The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Cowles, Gardner, Sr.
(February 28, 1861–February 28, 1946)

and sons

John Cowles Sr.

(December 14, 1898–February 25, 1983) and Gardner "Mike" Cowles Jr.

(January 31, 1903-July 8, 1985)

built a newspaper dynasty based on the foundation of the Des Moines Register and later the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Over the years, the Cowles family branched out into radio and magazines, most notably with Mike Cowles's founding of Look, a picture magazine, in 1937. The family remained in the publishing business for most of the 20th century until, in the 1980s and 1990s, they sold both companies to larger media corporations.

    The son of a Methodist minister, Gardner Cowles was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1861. After graduating from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1882, he served as Algona school superintendent and briefly entered the newspaper business when he bought a half-interest in the weekly Algona Republican. That led to his friendship with Harvey Ingham, editor of a rival newspaper. There he also met Florence Call, a teacher he later married in 1884. After selling out his interest in the newspaper, he left the superintendent position and joined his father-in-law in a mail-carrying business. The two solicited government contracts to carry mail by horseback or wagon to small towns not served by a railroad. Shortly thereafter, Cowles went into banking.

    This background proved valuable for Cowles's future with the Register in Des Moines. It introduced him to various parts of Iowa, gave him an understanding of small towns, exposed him to sales in rural areas, and created an awareness of the importance of the state's rail network. By the time Cowles acquired the Register, he was a mature businessman who was already familiar with the newspaper world.

    Cowles reentered the newspaper business in 1903, when Harvey Ingham, then editor of the Des Moines Register and Leader (the Leader was dropped from the masthead in 1916), convinced him to buy a half-interest in the paper. Together, the two men controlled two-thirds of the company. At the time of their purchase, the once powerful Register had fallen on hard times and was the smallest of the three and soon four dailies in the crowded Des Moines market.

    Once together at the Register, Cowles and Ingham shared a commitment to build a newspaper that stressed objectivity and covered the entire state. While editor Ingham improved the paper's quality, expanded its reporting of agricultural issues and statewide news, and moved the paper away from its highly partisan past, Cowles focused on the paper's business side and worked on building circulation. The highly competitive newspaper environment in Des Moines led him to look to the entire state as a potential market. He relied on Iowa's extensive railroads to distribute his paper. Where the trains did not reach, he made arrangements with local vendors and developed a distribution system of young newspaper carriers and adult rural route sales representatives. Later he increasingly used trucks to carry the Register across the state. The innovative strategies worked, and by 1930 the Sunday Register reached every county in Iowa, and its circulation exceeded the entire population of Polk County by 25 percent.

    After increasing circulation outside Des Moines and getting the Register on a more solid financial footing, Cowles expanded his company in Des Moines by differentiating his paper from others in the city and ultimately acquiring the competition. One of his early coups in setting the paper apart was the hiring of talented political cartoonist Jay N. "Ding" Darling in 1906. Darling's work quickly became popular, and his daily cartoon on the front page of every Register became the paper's trademark. At the same time, Cowles moved toward blunting his rivals through acquisition, and by 1927 he owned and operated the city's only two papers: the morning Des Moines Register and the evening Des Moines Tribune.

    By the 1920s two of Cowles's six children, John and his younger brother Mike, had joined their father at the newspaper. After attending public schools in Des Moines, both finished their education in the East, at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard. They then came back to positions at the Register and worked their way through the ranks until by the end of the 1920s they were running the business.

    With his sons holding the reins at the Register and Tribune Company (R&T), the senior Cowles felt comfortable accepting a presidential appointment from Herbert Hoover to the board of directors of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932. He served a little over a year until Franklin Roosevelt came to power in 1933. This was Cowles's second and last venture into the world of politics. Much earlier, he had served two terms in the Iowa House (1900 and 1902).

