Gardner Cowles, Jr. (Mike)

By Herb Strentz, Drake University

NEWSPAPERS OWNED, including Cowles family holdings during his life: Des Moines (Iowa) Register (1903- 1985) Des Moines Tribune (1908-1982); Minneapolis (Minnesota) Star (1935- 1982); Minneapolis Tribune (1941- 1982 ); Minneapolis Star-Tribune (1982-Present); San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star (1959-1970); Gainemille (Florida) Sun (1962-1971); Lukeland (Florida) Ledger (1963- 1971); Rapid City (South Dakota) Journal (1964- 1990); Great Falls (Montana) Tribune (1965- 1990) Suffolk (Long Island, N.Y.) Sun (1966-1969); Palatka (Florida) Daily News (1969- 197 1); Leesburg (Florida)-Daily Commercial (1969-1971); Jackson (Tennessee) Sun (1972- 1985); Waukesha (Wisconsin) Freeman (1978-1983).

Judging from his life, no one ever told Gardner Cowles Jr. (Mike) that being a newspaper editor and publisher should not be fun. If a person had, Mike Cowles would have asked so many questions, told so many stories and exhibited such a joie de vivre, that the adviser, not Mike Cowles, would be the one with second thoughts.

Here after all was a person loyal to family traditions in responsible, public-spirited and innovative journalism. But a person who also enjoyed working with a young George Gallup to determine reader interests and who was a pioneer in photojournalism, mingled with celebrities, took the measure of the earth-shakers of his time, and still had the whimsy to own for a few years the Cardiff Giant--the gypsum carved giant man created for a successful 1869 hoax.

Mike Cowles and the Cowles family brought to American newspaper journalism a tradition of innovation, newsroom independence and community service that typically are part of the definition of the family-owned, regional newspapers of an almost bygone era in journalism history. As noted by Fortune magazine in 1950, "...There is nothing in the Cowles' record to indicate that the family ever lusted after power or profits. They were a dyed-in-the-wool newspaper family with an urge, above all, to produce a paper that would honor their craft."

Mike Cowles was born in January 31 of the year of the Register purchase and he died in 1985, just one week after The Register was sold to Gannett Co. Inc. after 82 years of Cowles family ownership.

Mike Cowles was the third son and last of six children of Gardner Cowles and the former Florence Call. His older brothers were Russell, who became a well-known painter and muralist, and John, his compatriot in many publishing ventures; his three sisters were Helen Cowles LeCron, Florence Cowles Kruidenier and Bertha Cowles Quarton. Although named Gardner Jr., he carried the name of Mike-ever since he was a day or two old, he said, after his father "took a good look at me and announced 'He looks like an Irishman. Let's call him Mike."' (Mike Cowles kept that family practice alive by dubbing his son Gardner Cowles 111 "Pat").

For his more formal education, Mike attended public schools in the city. When he was 15, was told that he would attend Phillips Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, with the expectation that Harvard would come next--as he followed in the footsteps of his brother John, four years older than he. At Exeter, Mike was editor of the weekly paper, The Exonian. At Harvard, from which he graduated in 1925, he was the editor and president of the student daily newspaper, The Crimson.

When he joined The Des Moines Tribune soon after graduation and then switched to The Register, he was on familiar ground. Almost as far back as he could remember, he had been at the papers, when he was 8 his father paid him 25 cents for each editorial he proofread, and while at Harvard he had worked summers as a Register reporter.

One of his first assignments as a full-time reporter was covering the legislature and The Register campaign to "get Iowa out of the mud." In 1920 the state had about 25 miles of paved highways; by 1930, the paved mileage was 3,272--the precision of the measure was attested to by a map kept outside Gardner Cowles' office on which each new paved mile was colored in crayon. The paved roads not only got Iowa out of the mud, but also worked well with Gardner Sr.'s efforts to circulate The Register throughout Iowa.

