‘Asbarez’ and its First Ten Years of Life

THE HISTORIC SEVEN

SEVEN is universally regarded as a lucky number;and so it was with Asbarez, although the seven founders of the newspaper did not plan it that way – that there would be seven. They were A. K. Seklemian, Aslan Aslanian, Arpaxat Setrakian, Avedis Tufenkjian, Levon Hagopian, Bedros Hagopian and the writer, Hovaness Kabadayan.

Among this septet were two real estate agents, two farmers, two businessmen and one professional – all people of limited financial resources to whom a contribution of $100 would constitute a family burden. These seven, however, gave $1000 to the Asbarez project. Seklemian was unanimously elected the first chief editor. He worked without receiving emolument of any type.

One year after the establishment of the paper, two others expressed a wish to join the stockholders – Melkon Markarian (of Darin), a comparatively new arrival in Fresno, who bought in at $100, and Sahag Arslanian, an honored veteran member of the Fresno community and a local businessman. He purchased $200 of stock. Their joining raised a sort of spirit of competition among the original seven to give more money to the newspaper’s operations.

FINANCES
I recall sharply how we used to sit at meetings of the Board and wonder how much more money we would be called upon to keep the newspaper solvent. The bright spot in the financial picture was that the editors worked FREE of charge. If in the first three-four years we had been called upon to pay salaries to the editors, even $6 per week, the newspaper would have early experienced its eternal rest.

It was not until four years after its inception that the paper achieved a circulation of 1000 (three-fourths paid up, a quarter owing money). This, with advertisemen’s and contributions from friends in the community, meant that the organ had achieved a sort of financial stability, although our building was always tottering. Those opposed to us each day awaited fondly news of our demise. There came along once an honest churchman who offered us $2000 for all the stock of the Association in order to take over the paper and guide it along the course of “Christian penitence”. We rejected him, of course, because we had long ago vowed either to sink or swim with the Asbarez.

The following is reprinted here to demonstrate how the members had placed their hopes on meeting the costs of the publication through new stockholders. This letter was sent by the Board to the members of the Fresno and Los Angeles Armenian Revolutionary Federation Committees who quickly responded to our appeal and raised the number of stockholders to fifteen.

Dear A.R.F. Members:
The Asbarez Publishing Association, in its February 22, 1913 meeting which mulled the financial problems faced by the Association, decided to appeal to all Members of the organization who are financially able to become stockholders so as to help us meet our expenses, of course under the guidance of the A.R.F. We need immediately a sum of $800 to help lighten our present debt and so that we can keep issuing a useful and worthy organ for the community.

(signed)
L. Hagopian, Arpaxat Setrakian, Bedros Hagopian, Sahag Arslanian, Markarian, A. Tufenkjian, Aslan Aslanian.

At that time, editor Seklemian was ill in bed and had been visited by the good Aslan Aslanian. Our ill member had given his friend all assurance that he was in full concord with the step being taken.

The result was that the Fresno A.R.F. collected $300, Los Angeles $200. Individuals giving included Nazareth Artesian ($100), Arvada’s Rustigian, ($100), Duran Karenina ($50), and Bedros Bostonian ($50). They of course became stockholders and joined our circle.

SUBSCRIPTION DIFFICULTIES
The first ten years of Asbarez can be equated to a struggle; but they were years of encouragement and enthusiasm. The members of the Board had placed special efforts on rallying the Fresno community to the support of the paper. To that effect Asbarez preached patriotism and freely discussed public problems. It can be said that worship of the soil and money had become so deep-seated in our community that business and crops were the principal interests of our people. People with such a mentality have difficulty understanding that a newspaper could have anything but a profit motive – that Asbarez was not a business. To such materially-minded people, payment of an annual $1.50 subscription fee was more difficult that yielding a tooth to a dentist. One day, as an example, the following conversation took place in the editorial offices of the Asbarez:

– Mr. Editor, send me the Asbarez!
– Very well, friend. Your name and address;?
– Well, what is the annual fee?
– $1.50, friend.
– O! My! $1.50 is a lot of money!
– That is the fee, friend. Look, the price is printed under our masthead.
– It’s a lot of money. I say. Hey! If you want to send it to me at five cents each, go ahead.
– Can’t be done, friend. Impossible!
– What’s impossible? Let’s not profit from me.
– Impossible, babam. It’s impossible.
– Well, make it $1.25 and you can send it to me.
– $1.50! $1.50! $1.50! Do you understand?
– Well, here’s your lousy $1.50! Send it. What kind of patriotism is this? You want us to read your paper, but you get a full para for it. Goodbye!
One can imagine what emotions fill an editor when he turns from such a conversation to his incessant, nocturnal editorial duties;
The following is an extract from the November 21, 1909 Board record. It will suffice to show what difficulties we faced in the early years:

In a letter written to us, the Revered Father requests that because of his profession as a Minister his $1.50 annual subscription fee be reduced to .75 cents. The meeting considered this proposal to be unacceptable and refused it. But out of consideration that the Minister ought not, because of his profession, to be without the Asbarez, three of our Members each gave .25 cents each to cover the balance of his subscription fee.

