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The Sacramento Union daily newspaper was a newspaper founded in 1851 in Sacramento, California. It was the oldest daily newspaper west of the Mississippi before it closed its doors after 143 years in January 1994, no longer able to compete with The Sacramento Bee, which was founded just six years after the Union, in 1857.
The birth of this storied newspaper institution began 156 years ago, when the city of Sacramento was in its infancy.
Under the direction of its first editor Dr. John F. Morse, who had attracted proprietors through letters to the New Orleans Delta and well-known literary attainments, The Union was initially printed as The Daily Union on Wednesday, March 19, 1851. Upon the front page of this 23-inch by 34-inch paper, Morse addressed the readers of The Union, committing to “publish the first news in the best style and at the lowest prices” and “to have an efficient correspondent in every important town and mining region in the state.”
The existence of the paper had evolved through the efforts of four Sacramento Transcript printers. The printers had introduced the idea of The Union’s creation a year earlier, due to their frustrations with a labor dispute between the Transcript and the Placer Times, which were the city’s first two newspapers. The battle between these two newspapers became so fierce that the papers sold advertising space for below the cost of composition for the mere purpose of undercutting their competition.
Opening its operation at its 21 J St. headquarters, The Union endured very competitive times during its early years, which found it as one of about 60 Sacramento newspapers.
Sacramento’s status as a newspaper town, however, was short lived, as all but two newspapers failed, leading to The Union’s famous slogan, “The Oldest Daily in the West.” In addition to this fact, The Union’s early years are also recognized for their famous contributors, who included Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Dan De Quille.
The Union is also noted for covering many world-famous events with details about the Gold Rush, the American Civil War, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, World Wars I and II, Charles Lindberg’s flights across the Atlantic, the Vietnam War, the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Iranian hostage crisis and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The emergence of The Daily Union as a leading newspaper evolved quite quickly, as its initial circulation of 500 was soon afterward expanded with an even wider circulation and the daily publication was joined by the semi-monthly Steamer Union (1851) for Atlantic states and European readers, the Weekly Union (1852), and the semi-annual Pictorial Union (1853), which featured drawings of towns, landscapes and other scenes of the era.
The Union, which was often referred to as the “Miners’ Bible” during its early years, passed a major test when it overcame a great fire on Nov. 2, 1852 and continued printing on a small press that was saved from the flames. A brick building, which still stands today, was later constructed at 121 J Street to replace the paper’s original building.
On Nov. 17, 1858, The Union became the first California newspaper to issue a double-sheet daily. The publication was also recognized as the largest double-sheet daily in the nation.
The Sacramento Publishing Co. purchased the Sacramento Daily Union, as it was then known, and the Daily Record in 1875 and merged them into one newspaper, calling it the Sacramento Daily Record-Union – a name that was later dropped.
As a well-respected publication and a fixture of the city, The Union remained financially successful, as it continued providing news decade after decade. But with the passing of the Eighties, which saw the newspaper selling about 105,000 papers daily, The Union’s circulation had declined to about half this figure.
In about two decades, the paper had fallen from the heights of its 1966 purchase by Copley Press, which brought in millions of dollars that resulted in improvements such as the 1967 construction of the publication’s Capitol Mall headquarters and a new long-run, photo-offset press. During those years it was the dominant morning newspaper in Sacramento. Then, in the mid-1970s, The Bee decided to go head-to-head with The Union as a morning newspaper and promised that the Bee would arrive on the doorstep by 6:00 a.m. The Union circulation department couldn't equal that service, and the Bee quickly became the larger of the two dailies.
While the Bee had a much larger staff, the Union beat the Bee on a number of huge stories. Among them were the Dorothea Puente Victorian grave sites and the investigative reporting that led to the resignation of California Department of Education Superintendent Bill Honig.
Conservative financier Richard Mellon Scaife owned the newspaper from 1977 to 1989. While there were reports that Scaife lost millions of dollars every year on the newspaper, he enjoyed having a conservative voice in the capital of the largest state in the union.
In the late 1980s, the newspaper changed from the standard broadsheet size to a tabloid, and the Union launched a marketing campaign called "Grab the Tab." For the most part, it was a failure and the paper suffered losses in circulation.
In 1989, Scaife sold the Union to local real estate developers Daniel Benvenuti Jr. and David Kassis. They hired Joseph Farah as editor, and the paper veered even further to the right. According to a former reporter, Farah issued memos prohibiting reporters from using the words "gay," assault rifles," and "women's health center"; these were replaced by "homosexual," semi-automatic rifles," and "abortion clinics." Farah resigned as editor 15 months later; under his editorship, the paper's circulation declined nearly 30 percent, from 72,000 to 52,000. Farah later founded the website WorldNetDaily.
Benvenuti and Kassis sold the newspaper's press—which was state of the art in the mid-1960s, creating the best color of newspapers throughout the nation—in 1991 to a Mexican town. They began to have the paper printed at Herald Printing. Herald's president Ralph Danel Jr. acquired the Union from Benvenuti and Kassis in November 1992. The selling price was in large part the debt that Benvenuti and Kassis owed Herald for its printing services.