Mike Cowles said his mother was the greatest influence on his life, through her liberal social views, humor and soft spoken nature. He and his brother John learned the newspaper business well from their father, but much of the influence on Mike Cowles as an editor came from Harvey Ingham. It was Ingham who Mike Cowles said he had in mind when in 1955 he spoke about what makes a great editor: "The greatest editors I know are just like the greatest educators and are successful for the same reason. They are thoughtful men with scrupulous regard for the truth. They are men who strive to stir the best in the human race, not pander to the worst. They are men who dare to lead, even when the direction is temporarily dangerous and unpopular."

Mike Cowles had sounded a similar theme several years before, in a 1949 comment an Iowa centennial banquet:

"The only answer to ignorance is education and more education. And I mean more than just the formal education in more and better schools, colleges and universities. I mean more adult education, more public forums, more discussion groups. But above everything else, I mean better newspaper and magazine editing, better news and discussion and debate programs on the radio. And I mean the use of the powerful new medium of television to make people understand and think. Too much thinking nowadays goes on in a bath of noise, because life is so busy, so complex…leaving the common man appallingly confused and misinformed."

His concept of education mirrored a personal ethic of leaning that was built on meeting people and asking questions. Friends and acquaintances who characterize him invariably speak of an insatiable curiosity that would figuratively drain people of information and a gregarious nature that relished meeting new people and sharing ideas and stones. His most noted questioning episode came in 1959 when he irritated Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev by persisting in a question about freedom of expression in Russia. Speaking at the Economic Club of New York, Khrushchev had called for Americans and Russians to become better acquainted. "That being your feeling," Cowles asked, "...why do you insist on censoring the dispatches of Americans in the Soviet Union?"

In the late 1920s and the early 1930s, Mike Cowles had moved through various newsroom executive positions, apparently informally and fast enough so that his own recollections and newspaper records just list the positions as being held in succeeding years as city editor, news editor, associate managing editor, managing editor, executive editor and associate publisher. He listed the title of publisher, too, along the way. What is clear is that he was Register and Tribune president from 1943 to 1971 and chairman of the board from 1971 to 1973.

His innovations and impact upon journalism were more important than the newsroom titles he carried. His father, who would be publisher until his death at 85 in 1946, gave him some latitude. In fact, Mike and John are credited by some with more than doubling Register and Tribune circulation in the 1920s from 110,000 to 243,000 daily for the two papers and from 86,000 to 206,000 on Sunday. Under Mike's leadership, The Sunday Register circulation rose from 168,271 in 1928 to 376,372 in 1941.

In the late 1920s, Mike Cowles, then about 25 teamed up with a doctoral student from the University of Iowa, George Gallup, then about 27. Gallup, teaching at Drake University in Des Moines at the time, conducted some of the nation's first readership studies for The Register and Tribune. What he and Mike Cowles found confirmed Mike's interest in photojournalism. Gallup showed that any use of graphics would increase readership of news items and that readers preferred a series of photos on a related subject more than photos on different topics. Based on that research and his own passion for pictures, Mike Cowles greatly expanded the use of photos in The Register and The Tribune, and pointed with pride to a finding that in one six-day period The Tribune carried more photographs than any other leading newspaper in the nation. He credited The Sunday Register's rotogravure section with helping get the newspapers through the Depression. During the troubling economic times the Sunday circulation of The Register still increased thanks in part to the innovation of the picture-series stones in the Sunday roto-section.

Graphics and visual communications would become newsroom buzz words 30 years later, but many newspapers even then still trailed the use of photos, maps and charts used in The Register and The Tribune of the 1930s and the 1940s.

Despite the lean economic times of the 1930s and the fact that the papers were barely breaking even, Nike Cowles chose Richard Wilson, then 28 and the Register city editor, to open a Register and Tribune news bureau in Washington, D.C., in 1933. An editorial noted that such a Washington outpost was needed because "It is the obligation of these papers to the state to give such news service from every quarter ... and that applies with particular force to Washington news with an Iowa slant." That philosophy was consistent with the paper's slogan that it was "The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon" and it also was consistent with the nature of the family-owned, privately held newspaper to often have priorities other than the bottom line. Over the years, Washington bureau reporters won five Pulitzer Prizes for The Register, including one by Wilson in 1954.