The reader need not be further astonished, we pray, when we point out that at the time the above letter was written this Reverend was, as he was in 1918, a wealthy owner of profit-bearing land – whose assets, it was aid, were worth $50,000!

COUNTERBALANCING THE PICTURE
In the first few years of the newspaper, however, the number of those who were sincerely dedicated to the newspaper grew apace. On the other hand, our more devoted and bitterest opponents on occasion even took the liberty of characterizing us as near-fools, and did all they could to raise a storm against us. But we soon had proof that the army arrayed against us would not prevail for we too had an army of friends who honored us for our efforts to assist the community. The public began to now their real friends. The number of unpaid subscriptions began to lessen and the spirit of assisting the organ became pronounced in a number of ways. Voices reached us from every corner of Armenian America thanking and commending us. Admirers began to help us by word and work. And we began to feel that our perspiration was not being shed is vain. We had in fact crossed the Rubicon. When, in 1916, under the organizational banner, our Asbarez members straightforward signed over their property to the A.R.F., half of our difficulties were already behind us.

AN A.R.F. ORGAN? PAYMENT OF EDITORS
For about two years after the founding of the newspaper those who detested the Asbarez and wanted its destruction started circulating the story that the newspaper was the property of the A.R.F. and that monies given by the people to the A.R.F. freedom effort were being used to maintain both the Asbarez and Hairenik; that the pockets of the editors were lined with this money in the form of salaries, and the like. The fact was that not a single cent had been given the paper by the Party, nor had a nickel been given the editors in salaries. It was only after the Asbarez had established its roots that a sum of money was lent to the paper toward the purchase of a linotype machine. As for the fat salaries received by the editors, let us quickly say that, according to the decision of the Association, the editors were to receive $300 annually; but because of the precarious financial state of the paper’s treasury, not a single editor got any salary at all for four years. The editors never asked payment of salary, satisfying themselves to be stockholders in the Association – certainly hardly a material gain. We may also recall here that if the overworked editors had not had their own work or trade as personal income, something which insured their daily keep, they would have;had to have walked around with crusts of dry bread in their pockets in order to comfort their gnawing hunger;in such a wonderful country of plenty and in such a marvelous century..!

I remember that outside of my working hours I would spend the night to dawn so that the newspaper would regularly appear and be in the hands of our readers in time. Put any name you want on this dedicated work, but as for myself I will call it service (or servitude) – for the editor’s reward was simply the accolades of his readers;

THE DEPARTED
Before the Asbarez’s first decade of life ended (in 1918), three of our beloved founding comrades – Aslan Aslanian, Melkon Markarian and Sahag Arslanian – had passed away.

Aslan Aslanian was one of those rare individuals who were every ready to sacrifice his own interests, personal glory and everything else, to the common weal;

Despite his skimpy education, Aslan was filled with the real spirit of the Armenian revolution. In Fresno, he brought order to the local patriotic movement. On September 22, 1914, he passed away at 45 years of age after an operation, lamented by all. His passing was notably memorialized in the pages of his beloved Asbarez. Aslan had been born in Khasdour village, Alashkert, Armenia.

On November 21, of the same year (1914), another of the founding group, Melkon Markarian closed his eyes. He was mourned not only by his fellow members but by the whole Fresno community, a founding father of which he had been. This stalwart son of Daron was an accomplished poet who freely sang of the revolution, of freedom, of the tribulations of his people. He died in his 71st year. His death mercifully forbade him from hearing of the Great Trial to be undergone in the following year by his revered nation;

A few weeks later, on January 9, 1915, another dedicated member Sahag Arslanian, who had joined the Board about one year after its formation, passed away. He had worked incessantly in the interests of the newspaper. He had been a successful businessman.

Sahag had lived in Fresno for many years and had seen the original group of immigrant Armenians there swell from a few hundred to 8000. He was in the textile dye business although he had at one time taught in the Erzerum high school. About twenty years before this article was written (1898), he told us he had early retreated from Armenian affairs because of the adversary relationships he had found among the Armenian organizations. The advent of the Asbarez project had however rekindled his interest in his parental people. Although politically a “neutral”, he yet was a constant source of inspiration to us. He was fully discouraged by the efforts of our opponents to destroy us.

Sahag believed in the persuasive power of weapons and invariably donated generously to worthwhile patriotic causes. He was leery of the Ottoman National Constitution and was a constant advocate of self-defensive measures;

The passing of these three members did not give cease to our work. The newspaper became especially important during the bloody 1915 years when news of the Great Atrocities came to us daily for publication. We were inspired to work even harder by the memories of our departed friends.

EDITORIAL TERMS
According to the By-laws, the following six-month editorial assignmen’s were parceled out (first name the chief editor):
First period – A. K. Seklemian and H. Kabadayan.
Second period – Kabadayan and Seklemian.
Third period – Seklemian, Kabadayan and Levon Hagopian.
Fourth period – Bedros Hagopian, Seklemian and Kabadayan.
Fifth period – Seklemian, Kabadayan and Sahag Arslanian.
Sixth period – Seklemian and Kabadayan.
Seventh period – Seklemian, Levon Hagopian and Bedros Hagopian.
Eighth period – Ardavast Rustigian and Alexander Melik.
Ninth period – Kabadayan, Melik and Bedros Hagopian.
Tenth period – Kabadayan, Rustigian and Nazareth Tateosian.
Eleventh period to 16th – Kabadayan and Rustigian
Sixteenth to 20th (1918) – Arsen Mikaelian and Kabadayan.

