From seaboard tabloid to cultural treasure
As NAW looks forward to its 125th birthday this May, here’s a brief history of the Nordisk Tidende, the paper responsible for 117 of those years
Judith Gabriel Vinje
Mentioned in nearly every historical account of the Norwegian American immigrant experience, the early Nordisk Tidende—Norway Times—was a colorful, integral part of the tapestry woven by the immigrants, recording milestones in their lives and fostering the growth of the community. It was a re-assuring bridge to the homeland at the peak of immigration, and it lived on, week after week, decade after decade, to connect new generations with their living heritage.
Nordisk Tidende was established in 1891 by Emil Nielsen, a printer from Horten, Norway. It was noted that when Nielsen stepped off the boat in 1887, he was wearing a white hat on his head and a parrot on his shoulder.
A colorful man, he had reportedly left his homeland out of boredoms, and, being an unemployed printer who didn’t think highly of the existing Norwegian-American press, he decided to start his own newspaper. Thus was born Nordisk Tidende, which published its first issue on Jan. 3, 1891.
To win the eye of readers, Nielsen initially filled the pages of his new weekly with rumors, scandals and murder stories. His penchant for sensationalism led to several lawsuits and threats, but it also enhanced circulation.
As historian Odd Lovoll put it, “On occasion, Nielsen turned the newspaper into a scandal sheet.” The love of reading was thereby increased considerably in the Norwegian colony, it was claimed. But higher standards of journalistic professionalism ultimately prevailed, and Nordisk Tidende soon evolved into a respected publication, winning praise as a “well-edited” and “well-established” newspaper providing a vital forum for cultural exchange between two continents.
The early 1890s were not easy years for the immigrants. It was a time of economic depression and psychic crisis, particularly for newcomers who found themselves strangers in a foreign land. Historians point to the church and the press as being the two most important institutions, providing vital information and a sense of community to the immigrants, shoring up their identity, helping them understand their adopted country, and keeping Norway alive in their daily lives. This was all the more important for those who spoke little or no English when they arrived.
In 1900, Greater New York counted about 11,000 Norwegians, a number which rose quickly to 63,000 in 1930. The majority of them—23,000—lived in Brooklyn, the borough directly across the East River from Manhattan. The metropolis quickly became the most urban center of Norwegians outside Norway. With increased immigration in the early 1900s, Nordisk Tidende was well on its way to being “America’s leading Norwegian newspaper.”
From its offices and printing plant in a Brooklyn storefront, it quickly became a vital part of the community. When Norway won its independence in 1905, the celebrations in Little Norway and the banner headlines in Nordisk Tidende proclaimed with joy the dawn of a new day.
Probably the most influential editor of Nordisk Tidende over the years was Carl Søyland, who came to America in 1920 to study music, but who said he found the life of a “tramp-journalist” more interesting. After traveling the world and writing for several newspapers, he joined the staff of Nordisk Tidende in 1926, and served as editor-in-chief from 1940 to 1962.
In 1917, as World War I hysteria cast a chilling effect on even the most everyday expressions of ethnic separation in America, a presidential order required editors of non-English periodicals to file an English translation of all political stories and editorials with their local postman. Nordisk Tidende complied, demonstrating the unswerving loyalty to the United States of the entire community, as well as determination to preserve and maintain the language and culture of its readers.
Nordisk Tidende was the largest Norwegian-language newspaper outside Norway, and the most influential. It was to play a key role during the war. When the Germany army invaded Norway in April 1940, the paper became a key source of information about the Norwegian war effort. Because the Norwegian press was strictly censored, the newspaper also became a vital link, not only on paper but also over the radio for getting news to Norway.
As Norway’s free press was tied down by the Nazi occupying forces, Nordisk Tidende became the semi-official mouthpiece of the Norwegian resistance and the exiled government. The paper relayed messages and printed letters from Norway that had been smuggled out by the merchant fleet.
The Nordisk Tidende offices served as a virtual Norwegian embassy, with members of the community arriving at its door almost immediately after learning of the invasion, laden with gifts of money and goods to help embattled Norway.
By 1914, almost 600 periodicals in the Norwegian language had been started, most having a short life, with many mergers and absorptions.
In 1946, only 40 were still in circulation, and by the 1980s, only three Norwegian-language papers were being published—including Nordisk Tidende—with much of the material now in English. Norway Times was the only publication still publishing under the name on its original masthead until it merged with Western Viking and emerged anew as The Norwegian American Weekly in 2007.
This article originally appeared in the March 14, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.