From the Pulitzer won by Darling in 1924 to the Pulitzer won by Jane Schorer in1990, The Register has won 16 Pulitzer Prizes, including the seven for national reporting, more than any other newspaper for that category except for The New York Times.

Cowles combined two of his passions--photography and aviation--with the development of aerial photography. The Register, beginning as early as 1928, had its own airplane, named the Good News in a reader contest. The aerial photography combined with a "machine-gun" camera--developed by photographers George Yates and Charles Gatschet in 1935 for rapid-fire exposures--made The Register and The Tribune national leaders in photojournalism. The availability of the Good News improved Register and Tribune news coverage of the region, especially on fast-breaking stories. Mike Cowles also increased sports coverage in the papers and, thanks to Yates' camera, provided sports page readers with an early day version of instant-replay as key plays in football games were pictured in detail across the sports section. The aerial photography in The Register was developed to its fullest extent under Don Ultang, a pilot and photographer for the paper from 1946 to 1958.

Recognizing the onset of the age of aviation, Cowles urged airport development in Des Moines, arguing that the city had missed opportunities to be part of the railroad age and needed to assure itself a place in transcontinental aviation. In 1936, he spent his own money to assure that land would be available for airport expansion in Des Moines when the city had the public authorization and the money to do so. The 160 acres that he purchased for $70,000 was transferred to city ownership at cost. His leadership in airport development continued into the 1940s.

In the 1930s, Mike's career began to parallel rather than follow that of John's, and by the mid 1930s they and their father realized that the town was not big enough for both of them--a decision not borne of bitterness or jealousy, but rather out of respect and the recognition that each wanted to have his paper. Within three years of his graduation from Harvard, John became vice president, general manager and associate publisher of The Register and Tribune Company in 1923--a move that Mike, in his memoirs, said reflected respect for his reporting achievements in international affairs and his business acumen. Looking for a newspaper property that would offer opportunities comparable to those offered by The Register, Des Moines and Iowa, the Cowles family focused on the Star, Minneapolis and Minnesota. The Star was the weakest of three papers in Minneapolis, a paper with potential and a reasonable price. In 1938, John moved to Minneapolis to take over as a full-time resident publisher while Mike stayed in Des Moines to, in his words, "look after The Register and Tribune and to develop my plans for LOOK magazine."

Based on responses to the photo coverage in their newspapers and the sale of photo features to other newspapers, Mike Cowles decided in 1936 to start a national picture magazine to be called LOOK, a name suggested by his mother. Upon hearing that Time and Henry Luce had similar plans for a magazine to be named LIFE, the Cowles brothers met with Luce and Roy Larsen of Time to compare notes. The plans for LIFE to have a news and a weekly orientation and for LOOK to be feature-oriented and a monthly were different enough so that the brothers thought there was room in the market for both. They decided to see how LIFE fared before entering the magazine field, which they did a year later, with the first issue published January 5, 1937.

Meanwhile, common to both the Minneapolis and Des Moines newspaper ventures was emphasis on newsroom independence from advertising and political pressures. In Minneapolis, soon after Cowles ownership was assumed, the business community was upset when the Star refused to join its two competitors in ignoring the news about a well-known executive arrested for violating hunting laws. In Des Moines, the papers from time to time suffered economically from advertising boycotts in protest of news coverage.

In part, the Cowles brothers argued that monopoly ownership such as they enjoyed in both cities--after 1927 in Des Moines and after 1941 in Minneapolis--enabled them to be resist pressures to sensationalize or censor the news. But resistance to advertising, personal and political pressures--including those of the railroad and liquor interests--was established early in the leadership of the senior Cowles and Harvey Ingham. In 1915, Ingham had written:

"Two avenues of popularity are open to the newspaper. The first is to yield to flatter, to cajole. The second is to stand for the right things unflinchingly and win respect ... A strong and fearless newspaper will have readers and a newspaper that has readers will have advertisements. That is the only newspaper formula worth working to ... After making all allowances the only newspaper popularity that counts in the long run is bottomed on public respect."

