Nevada Press Association

The Territorial Enterprise building in Virginia City has been nominated for recognition by the Society of Professional Journalists as a Historic Site in Journalism.

The nomination was submitted last month by Joey Lovato, a reporter and podcast producer, as an independent study project for the journalism school at the University of Nevada, Reno. (Update: in July, we learned the nomination didn’t win this year but may be considered in the future.)

In February, I met with Joey and his professor, Patrick File, at the building while Joey interviewed Chic DiFrancia, who once worked as a printer at the Territorial Enterprise and has become a writer and historian on Comstock-era journalism.

Here’s my video of the visit.

Chic and I submitted letters to go along with Joey’s nomination. He expects to hear back from SPJ in June or July.

Here’s mine:

Let this sink in for a moment.

In 1864, the neighboring Nevada towns of Virginia City and Gold Hill — combined populations probably no more than 15,000 people — had six competing daily newspapers.

They were among at least 20 newspapers born in the Comstock mining district during a booming decade of gold and silver fever in the West. From that crowd, one rose to prominence that lasted through history — the Territorial Enterprise, famous as the place Mark Twain came into being, but even more remarkable for the influence it had on journalism, literature and politics across the reach of a nation.

I am writing to support the nomination of the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City to the SPJ’s list of historic sites. As director of the Nevada Press Association and previously editor of the Nevada Appeal in Carson City, I’ve become fascinated by the history of these newspapers and journalists. In truth, we wouldn’t be able to tell the story of Nevada today if they hadn’t been around to record it at the time.

Twain and his brief time with the TE get much of the attention, but names that still reverberate around here include Dan De Quille, Joe Goodman, Denis McCarthy, Alf Doten, Wells Drury and a parade of other writers and editors who proved the lesson: Tell a good story, and the readers will flock.

Want evidence? According to Jake Highton’s book, “Nevada Newspaper Days. A history of journalism in the Silver State,” readers and advertisers poured money into the Territorial Enterprise even as competitors tried to chip away its profits. Goodman and McCarthy, who owned the paper in the 1860s, reported they were clearing $6,000 to $10,000 a month. De Quille, the editor for more than 30 years (and whose real name, believe it or not, was Will Wright), claimed his bosses actually were making more like $1,000 a day. “The proprietors didn’t keep any books,” he wrote, “but conducted their business on a strictly cash basis and carried their dividends home in water buckets at the close of each week.”

Well, yes, De Quille, Twain, et al were known for their hoaxes and tall tales. Do we forgive them? Actually, we revere them. Reporters didn’t exactly share in the riches, though. Wells Drury worked for $7.50 a day, plus a $2.50 allowance to spend loosening up his sources in the C Street saloons.

The telling of the TE is two stories, because Lucius Beebe and his partner, Charles Clegg, restored its prominence a half-century later as a national weekly newspaper with influence that far outweighed its circulation. “In all the world there isn’t a newspaper remotely resembling the Territorial Enterprise,” reported Newsweek.

No doubt this had everything to do with Beebe’s outsize personality. A profile by Wolcott Gibbs in The New Yorker described how the wealthy Boston socialite stood out even as a college undergraduate by attending classes each Monday morning in full evening dress, wearing a monocle and carrying a gold-headed cane. His room at Harvard contained a roulette wheel. Clearly, this was a character who stood out in rough-hewn Nevada in the 1950s. A “four-martini-at-lunch man,” Beebe’s column was called This Wild West and he once wrote, in response to a preacher’s complaint that a brothel was too close to a school, that the obvious solution was to move the school. He and Clegg owned an opulent private railroad car to travel around the country.

I could go on — the stories tend to pile up about the Territorial Enterprise and the people who made it a legend in western newspaper lore. That the building still exists as a monument to the era and its inhabitants provides a rare opportunity for SPJ to bestow its recognition on them. I urge you to do so.

— Barry Smith