has been a first-rate paper, and as he is one of the best neighbors, we wish him all prosperity.”

Though generally friendly the two San Rafael based newspapers frequently quarreled or jabbed at each other. When the Marin County Journal announced in 1888 it was moving to a new office and would change its name to The Marin Journal, the Tocsin called it “John Swift rot.” The Journal responded:

“In the eye of a Democrat everything is ‘rot’ that threatens to leave him out of office, and there’s lots of such rot in the air.”

Later that year the Journal quoted the Tocsin: “A lie is far reaching and travels fast. The truth attends to business and stays at home”. The Journal’s editor continued: “The editor of the Tocsin has gone off again, leaving his paper, as he says, to Him who ‘looks out for the lame and the lazy’. We are going to stay at home, as usual, and attend to business.”

Occasionally the two San Rafael papers were in agreement. The editor of the Journal in the November 29, 1888 issue opined: “The Tocsin of last week has an able editorial on the necessity of continuing our sewer system to tide water in the bay. We…unite with the Tocsin in urging it upon the immediate attention of the Town Trustees.”

More often than not political disagreements led to more belligerent comments by each editor. The Journal of May 2, 1889 published an editorial: “Shameless Falsehoods. The Tocsin of this week….makes such gross misrepresentations of the public meeting [called in opposition to Democratic Party policies], and such false statements of pretended facts, as to demand that a true statement be made. We have never seen a more shameless attack upon the rights of the people, or a more flagrant and outrageous usurpation than that attempted by the Tocsin.”

The Marin County Tocsin shared space with the bank, as shown in this 1884 lithograph from San Rafael Illustrated and Described, published by W.W. Elliott & Co. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

In its November 22, 1890 issue The Tocsin described the Journal’s editor’s support of the McKinley tariff bill in a rather pointed manner: “He gushes over it with all the blind faith of an oriental fanatic, calls it pet names and altogether, carries on very much like a young man with his first sweetheart.”

Portrait of Benjamin Harrison, circa 1888

A debate between the competing editors arose in 1890 over the Tocsin’s report on Republican President Benjamin Harrison’s message to Congress. In an editorial on December 11th the Journal proffered this point of view: “Not since the infamous attacks upon the character of our martyred President, Lincoln, by the Democratic press…has there been such an outrage committed upon any of our Presidents as that which disgraced the editorial columns of the Tocsin’s last issue.” The Journal’s following issue described its view of the President’s message to Congress: “It is a straightforward, manly, statesmanlike message, devoid of all bitterness and singularly free from grandiloquence.”

On December 20th the Tocsin responded: “Our contemporary’s admiration of President Harrison’s great message to Congress has prompted us to read that weighty document over again. We thought we might have missed the point of it: but after careful consideration we are sorry to admit we cannot share in our neighbor’s enthusiasm. On the contrary we have found not a little that tended to strengthen our former opinion.”

The personal rivalry between the two editors ended When Simon Barstow relinquished management of the Journal in April 1892. The Tocsin announced Barstow’s retirement with a laudatory statement: “Our old friend and brother editor, S. F. Barstow, retired from the management of the Marin County Journal with last issue….The retirement of Mr. Barstow severs old and very pleasant ties for this paper….we never hope to meet with a kindlier or more courteous gentleman or one possessed of a higher sense of his obligations to duty, to honor and to his fellow men.”

Simon Fitch Barstow’s San Rafael home, depicted in the brochure San Rafael Illustrated and Described, published in 1884 by W.W. Elliott & Co. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Barstow leased the Journal to W. B. Winn for two years. At the end of the lease period he issued this statement: “As Mr. Winn stated in the last issue of the Journal, his lease of this paper has expired, he now turns the property back to me, and I have resumed its management.” The Tocsin noted the change in management this way: “The Tocsin welcomes back its old brother editor with sincere pleasure and cordiality.”

Barstow continued as editor of the Journal until December 1898, the year he sold it to W. C. Brown. The long time editor described the transfer: “We cannot sever our long connection with this work without being vividly reminded of much that has been pleasant in our business and social relations with the people of the county, and which has extended over half a life time.” Barstow ran the Journal for 24 of the years between 1872 and 1898.

With Barstow’s ultimate departure from the Journal the Tocsin in its January 1, 1898 issue continued its praise and appreciation: “Our old friend, Bro. Barstow, retires — permanently, we presume, this time….As he steps down and out, it gives the Tocsin pleasure to testify to the value of his past labors, his loyalty to the community in which he lived, his patience, his love of truth and unfailing good nature. We could wish that these rare qualities had brought him a more substantial reward.”

The Journal continued under several short term owners but the rivalry between the papers was not the same. The positive spirit of the competition, the respect and rare congeniality shown by the editors of these two early Marin newspapers, was rarely duplicated in the years after. It seems even more unlikely now in the view of the current state of American journalism.

1895 illustration of a newspaper printing machine

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Anne T. Kent California Room

Anne T. Kent California Room

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