TYPESETTERS
Editors can do nothing without a supporting staff of accurate typesetters;The names of those who set type at the Asbarez during its first ten years of life must be recalled.

The pioneer Asbarez typesetter was Mardiros Sadoian, whose pupils were Arsen Markarian, Nishan Tourounjian, Zarmair Shehrian, Harutuine Geogiushian, Manoug Manoukian, Hovaness Boghosian and finally, 1916, Hagop Carian.
Tourounjian was a talented artist who served as a corporal in the Camouflage Corps of the U.S. Army in France. He designed the masthead of the Asbarez.

To set type by hand for years takes a special kind of patience – and even courage. Each line had laboriously to be set, one character after another, for Asbarez’s six-eight pages. The perils were many. One day, for instance, a page form composed at the local daily newspaper was somehow left insecurely locked. When our people picked up this form to transfer it to the press bed, the whole thing simply collapsed, the type cascaded to the floor and was hopelessly pied. Our two typesetters were immediately summoned to the scene of the disaster. They simply picked up all of the stuff and transferred it back to the editorial-composition room where it took one month to reassemble that page. Mardiros Sadoian was indeed one of the heroes of our early operations;It was not until 1918 that we were able to acquire our first linotype machine;which we purchased outright.

CIRCULATION
Asbarez began appearing in a regular eight-page format with the 1918 purchase of a linotype machine. Almost immediately, its circulation jumped from 1250 to 2000. By “circulation” of course we do not mean subscribers. It was at that time the most widely circulated Armenian newspaper in America, and we reckoned that from 5 – 6,000 people actually read it. The newspaper was distributed nationwide in the United States and abroad – in Alaska, Cuba, Mexico, Canada, Philippines, Brazil, Argentine, Australia, Japan, Chine, Manchuria, Java, India, Ethiopia, Egypt, Italy, Russia, Persia, France, England, Algeria, and elsewhere. Before World War I, Asbarez mailed up to 300 copies of its editions to Turkey.

Our advertising copy produced inquiries from as far away as South America and China. An American businessman who advertised his products in the paper once told us that he had gotten better results from his Asbarez announcemen’s than from similar material placed in the local non-Armenian press;

ORGAN OF THE ARMENIAN COMMUNITY
During its first ten years, Asbarez was edited assiduously as a community organ. All organizational functions were reported and the local community was in close contact with the publication. It was able thus to battle down a trend toward assimilation marked especially in the Fresno community with its peculiarly disseminative nature. But news of the Fresno community was not given exclusively. Material was printed from all station of the North American Armenian concentration, news of Armenian affairs abroad were liberally published. The Asbarez was found to be particularly useful by all worthwhile societies of Armenians. We might add that the newspaper played an important role in the growth of the raisin industry in California.

THE POWER OF THE PRESS
When speaking of Asbarez, one must rank high among its accomplishmen’s its contributions to liberationalist thought and activism among the Armenians. As an example, one of our bitterest enemies confessed one day that after reading the newspaper closely for two months he could no longer live without it, and he became a regular subscriber and a constant admirer of the stand we took on issues. What is more, he became on of Asbarez’s most valued contributors. And there were others like him;

THE PRINTING PRESS
For nine and one-half years, Asbarez was printed on the presses of the Fresno Republican and The Herald, both dailies, and later at the Pruitt Company. There was a distance of one and one-half miles between the editorial offices and the presses. The frames had to be driven from the editorial offices to the presses and last minute adjustmen’s had to be accomplished by phone. This was a constant problem that needed solution.

The situation became exacerbated with the advent of the war. Paper and printing costs rose to $23.50, transportation cost us $2 daily, and our expenses became suffocating. Our only salvation was to have at our immediate avail our own press.

But we had to have a sum of $1000 to buy such a plant – a sum we never dreamt we could raise. Our problem, however, came to the ears of our Los Angeles A.R.F. Committee and friends through the voice of our tireless member, Editor Arsen Mikaelian.

Our Los Angeles friends opened a broad campaign under the motto, “Let’s Give a Gift to Our Press”. And indeed, in a short period of time they sent us a large sum of money for use in purchasing our press. The names of all donors were published in our pages and they were thanked warmly for their generosity. The campaign spread all over the state.

And thus, finally, after ten years of torture, we were able to buy our newspaper press.

The cherished goal had been accomplished. In 1918, Asbarez marked its tenth year of life, which it solemnized by publishing a special book-length work titled Asbarez: Dzoghovadzou 1908 – 1918 – and proudly noted that this ambitious publication had in fact been typeset and printed on the premises of the Asbarez Publishing House, Fresno, California.

We knew then that our legacy would become permanent;

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