In an attempt to reduce losses, circulation was dropped outside of the Sacramento metro area and, two months before its closure, publication was changed from seven days a week to three days a week.
The formerly daily Union published its final edition on Friday, January 14, 1994. The cover featured a color photo of the paper's last staff under the blaring headline, "We're History," coined by the newspaper's last editor, Ken Harvey.
It is the Missouri-born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who is better known by his nom de plume of Mark Twain, however, who is remembered most for his contributions to The Union. This point was evident through the large bronze bust of Twain, which sat just west of the State Capitol in the lobby of The Union’s latter building at 301 Capitol Mall.
Inscribed on the bust were Twain’s words: “Early in 1866, George Barnes invited me to resign my reportership on his paper, the San Francisco Morning Call, and for some months thereafter, I was without money or work; then I had a pleasant turn of fortune. The proprietors of the Sacramento Union, a great and influential daily journal, sent me to the Sandwich Islands to write four letters a month at twenty dollars a piece. I was there for four or five months, and returned to find myself about the best known man on the Pacific Coast.”
Twain dispatched a series of articles on Hawaii for The Union in 1866. These were very popular, and many historians credit the series with turning Twain into a journalistic star. Because many people thought that Twain wrote in The Union building, whenever The Union was struggling financially during the turn of the century, the owners would drag out an old desk and sell it for a princely sum as "the desk where Mark Twain sat."
Unfortunately, said Charlotte Gilmore, former head of The Union’s “morgue” or bound volumes collection, the original Twain articles were cut out and stolen from The Union’s bound volumes during the 1970s.
“Sometime after I left in the summer of 1971, it happened,” Gilmore said. “It’s a very disappointing situation, but at least the (Twain) articles were photographed (for microfilm) before this happened.”
The Union’s bound volumes, as well as the bronze bust of Twain, are now in the possession of the Shields Library at UC Davis, having been donated by the Danel and Reboin families, owners of the Herald Printing Co. The Twain articles can be viewed on microfilm at the Sacramento Public Library’s central location at 828 I St.
The road to the rebirth of The Union in its newspaper form began in early 2004, when the name of the newspaper was acquired for the purpose of restarting the publication. To meet its goals, the new Union set up offices in Fair Oaks and worked with former Union publishing staff to prepare for its return.
In August 2004, a modernized Sacramento Union returned with bimonthly magazines, then started publishing monthly in May 2005. James H. Smith, a former publisher of the Sacramento Union newspaper and co-founder of the Western Journalism Center with Farah, served as publisher, and Kenneth E. Grubbs Jr., former director of the National Journalism Center who had also worked for the Orange County Register, served as editor.
The publishers did not intend to return as a print daily newspaper, concentrating instead on web and magazine publishing.
Due to its very limited success, the magazine ceased existing after only five issues. Much of the office staff was laid off in May 2005. Smith and Grubbs were ousted in June 2005, and J.J. McClatchy, a member of the Union's board of directors, was named general manager. Smith accused McClatchy of staging a hostile takeover of the Union on behalf of his family, which owns The Sacramento Bee.
Ryan Rose, The Union’s current managing editor, served as the magazine's Web editor; he said that many people were confused upon seeing The Union as a magazine.
“We were known in this region for more than 100 years as a newspaper and then less than 10 years after The Union closed as a newspaper, we reissued it as a magazine and I firmly believe that the magazine suffered because we betrayed the brand,” Rose said.
After several months of dormancy, a new print edition of The Sacramento Union appeared on Friday, July 21, 2006, sporting a similar masthead as the magazine and the notation "Since 1851". The volume number in the paper was listed as "Volume 1, Number 1."
The archives of the daily Union are in the Special Collections of the Shields Library of UC Davis.
In the autumn of 2005, demolition crews started work on the old daily Union office building, located at 301 Capitol Mall in downtown Sacramento. The building was constructed in 1967. (Earth Metrics Inc., 1989.) A 53-story high-rise called "The Towers on Capitol Mall" is planned for the Unions previous spot, but by 2007, the developer was struggling to finance the project. If built, it will consist of two separate mixed-use buildings that feature luxury apartment and hotel suites. 
In 2006, The Sacramento Union was reborn as a tabloid-sized free weekly newspaper fom 2006 to 2009. An attempt to revive the paper as a glossy magazine in 2004 also failed. Published by The Sacramento Union, LLC, the paper also published a daily news Web site. It suspended publication of both the paper and the website in March, 2009.
According to the April 11, 2008 edition of The Union, staff members included Sports Editor Patrick Ibarra. Contributing writers for The Union include: Lance Armstrong (writer, Metro and History); Diana M. Ernst (columnist, State Capitol); Peter Hannaford (columnist, State Capitol); Katy Grimes (columnist, Metro); Vicki E. Murray (columnist, State Capitol); Andy Nevis (writer, Metro); Karen Russo (columnist, International); Josh Terrell (writer, Sports); Tyler Stone (writer, Culinary); Liam Weston (columnist, International); Mark Williams (columnist, Metro);
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