It’s no secret that the newspaper industry is rapidly changing, in troubling ways. Memphis’s remaining daily, the Commercial Appeal, was purchased by Gannett in 2016 and just last month was reorganized—with a considerable layoff of staff—into a Tennessee “network” involving the Commercial Appeal and the dailies in Nashville and Knoxville. The executive editor of the Commercial Appeal, Louis Graham, who has been with the paper for thirty-eight years, announced in a letter that the “historic” changes “position each news organization, working collectively, to support a continued, aggressive expansion of digital content.” The message was essentially addition by subtraction and consolidation: yes, we are becoming smaller, and yes we are now part of a statewide consortium, but we will nevertheless bring you all the news you care to read and maintain an “intense” local focus.
It’s little consolation, but Thomas Harrison Baker’s marvelous 1971 history of the Commercial Appeal reminds us that the newspaper industry has always been rapidly changing. In the early days of Memphis, before the Civil War, it was not uncommon for newspapers to be founded and then cease operations only a short time later. The Commercial Appeal—which began life as the Weekly Appeal—was founded in 1841 to replace a failed newspaper, the Western World and Memphis Banner of the Constitution—which was founded to replace the Gazette, which was founded to replace the Memphis Advocate and Western District Intelligencer, Memphis’s first newspaper. All of those newspapers were organs of the Democratic Party, and the last three were founded, and foundered, between 1827 and 1840.
Another period of frequent change occurred during the Great Depression, when ownership of the Commercial Appeal (its name starting in 1894) changed hands no fewer than four times. In 1927, the paper was purchased by a new publishing company called Memphis Commercial Appeal, Inc., which was led by the publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, a man named Luke Lea. In fact, Lea soon acquired ownership of no fewer than four Tennessee newspapers: in addition to the Nashville Tennessean and the Commercial Appeal, he owned the Knoxville Journal and another Memphis paper, the Evening Appeal. The depression brought down Lea’s empire, and in 1931 the Commercial Appeal became the property of the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company. But that company became a victim of hard economic times too, and in 1933 the Commercial Appeal was purchased by James Hammond Jr., who, since 1932, had been the publisher of William Randolph Hearst’s Detroit Times. Then, in 1936, the paper was sold yet again, this time to the Scripps-Howard organization. Scripps-Howard and its successor organization, the Journal Media Group, owned the Commercial Appeal until 2016, when it was sold to Gannett.
Change in the form of mergers is nothing new either. As early as 1847, the Daily Appeal absorbed another Memphis paper and Democratic organ, the Monitor. In 1890, the Appeal (long since a daily) joined forces with the Avalanche to form a single paper, the Appeal-Avalanche. Then, in 1894, an upstart newspaper in the city, the Commercial, purchased the Appeal-Avalanche, and thus the Commercial Appeal was born.
Readers should be reminded as well that, after 1936, Scripps-Howard owned not just the Commercial Appeal but the city’s major afternoon daily, the Press-Scimitar, which itself was the product of a merger, between the News-Scimitar and the Press, ten years before.
The newspaper that last month underwent a “historic” reorganization was founded by a newcomer to Memphis, Henry Van Pelt, who quickly decided that the young city needed a local organ for the Democratic Party. It began as a weekly. Each edition of the new paper—known as the Weekly Appeal until 1847, when it became a daily and changed its name to the Appeal—contained four pages; each page contained seven columns and measured twenty-four inches wide and thirty-seven inches long. A subscription was $3 a year—roughly the equivalent, I would estimate, of $125 today. (As a point of comparison, a yearly print subscription to the Commercial Appeal today is just under $240.) In its first few decades, the Appeal obtained most of its news from “exchanges,” that is, newspapers from other cities. The exchanges were supplemented with news from two additional sources: the telegraph and “correspondence,” letters from professional journalists and especially local residents.
Quite remarkably, the newspaper survived. Not even the Civil War put it out of business, although it did put it out of Memphis, first to Grenada and then to Jackson, Mississippi, then to Atlanta, then to Montgomery, Alabama, then back into Georgia, finding itself at war’s end with some of its supplies and equipment in Columbus and the rest in Macon—all the while publishing new editions as regularly as it could. Its staff returned to Memphis in the summer of 1865, and the paper kept going, its editors announcing that the outcome of the war had been decided—and accepted: “We recognize and abide by the logical sequence of the late, unhappy Civil War in the destruction, now and forever, of the institution of African slavery,” the paper announced in its edition of November 5, 1865.
The paper survived as well the yellow fever epidemic of 1878—even though many of its employees did not. Indeed, almost half of the staff of forty-one died, and most of the others fell ill. One staff member who managed to not only survive but to carry on the work of the newspaper to an extent nearly impossible to believe was the editor, John McLeod Keating, who, in fifty to seventy items a day, chronicled life in Memphis during the epidemic. Keating, perhaps not incidentally, published in 1888 a three-volume history of the city.
By the early 1880s, the Appeal was trumpeting the promise of the “New South,” a South committed to progress and prosperity, “not weeping over the past” and “not chanting jeremiads over times that are gone,” but “full of renewed vigor abandoning old sloth, and gone-by apathy.”