    The brothers shared their father's ambition, energy, and passion for journalism. Together, they expanded the company by embracing new strategies and technologies. Like a handful of other newspaper firms, the R&T became interested in the potential of radio. It made a brief foray into radio in the early 1920s, then during the following decade, the Cowles brothers established a broadcasting subsidiary and purchased three stations in Iowa, two of which–KSO and KRNT—were soon moved to Des Moines. This was the R&T's first flirtation with a communication business outside of newspapers; others followed.

    In the late 1920s Mike Cowles employed pollster George Gallup, then a graduate student in journalism at the State University of Iowa, to conduct some of the nation's first readership surveys for the Register and Tribune. The studies showed that the newspapers' highest readership was tied to stories accompanied by pictures or graphics. The results of Gallup's studies confirmed the popularity of the photographic sequences that Mike Cowles was already running in the special rotogravure (photographic) section of the Sunday paper. He greatly increased the use of photos in both the Register and Tribune, and as a result, circulation of the Sunday Register shot up.

    In 1935 the family's business empire spread beyond Iowa, when the family purchased the ailing evening daily the Minneapolis Star, and turned it around using many of the same techniques they had already employed in Des Moines. They bought up competing papers and built circulation, so that by 1941 the family owned all of the city's newspapers. In a second move, Mike made use of his interest in photographs and his experience with the Register 's rotogravure section to launch Look magazine in 1937. These new undertakings led the brothers to divide up responsibilities; John moved to Minneapolis to run the newly acquired paper, and Mike remained in Des Moines to oversee the R&T.

    In 1940 John and Mike became major supporters of Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. After Willkie lost the election, President Franklin Roosevelt sent him to England to bolster bipartisan support for the Lend-Lease program. John Cowles accompanied Willkie and following the trip wrote a series of articles titled "Britain Under Fire," which appeared in newspapers across the country. He later worked as a special assistant to Lend-Lease administrator Edward Stettinius. Meanwhile, when Willkie made his One World Tour, a global goodwill trip to show American support for its wartime allies, Mike, who was then working for the Office of War Information, accompanied him.

    In 1945 Mike moved to New York to devote more time to Look, but he remained in close touch with Des Moines, visiting the operations once or twice per month. John remained in Minneapolis, overseeing the family businesses there. The following year, their father, Gardner Cowles, died. Besides building his newspaper business, he had left a legacy of philanthropy and public service, establishing the Des Moines-based Gardner Cowles Foundation and serving on the boards of Drake University, Iowa Wesleyan College, and Simpson College.

    In the years that followed, John and Mike Cowles continued to run the family's media operation. Mike was the more flamboyant of the two and started many other ventures with varying degrees of success. These included Quick, a pocket-sized weekly news magazine; Flair, an innovative magazine that focused on art, entertainment, fashion, and literature; the Suffolk Sun, a Long Island, New York, newspaper; and the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star. He was married four times: to Helen Curtiss, Lois Thornburg (with whom he had four children), Fleur Fenton, and Jan Hochstraser (with whom he had one child). John married Elizabeth Morley Bates, and they had four children.

    By the early 1970s John and Mike had passed the mantel of leadership to two of Gardner Cowles's grandsons: John Cowles Jr. took over the Minneapolis operations in 1968, and David Kruidenier, a nephew of John and Mike, was named president and publisher of the R&T in 1971.

    The Cowles brothers died within two years of each other, John in 1983 and Mike in 1985. By that time, the media industry was experiencing a period of consolidation, with big companies snapping up smaller independent newspapers. The Cowles companies had grown through acquisition, but ultimately both became part of larger communications firms: Gannett purchased the R&T in 1985, and in 1998 McClatchy Newspapers acquired the Star and Tribune Company, which had been renamed the Cowles Media Company in 1982.
Sources The John and Gardner Cowles Jr. Papers are held at Drake University, Des Moines. See also James Alcott, A History of Cowles Media Company (1998); William Friedricks, Covering Iowa: The History of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company, 1849–1985 (2000); and George Mills, Harvey Ingham and Gardner Cowles, Sr.: Things Don't Just Happen (1977).
Contributor: William Friedricks