In family-owned newspapers, newsroom and family traditions were intertwined. David Kruidenier, who in 1971 succeeded Uncle Mike as president of The Register and Tribune Company, said newsroom independence "is bred into one. I come off this heritage." As a child, Kruidenier said, like his uncles, he heard of the lore of the newspapers, like how grandfather did not knuckle under to advertising pressures. "You understand that we're trying to run a balanced paper."

Such lessons found believers in the newsroom, too. In a rare instance in which the senior Cowles might suggest that a story be played inside the paper instead of on page one, the newsroom had the confidence that it could play the story on page one and not hear a word about it.

The reasons for newsroom independence include the confidence that the Cowles family had in its editors and staff so as not to second guess them or to risk losing them. Kenneth MacDonald, himself a newsroom leader as editor and publisher during his 50 years with The Register and Tribune Company, thought that one root of the newsroom independence stemmed from Gardner Cowles' respect for Jay (Ding) Darling, The Register's cartoonist from 1906 to 1949, except for a brief fling in New York, 1911- 1913. Politically, Darling was far more conservative than Ingham, and Cowles devoted considerable time to keeping peace between them. To bridle Darling might mean losing him. So Darling was an independent cartoonist who contributed two Pulitzer Prizes to The Register in 1924 and 1943.

Mike Cowles continued that tradition of newsroom independence, relying on editors like MacDonald and editorial page editors like Bill Waymack, Forrest Seymour, and Lauren Soth--all Pulitzer Prize winners, 1938, 1943 and 1956--to set the newspapers' agenda.

At a dinner marking MacDonald's retirement in 1977, Mike Cowles shocked those editors and longtime staffers present by noting that he never did agree with The Register's editorial policies on agriculture and then spelled out what he thought the policy should be. Some of those present thought that maybe Mike Cowles was over-stating his disagreement-but the point was made: A paper could, perhaps should have editorial stands different from its publisher's. That point was made, too, when Gilbert Cranberg was editorial page editor of the papers in the 1970s and early 1980s and opposed a downtown business development plan supported in part by then publisher Kruidenier, the son of Florence Cowles Kruidenier. To Des Moines business interests such policies were puzzling--to the Cowles family it was the way to run a good newspaper.

Not that Mike or John Cowles were political wall flowers or uninvolved in their communities. Their fascination with politics, Mike said, included a "belief that it was our duty as citizens to be involved." Their strong support for Wendell Willkie's candidacy for President in 1940 was so public and so impassioned that on a swing of Willkie's through Minneapolis and Des Moines, the news coverage in the Cowles papers was almost fawning. A review of correspondence and the news coverage suggests that the favorable coverage was not at the overt direction of either of the Cowles brothers, but at the perception of the reporters that this was the boss's candidate. Correspondence between Mike Cowles and Willkie suggests that Mike did wield a heavy hand, however, in LOOK magazine giving Willkie a strong boost.

The Cowles brothers were intimate advisers of Willkie during his drive for the GOF nomination and his campaign against President Roosevelt. They remained so after the election. The brothers hoped to lay the groundwork for another Willkie bid in 1944—an effort with little hope of fruition at the outset and no hope ultimately because of GOP disaffection with the liberal Willkie and then an illness that incapacitated Willkie in mid 1944 and led to his death that October. The largest single memorial to Willkie was a gift of $125,000 from The Gardner Cowles and Florence Call Cowles Foundation to establish Willkie House, a black community center in Des Moines, a memorial that reflected both Willkie’s and Cowles' concerns with civil rights and race relations.

The links between the brothers and Willkie had been forged even stronger after the 1940 campaign. John accompanied Willkie to England in January 1941 in a bipartisan journey requested by President Roosevelt. FDR wanted to rally Congressional support for the U.S. Lend Lease program to provide the Royal Navy with more ships in its war against Nazi Germany. Willkie’s testimony before Congress helped assure Congressional approval of Lend Lease. Almost two years later, it was Mike Cowles who accompanied Willkie on his 49-day "One World tour--a trip again supported by Roosevelt to assure U.S. allies of the strong bipartisan support in the U.S. for the war effort. Mike Cowles was in the small Willkie party that carried the unity theme to allied leaders in Africa, the Middle East, Russia and China, from late August to mid-October.

