Monday, February 11, 2013

Media History: Chester Sanders Lord

Chester Lord 3 x 4 BModern media includes television, radio, newspapers, and Internet sources, together bringing us news from local to international. But until about a century ago, newspapers did the job. By the mid-1800s, the process of delivering timely news to the nation’s dailies was achieved, courtesy of the telegraph. It wasn’t until the 1920s when other forms of media (radio and newsreels) began carving their own niche in reporting the news.

When newspapers ruled, editors wielded great power and thus bore great responsibility. Ethics were critical but weren’t always adhered to. It took men of courage to do what was right, and among the best of them was Chester Sanders Lord, a man with roots firmly embedded in northern New York State.

Lord was born on March 18, 1850, in the Finger Lakes village of Romulus. Before year’s end, the family had moved to Fulton, about ten miles south of Oswego. Fourteen years later, they moved to Adams in Jefferson County, where Chester attended the Adams Institute. He later attended Fairfield Academy, north of Utica. Life in these rural locations established Chester’s lifelong affinity for fishing and hunting.

He attended Hamilton College and went to work for the Oswego Daily Advertiser (it later became the Oswego Times), which counted F. H. Purdy among its owners. In 1871, on a trip to New York City, Purdy visited some old friends at The Sun. During their conversation, he mentioned an outstanding newspaperman and current editor in Oswego, Chester Lord. In short order, Lord was contacted by The Sun and offered a job, which he accepted in 1872.

Chester put his skills to work in the big city, and no matter what the subject was, he managed to make his articles interesting to readers. He was variously described as honest, social, insightful, and industrious―in other words, well equipped for the job at hand. The famed owner of The Sun, Charles Dana, was impressed. Lord climbed the ladder for a decade, and in 1882 he was named managing editor.

During Lord’s 32 years at the helm of The Sun, he maintained his integrity, focusing on quality reporting and excellent writing. Among The Sun’s competitors were the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Their primary goal was increased circulation, which they successfully achieved through wild headlines, speculative stories, and fewer fact checks, a system that became known as yellow journalism. Parallels can be found everywhere in today’s jaundiced media.

Lord was known to all as a serious journalist who only ran with a story when he knew it was right. To that end, he built a web of fully trusted reporters, leading to the catch-phrase, “If You See It in The Sun, It’s So.” Hearst and Pulitzer had larger circulations, but The Sun made honest journalism its priority.

Several major stories over the years affirmed The Sun’s sincerity. During the Russian-Japanese War, great emphasis was placed on the stronghold known as Port Arthur. In the race to be first, several papers prematurely reported its fall on four different occasions, but The Sun remained silent throughout. Finally, when Lord’s trusted reporter, John Swift, wired four simple words―“Port Arthur fallen: Swift”―The Sun ran with the story, beating its competitors to the truth.

Lord’s chain of accurate reporters led to The Sun’s reputation as the definitive source for election returns. In 1884, in the post-Election Day issue of The Sun, Chester declared Grover Cleveland the winner―the only newspaper to do so. And eight years later, when Cleveland unseated the incumbent president (Benjamin Harrison), Cleveland’s chief of staff first learned the news from Lord.

In 1912, when Woodrow Wilson was elected, The Sun reported that William Jennings Bryan would be named secretary of state, a claim that was ridiculed by many major newspapers and dismissed as impossible. The source of the story was E. A. Fowler, who had once been a Sun man. Lord’s unwavering trust in him was affirmed with Bryans’ appointment.

Chester stood by a belief in ethics as well. When a competitor published startling details on a big story, Lord asked his own reporter why the same facts hadn’t appeared in his report. The answer: “We both gave our word that we would keep back that piece of news for three days.” The Sun man had remained true to his word at the expense of being scooped. Lord’s reply: “Son, you are a great man!”

Another situation during an investigation of life insurance companies revealed that Lord’s rules and practices were part and parcel of The Sun’s operations. An investigator told a Sun reporter that a document in the committee meeting room could probably be secured by giving a cleaning lady $5. He knew the rules, but the report was critical, so he called his Sun editor, asking what would happen if he took the opportunity. The answer: “A Sun man who would do that would lose his job.”

Lord was widely known for genius in hiring. Many top reporters worked for The Sun, and some remained for long tenures. His network of top-grade correspondents led to the establishment of the Laffan Bureau (named after Publisher William Laffan) in the mid-1890s, a news-gathering organization that rivaled the Associated Press.

In 1905, more than 100 present and former staff members of The Sun celebrated Chester’s 25 years as managing editor. The New York Times reported, “Sun owner William M. Laffan … started a volley of cheering and applause by saying: ‘There was never a more valuable man in the newspaper business from my point of view than Mr. Lord.’ ”

He was beloved by those who worked with and for him, in part because of the atmosphere in the workplace. At The Sun, office politics was non-existent, and every section of the newspaper was considered equally important. Not so in the offices of Pulitzer and others, where internal competition was encouraged, leading to distrust and bad feelings among employees.

