Politics in a democracy is about changing minds, and to change minds, you need to get your message to the people you hope to persuade. Reformist groups throughout history have often run into opposition from the established mainstream media, which tends to be supportive of the current status quo structure. Being able to speak directly to supporters and the population as a whole has been critical to independent political movements. This is something the leadership of the Nonpartisan League strongly understood and why one of their first acts was to create their own paper. This was a lesson relearned by Edwin and Joyce Koupal, who after their failed efforts to recall then Governor Ronald Reagan, created their nonprofit group called the People’s Lobby, Inc. and acquired their own printing press.
Having their own printing operation provided several benefits to the People’s Lobby. Most importantly, it addressed their core need to communicate easily and directly with their supporters and the people they hoped to persuade to support their causes. In addition, running a printing press provided the People’s Lobby an independent source of funding that was not reliant on big donors or a particular campaign. A political group’s independence is often defined by that with which their big donors are comfortable
Having a printing operation fit well with an organization focused on ballot measures. When your goal is to gather hundreds of thousands of petition signatures on tens of thousands of individual petition forms, being able to produce these materials in house can be a real cost-saver.
Another benefit is that it helped deal with the “feast and famine” nature of politics, which is especially pronounced for an organization based around ballot initiatives. The printing business provided something for people in the organization to focus on during the “off season” between campaigns. Often a problem in low-money, grassroots political activism is keeping dedicated individuals involved in the lean times between campaigns when they may end up finding other work. There is a lot of personnel turnover and loss of experience in grassroots activism, which often forces the re-invention of the wheel.
Early in our nation’s history political parties always took care to create their own papers, since bypassing mainstream media to communicate directly with people meant owning your own printing press. Having their own paper was part of the secret of success for the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota; the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan made sure to create their own party paper; and the Koupals rediscovered the importance of a political organization having its own printing press in California.
With the rise of the Internet, email lists and blogs, the need for a political movement to have its own physical printing press may have diminished, but the ability to directly communicate is as important as ever to political movements. I have previously stressed in my Nonpartisan League series the importance of owning your own means of communication and being a financially independent organization, but it is a message that bears repeating because history is always repeating itself.