The Willkie "One World " trip, what Mike Cowles called the highlight of his life, included potentially major news items for their time that never gained much attention except in Mike Cowles' storytelling and in his memoirs. Those were privately published "for the benefit of my children, grandchildren, a few of my closest friends and business associates" in 1985, the year of his death. One such story dealt with a meeting in Syria at which a French woman asked Cowles to forward to allied leaders her proposal that she arrange for the assassination of the troublesome General Charles DeGaulle in exchange for recognition of her husband as the new French military leader. Another story was of a Chungking affair involving Willkie and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. Such episodes contributed to Mike Cowles' wonderment at life.

(Part of that wonderment, as mentioned in the introductory paragraphs, included Mike Cowles' ownership of the Cardiff Giant, the 19th century hoax that was taken as evidence of Biblical accounts of a super race when it was found buried--planted would be the better word--just north of Syracuse, N.Y. Since the hoax was created from stone quarried in Iowa, Mike Cowles bought the Giant for $4,500 when a circus exhibiting it went bankrupt. He displayed it in his home in the 1930s to guests that included H.L. Mencken. In 1945, the Giant was donated to the New York State Historical Society for exhibit in the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.).

The "One World" journey came soon after Cowles had been appointed to wartime duty as assistant director of the Office of War Information. His responsibilities in the OW1 were to direct a domestic news bureau, coordinating information from non-military government agencies. Cowles took the job in response to a short request from President Roosevelt--a note that said : "Dear Cowles, Please do! DR." Cowles served in the OW1 under the leadership of Elmer Davis for about a year and then returned to Des Moines with some accolades as "one of the forces of sanity in the OWI" domestic programs.

While the Cowles brothers came up short on Willkie's 1940 candidacy, they both urged former General Dwight D. Eisenhower to return to public life and seek the presidency in 1952. They supported his election and his re-election in 1956, but the Cowles papers were critical of the Eisenhower administration, particularly with what was regarded as a 'moralistic" approach to international relations, epitomized by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

Mike Cowles' interest in international issues and in aviation led to occasional around-the-world tours and frequent trips to Europe--one of which included a trip home aboard the Nazi airship Hindenburg, a year before its May 7, 1937 explosion in Lakehurst, New Jersey. But, as with the Willkie trips, there was little news coverage in the Cowles papers about such journeys. As a matter of newspaper policy and what they saw as journalistic decorum, the Cowles family shunned news that might be viewed as self promotion. "We covered Mike's divorces, but not his trips," is how MacDonald put it, and the three divorces were front page news in The Register. The Register and The Tribune also covered Mike Cowles' speeches to community business and educational groups when he spoke about political trends.

In a May 1938 talk to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, Cowles talked of Hitler's cementing of power in Germany, France's lack of unity, and England's lack of preparation for war, including his observation that the "Chamberlain government will go to any length to prevent one."

A dozen years later, reflecting on the onset of the McCarthyism in the United States and fear of Russia, Cowles told the chamber," I would prescribe for the United States more confidence in ourselves, less hysteria about Russia and a big dose of restraint and patience ... Of course we would like to see the Soviet dictatorship overthrown tomorrow, but more likely that hoped-for event is a score of years off. ..I doubt if Communism can be killed with a gun."

In the post World War II years, Mike Cowles business and personal interests moved him to New York--fulfilling a boyhood dream, he said, that began when on his first trip to the city as a boy of 12, his father gave him $5 and turned him lose on the city and Coney Island. Mike navigated the subway system and the rides at Coney Island all day, returning back to the hotel and a relieved mother in the early evening.