In 1894, the Appeal was purchased by a new Memphis paper, the Commercial, and the two merged to become the Commercial Appeal. At the time, one of the major national issues was silver. The economy was still reeling from the Panic of 1893, and silver miners and struggling farmers in the West and South clamored for the government to put more money in circulation by allowing the free coinage of silver. The issue sharply divided the ownership of the new paper and eventually caused the editor, Edward Ward Carmack, to resign.
In 1908, the paper brought back a former managing editor, C. P. J. (Charles Patrick Joseph) Mooney, to be the editor. Mooney would run the Commercial Appeal for the next eighteen years, turning it into very much his own. Rather than focusing on the workings of national political parties, Mooney directed the paper to devote more space to local issues—agriculture, especially crop diversification; commercial development; and the mayoralty of E. H. Crump, whom Mooney mistrusted. He also stressed that the paper’s first duty was to report the news objectively and accurately; he agonized over the slightest error, and he urged his reporters to relate events to local points of reference.
Mooney died in 1926, and then followed the ten years of changing ownership during the depression, ending with the purchase of the Commercial Appeal in 1936 by Scripps-Howard, a purchase that was, in retrospect, the beginning of a long period of relative stability.
Aside from a brief epilogue, Baker’s account ends in 1941, with the one hundredth anniversary of the newspaper, an occasion marked by the publication of a special edition of no fewer than 328 pages. (Let that sink in.) One can reasonably wonder if the Commercial Appeal will still exist when the calendar turns to 2041, in what would be the newspaper’s bicentennial.
Baker tells the history of the Commercial Appeal mainly through the newspaper’s editorials. What did the paper have to say about the major issues of the day? I’ll deal with three of them here: prohibition, agriculture, and race.
The Commercial Appeal generally opposed prohibition and, once prohibition was the law of the land, favored its repeal. Its basic position was that morality cannot be legislated. Rather than ban alcohol, society should regulate it: temperance, not prohibition, was the practical course to take. After Tennessee instituted statewide prohibition in 1909, the Commercial Appeal argued that the law should be followed—not because the paper had had a change of heart, which it had not, but because, as the editors wrote in December of that year, “the way to secure the repeal of a bad law is to enforce it.” For a brief period, Mooney did change his position, less out of opposition to alcohol per se and more out of opposition to the lawless behavior it seemed to cause. Yet by the early 1930s, the paper was again squarely in favor of repeal.
Agriculture became a focus of the paper when Mooney became editor, in 1908. The new editor urged farmers in the Mid-South to stop relying on cotton and to diversify instead. Mooney was especially bothered by the fact that the South did not grow and raise its own food. The price of cotton was never enough to cover the costs of importing corn, pork, and other foodstuffs from the North, and “no section of our country can be truly prosperous that buys its food for man and beast,” the editors wrote in October 1909. In 1934, the paper began what Baker calls “the newspaper’s most successful continuing promotion”: the Plant to Prosper contest. The contest gave cash awards to farmers who best used their land for purposes other than cotton. At its peak, in the late 1940s, one hundred thousand people, black and white, were participating every year. The contest lasted until 1965 and was, Baker writes, “undoubtedly the newspaper’s most effective contribution to Mid-South agriculture.”
The paper’s position on race on the whole upheld white supremacy. Quite surprisingly, in 1851 there was in Memphis a Sunday school for blacks. (Baker provides no details about the school.) The Appeal found this outrageous, a “direct blow at [slavery] itself, as well as at the peace and security of Southern society,” read an editorial in August of that year. During the Civil War, the paper found it “revolting” that the Union army enlisted blacks—“men of low instincts, and whose brutal passions are easily aroused,” as the editors wrote in 1863—to fight against the South. After the war, during the enthusiasm for the New South, the Appeal accepted that blacks could vote but was dumbfounded by their support for Republican candidates. By the early twentieth century, the paper seemed intent on maintaining a social order that had whites on top, calling the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” a “platitudinous absurdity.” In 1933, the editors offered, in reference to the Scottsboro rape case, that “the preservation of racial purity is a much more vital need than the preservation of racial equality.”
Of a piece with race was lynching, on which the paper’s position shifted over the years. Lynching, the editors said in 1900, was sometimes justified, sometimes not. Yet by 1913, Mooney was stating his unqualified opposition to the practice—though maintaining that blacks and whites would never be equal. It is quite possible, Baker suggests, that the paper knew of plans to lynch a black man in the spring of 1917 yet did nothing to stop it, other than offering a “brief and general condemnation of mob action.” Four years later, and for reasons Baker does not investigate, the paper became concerned about the increased activities of the Ku Klux Klan and began running articles opposing the organization and lynching. The articles, along with cartoons by J. P. Alley, won for the paper a Pulitzer Prize, in 1923. In the late 1930s, the paper opposed a federal anti-lynching law while maintaining its opposition to lynching itself.
During the entire thirty years they lived in Memphis, my parents subscribed to the Commercial Appeal. They read it at the kitchen table every morning. My mother read the paper backwards, starting from the last page of a section and working her way to the first.
I read the paper too—if reading the sports section counts as reading the paper. Perhaps my favorite time with the paper came on Sundays in the fall of 1981. I would take the sports section to the Danver’s on Sycamore View, and there over an all-I-could-eat breakfast, I’d read about Herschel Walker and the college football games from the day before.
I appeared in the paper once. It was the summer of 1973, and I was attending a day camp at Gaisman Park. I was playing chess with a friend when an athlete from Memphis State University dropped by. A reporter took our picture; it ran in the paper the next day.