Nice Guys Finish Last goes the old adage, but not in this case. Chester Lord was a nice guy who was at the top of his game for decades. In all that time, no one could cite a single instance where he had belittled any employee. His calm, caring demeanor was evident during a crisis, but also in everyday life on the job. Around the city, he became affectionately known as “Boss Lord.”

1913 NY Times headlineIn 1897, Chester was named to the Board of Regents, which oversees education in New York State. When the board was reduced in 1904, he stepped down, but was widely lauded as a nominee again in 1909 and returned to service.

In 1912, The Sun Alumni Association, featuring editors from Philadelphia to Alaska, celebrated Lord’s 40 years at the newspaper. A year later, Chester resigned, noting that it was time to leave, but that he had enjoyed, among other things, covering and playing a role in 11 presidential elections.

In his honor, 175 alumni attended a breakfast at the Vanderbilt Hotel. Employees and alumni, young and old, sang his praises―in one case, literally, when a group of reporters chirped:

“Who was it taught Charles Dana how to write his mother tongue?
Who was it taught reporters news, when news-grabbing was young?
Who was it smells a story out? (The answer must be roared.)
’Tis the King of all good Bosses, men, no other than Boss Lord.

“And so through all the coming years we’ll mold ourselves on you.
The friend and boss of young and old, to you we’ll e’er be true.
So here we meet to drink a health and you we now look toward,
We drain the glass and loudly sing, Good health to you, Boss Lord.”

Corny, yes, but they cared enough for Lord to do it. The decrepit armchair that had sat for so long in his news office, a seat that held hundreds of applicants and thousands of visitors over the years, was tracked down, refurbished, and given to Chester to enjoy in his retirement.

He remained busy with work on the Board of Regents, and was also a popular lecturer. The Press Club of New York introduced him as “one of the biggest figures in newspaper work in the country.”

He was also a charter member of the Lotos Club, founded in 1870 and described as one of the oldest literary clubs in the country. Guests at their legendary dinners were luminaries from the worlds of art, education, business, and politics. Among the members and guests were Ulysses S. Grant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Teddy Roosevelt, Samuel Clemens, and Andrew Carnegie. Clemens (Mark Twain) and others were counted among Lord’s friends. Chester served as president of the Lotos Club from 1918–23.

In 1901, a book titled Speeches at the Lotos Club was organized by three men, including Lord, and in 1922, Chester’s own book, The Young Man and Journalism, was released by Macmillan & Company.

In 1918, another book, The Story of The Sun, cited some of Chester’s accomplishments in glowing terms. “He has been a great judge of men. His discernment has been little short of miraculous. Calm, dispassionate … Lord got about him a staff that has been regarded by newspapermen as the most brilliant in the country. … until the latter days of July 1914, New York City was the news center of the world so far as American newspapers were concerned. … In the years of Lord and Clarke [night editor Selah Clarke], more than a billion copies of The Sun went out containing news stories written by men whom Lord had hired and whose work had passed beneath the hand of Clarke.”

Chester continued an active life until 1933, when failing kidneys led to his death on August 1. At the time, he was still chairing meetings as the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. An excerpt from the board’s statement expressed their sense of loss:

“The influence of Chester S. Lord can never die. As a writer and editor, he has raised the tone of American thought and action; as a regent, he has greatly promoted the cause of public education and brought enriched opportunities to thousands of young people; and as a public servant and leader in civic affairs, he has lifted three generations to nobler ideals and loftier achievements. We admire him as a publicist, we are grateful to him as an educational director, and we shall always love him as a devoted associate and friend.”

Well said, and a nice sendoff for a man of high ideals.

Photos: Chester Sanders Lord; NY Times headline (1913)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

2 Responses

  1. stan bunal says:

    An excellent article marred only by the casual usage of Mr. Lord’s first name. Granted this is modern usage, but I’d venture to say thar only Mr. Lord’s parents and maybe his wife would have called him ‘Chester’. He was Mr. Lord to his employees and the public, and probably just ‘Lord’ to his friends. Otherwise, very enjoyable.

  2. Lawrence P. Gooley says:

    Thanks Stan. He was generally known as Chet (too informal for here) and Chester. I used Chester as an alternative preferable to mentioning only Lord or Mr. Lord more than 50 times (discounting the pronouns used as well) … just too repetitious.
    You can only speculate that he was Mr. Lord to his employees. From everything I read, he was very calm, casual, laid-back, and disdained office politics, which makes it difficult to imagine that he required everyone to call him Mister (or would even accept the idea).
    Again, it’s only speculation. But I guess we CAN say that for decades, he was Lord over all he surveyed.

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