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Byline: Albert B. Southwick

COLUMN: ALBERT B. SOUTHWICK

The newspaper that you are reading has a long and lively history. It is something like a tree with several roots and grafts.

The deepest root goes back to Jan. 1, 1866, when Charles Chase and others bought out the old Worcester Morning Transcript and converted it into an evening paper, The Worcester Evening Gazette. Mr. Chase had worked as a reporter for the Boston Daily Advertiser, and had covered, among many other stories, the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863. But he was only a silent partner in the Gazette.

The Gazette flourished for the next 30 years, mostly under editor Charles H. Doe, but by the late 1890s it was showing signs of age and losing circulation. In 1899, it was saved from oblivion by a young newspaperman from New Haven, George Francis Booth, who, with his partner, John Day Jackson, paid $35,000 for the paper. Mr. Booth, a redhead, was a bundle of energy and ideas, and it was not long before the paper was flourishing. Its main afternoon competition was The Worcester Evening Post, founded in 1891 and run for years by Eugene M. Moriarty, a power in the Democratic Party. The Gazette was reliably Republican.

The other main taproot of the current T&G stems from 1884, when Austin Phelps Cristy borrowed $300 and put out the first issue of The Worcester Sunday Telegram. Worcester had never had a Sunday newspaper and some thought it a desecration of the Sabbath. But its raucous display of scandal and politics soon made it a must-read. In May 1886, Mr. Cristy hit the streets with the Worcester Daily Telegram. It featured the same mix of scandal, politics and local news that had made the Sunday edition so popular.

In 1900 Worcester had four main newspapers - the Telegram and the Worcester Daily Spy in the morning, the Gazette and Post in the afternoon. The venerable Spy had been founded by Isaiah Thomas in 1775, but by 1900, for all its notable heritage, it was losing readership. The new era of yellow journalism was upon the land, and the Spy's brand of proper, sedate coverage was losing out. Then, in 1902, fire gutted the Day Building, wiping out the Spy's editorial offices and composing room. With the help of Mr. Booth, it struggled along for two more years, before it put out its last issue on May 31, 1904. From then on, the Telegram and the Gazette were in a knock-down-drag-out fight for supremacy in Worcester.

Although Mr. Cristy was an even more rabid Republican than Mr. Booth, the two men despised each other and seldom missed an opportunity to use their newspapers as weapons. The early 20th century was a time of boisterous newspaper tycoons, such as William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and Robert McCormick. The Worcester battle between Booth and Cristy was a smaller version of that.

It was the heyday of print journalism. Newspapers had no competition from other media. During the World Series, crowds gathered on the streets so that they could read the latest results on large billboards in front of the newspapers' offices. During one hot race for governor, Mr. Booth arranged with the electric light company to dip the power on election night to signal who had won. One dip meant the Republican, two dips the Democrat. That showed the influence that an aggressive newspaper publisher could exert.

On Nov. 18, 1919, the Telegram printed the news that it had been sold to Theodore T. Ellis, a multimillionaire inventor and businessman. He was also a bon vivant, a lover of hard liquor, fast race horses and fast women. On Dec. 31, 1929, he bought the Gazette and combined the two newspapers. That sale was not welcomed by Mr. Booth, but his partner, majority owner John Day Jackson, insisted.

To top it off, Mr. Ellis then bought radio station WCTS and renamed it WTAG. It remained part of the T&G combination for the next 30 years.

A few years later, Mr. Cristy put a revolver to his head and pulled the trigger. To this day, nobody knows why.

For the next five years, the papers, now in tandem, were under the mercurial, alcoholic sway of Mr. Ellis. He introduced various technical improvements, but gradually lost interest in the publishing business. On Dec. 5, 1925, he sold the company to Mr. Booth and Harry G. Stoddard, head of the Wyman-Gordon steel company, for $2 million. For the next 30 years, Mr. Booth dominated the Worcester newspaper field, especially after the T&G bought the Evening Post from Winfield Schuster in 1938. The Booth era ended on Sept. 1, 1955, a few weeks before his 85th birthday, when he died at his summer home in Gloucester. Harry Stoddard died in 1969.

The T&G continued under various publishers and editors for the next few years. Richard C. Steele, Forrest Seymour and Robert C. Achorn played important roles. In 1986, the local owners, the Stoddard, Booth and Fletcher families, sold the papers to the San Francisco Chronicle. Peter Theriot, one of that paper's owners, discontinued the Evening Gazette, combining it with the morning Telegram. He also put the paper online.

In 1999, the Chronicle sold the T&G to The New York Times for $295 million. Harry Whitin continued as editor until a few weeks ago, when he retired and was succeeded by Leah Lamson. In 2006, Bruce Gaultney was brought in and succeeded Bruce Bennett as publisher. He has achieved a number of cost-saving measures that have kept the T&G out of the kind of red ink morass that has engulfed the Boston Globe.

What's next? Who knows? Rumors are flying.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 9, 2009
Words:970
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