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‘Newspaper with a soul’: The short-lived Minnesota Daily Star launched in 1920

The soon-to-be-demolished Star Tribune building on Portland and Fifth contains the remnants of a nearly century-old building that occupied the same block.

The Daily Star was operated by the Northwest Publishing Company, the entity formed to build and own the paper’s headquarters at the corner of Fifth and Portland.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

When the wrecking ball descends on the Star Tribune’s longtime headquarters, the paper’s former site will contain the remnants of a nearly 100-year-old building that occupied the same Portland Avenue block. Later incorporated into the Star Tribune complex, the four-story structure was built to house a unique daily paper, unlike anything seen in the Twin Cities newspaper world, before or since.

The short-lived Minnesota Daily Star represented a joint venture that brought together the state’s agrarian protest and urban labor movements. In doing so, it was a precursor to Minnesota’s Farmer Labor Party, which would come to dominate the state politics during the early years of the Great Depression.

The Daily Star was operated by the Northwest Publishing Company, the entity formed to build and own the paper’s headquarters at the corner of Fifth and Portland. Northwest Publishing was headed by Herbert Gaston, a journalist with firmly held political views. Gaston had been the editorial voice of the Non-Partisan League, the populist movement that swept into Minnesota during World War I from North Dakota, where it had gained control of that state’s government in 1916. Northwest Publishing’s vice president was a fiery labor leader and an avowed Socialist named Thomas Van Lear who had served one term as mayor of Minneapolis.

During the early months of 1919, as Gaston and Van Lear worked to generate financial support for their new venture, they made no secret of the fact that their paper would espouse a clear point of view. The two political activists told their investors that the Daily Star would represent the interests of the state’s disposed — the workers and the farmers – who, they said, were ignored by the Minnesota’s mainstream press.

‘A bold, new voice arose’

The Star’s overtly political mission was later described by a sympathetic University of Minnesota graduate student, Harold L. Nelson, who chronicled the paper’s rise and fall in his 1950 master’s thesis. Nelson wrote that “a bold, new voice arose from the coalition of farmers and workers in 1919; a voice to carry the news and opinions of those who toiled for a living to the whole state of Minnesota. This was the Minnesota Daily Star.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Thomas Van Lear

Van Lear used more colloquial terms to describe the need for alternative to the state’s dominant daily papers. In a speech to a local labor group, the former mayor told his audience that “the newspapers are like the crops in North Dakota the farmers are telling about. Part of the time, they are bad, and part of the time a damn sight worse. The newspapers have ceased to be educational,” Van Lear maintained. “They have changed from the days of Horace Greeley when they would not deceive and would not suppress. Now, when we need an organ to reach all the people every day and lay down a program to bring the nation out of this dilemma (of unemployment), we have none.”

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Gaston and Van Lear realized that they faced a steep challenge when they set out to capitalize their new venture through a stock sale for the Northwest Publishing Company, so they turned to allies who would be sympathetic to their cause. The Non-Partisan League purchased a block of 500 shares; individual union and League members chipped in, as well, often buying no more than one share at time. Nearly 100 union locals purchased shares for their labor organizations.

With finances tight, some supporters questioned the need for the Star to construct and manage its own building rather than leasing space from another printing concern. Gaston and Van Lear responded by noting that the state’s left-leaning weekly papers had often faced harassment for espousing views that were considered incendiary — particularly during the war years, when political dissent was stifled by state and local authorities. By owning its own building, Gaston and Van Lear explained, the Star would have more independence than if it were dependent on a landlord who might not be sympathetic to the paper’s aims.

Within a few months, Northwest Publishing had generated enough capital to build and equip the Star’s downtown Minneapolis office. The four-story building also housed the Non-Partisan League’s publications and the Minneapolis Labor Review, the weekly paper published by the city’s central labor union body.

First issue: Aug. 19, 1920

The Star’s first issue appeared on Aug. 19, 1920. It contained a lengthy editorial by Gaston, entitled “The Star — Why, What and How.” Gaston wrote that the paper’s founders had launched the new publication because “their dissatisfaction with existing daily publications had deepened into the conviction that no true and fair representation of public sentiment was possible” given the outlook of the Twin Cities’ other daily papers.

The lead story on the front page of the Star’s inaugural issue dealt with a boycott of Minneapolis’ downtown business district by a group of labor unions. The unions were using the boycott to protest an action by a local judge who had jailed some labor leaders for violating his cease and desist order. While the Star would continue to give prominent coverage to labor union actions and other anti-establishment protests, it devoted most of it pages to a standard mix of local and international news, lightened by sports and entertainment features. Its editorial page contained political cartoons, which often threw barbs at the state’s political and economic elites.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The lead story on the front page of the Star’s inaugural issue dealt with a boycott of Minneapolis’ downtown business district by a group of labor unions.

During its early months, the Star was able to build its circulation, but it was never able to show a profit. The paper had difficulty attracting advertisers who were willing to contend with its overtly political agenda. Even so, it continued to advocate for left-leaning causes and candidates.

Despite its best efforts, the Star was unable to put Van Lear back into City Hall in 1921, when he narrowly lost to Republican George Leach in that year’s mayoral election. But the following year, the Star achieved its greatest political success when it helped elect Henrik Shipstead to the U.S. Senate. Shipstead was Minnesota first Farmer Laborite to win statewide office. Even with this political victory, the Star’s financial hemorrhaging continued.

Red ink flowed, despite changes

In 1923, Van Lear replaced Gaston as president of the Northwest Publishing Company. The former mayor tried to boost advertising by tempering the paper’s political stance, but he was not able to stop the flood of red ink. Eventually, the Star fell into receivership and new owners, who lacked a political agenda, took control of the paper. On June 30, 1924, the Minnesota Daily Star printed its last issue. The next day, a paper with a new name, the Minneapolis Daily Star, took its place on the city’s newsstands.

Over the succeeding decades, the paper would be transformed as it underwent a merger and came under the control of new owners. Its name would continue to change, but the “Star” would remain. Today, that celestial designation on the masthead of the Star Tribune provides a reminder of those early days when a struggling journalistic newcomer made its voice heard in Minnesota’s political arena.