In New York, he directed LOOK and undertook other publishing and broadcast adventures while maintaining his leadership at the Register and Tribune. He and John talked on the telephone two or three times a week to keep watch over the Cowles holdings-- although their newspapers were separate operations. By the mid 1950s, the Sunday circulations of their Des Moines and Minneapolis newspapers totaled well over a million, covering Iowa and Minnesota and circulating well into neighboring states. The Register's peak Sunday circulation was about 550,000, and the paper circulated in each of the state's 99 counties, helping set a statewide agenda and allowing one to figuratively move from one part of the state to another without missing a beat in morning coffee conversations.

LOOK also had been a success, and the publication had been moved to twice a month. The publication reached a peak circulation of about 9 million before falling to television, higher postal costs and other forces that spelled the end of the mass circulation magazine. The most difficult day of his life, Cowles later said, was on September 16, 1971, when it was announced that LOOK would cease publication on October 19, 1971.

In other magazine ventures by Mike Cowles, Quick, a pocket-sized weekly news magazine, was started in 1949 and suspended in 1953, when it had reached a circulation of 1.3 million. Although the smaller size was not attractive to some advertisers, the main reason Quick was killed was that its subscribers--if transferred to LOOK--would help LOOK maintain an important subscription edge in a critical circulation battle with Colliers. Flair, a magazine pressed upon Mike Cowles by his third wife, Flew Fenton, had so many special design elements that, although interesting--Time called Flair "avant gaudy”-- It lost about 75 cents an issue and it was suspended one year after its debut in January 1950. Venture, a travel magazine, was published from 1963 to 1967, and featured a three-dimensional photograph on each month's cover.

On the newspaper front, from New York, Mike Cowles saw the opportunity for a daily newspaper serving Long Island and started the Suffolk Sun November 21, 1966. The Sun survived for only three years with publication suspended October 18, 1969. A longer lasting venture was the San Juan, Puerto Rico, Star, established November 2, 1959 and sold to Scripps Howard August 12, 1970. The Des Moines Tribune was among the afternoon newspapers falling almost like dominoes in the early 1980s, and its last issue

On the newspaper front, from New York, Mike Cowles saw the opportunity for a daily newspaper serving Long Island and started the Suffolk Sun November 21, 1966. The Sun survived for only three years with publication suspended October 18, 1969. A longer lasting venture was the San Juan, Puerto Rico, Star, established November 2, 1959 and sold to Scripps Howard August 12, 1970. The Des Moines Tribune was among the afternoon newspapers falling almost like dominoes in the early 1980s, and its last issue September 25, 1982. Similarly in the frenzy of newspaper buying in those years, a bidding war for The Des Moines Register resulted in the sale to Gannett for about $160 million, leaving the Minneapolis Star-Tribune as the primary Cowles presence in the midwest. The publisher of The Register under Gannett was Charles Edwards, the nephew of Kruidenier, the fourth generation of the Cowles family to head the paper, but the first without family ownership.

Mike Cowles held honorary degrees from 11 colleges and universities, including seven in Iowa, Coe College, Cornell, Drake University, Grinnell, Iowa Wesleyan, Morningside and Simpson. Others were from Bard College, Mundelein, Long Island University, and Colleges of Hobart and William Smith. In 1950, he was the chief marshal of the Harvard Commencement.

He served on the Columbia University Advisory Board on Pulitzer Prizes and the boards of directors of R.H Macy and Company, The New York Times Co., United Air Lines, UAL Inc., Kemperco Inc., Bankers Life Company, First National Bank of Miami, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Magazine Publishers Association, and the National Association of Broadcasters.

Mike Cowles was married four times. His first marriage to Helen Curtiss, he said, unfortunately was driven in part by his brother John's suggestion that maybe Helen was too sophisticated for him. They wed in November 1926 and were divorced in May 1930. His May 1933 to August 1946 marriage to Lois Thornburg resulted in four children, Lois Cowles Harrison, Gardner III (Pat), Kate Cowles Nichols, and Jane Cowles. The third marriage was to Fleur Fenton, December 1946-November 1955. He was married to Jan Hochstraser (also known as Jan Streate Cox) from May 1956 until his death and had a daughter Virginia and stepson Charles.