Friday, October 10, 2014

The Good Old, Old Days and the Merely Good Old Days in the Newspaper Office

In the photograph on the left above, editor Erwin Craighead works at his desk in The Mobile Register in 1897. (Photo courtesy of the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.)

About 90 years later, Press Register photographer Ron Colquitt snapped the photo on the right of me toiling away at my editorial page editor job on The Mobile Press.

Craighead composed his editorials by longhand, while I wrote mine on a computer. But otherwise, Craighead would have found much that was familiar about the newspaper office of the 1980s.

How much will we old timers find familiar about the digital newspaper office?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Register Fights Great War with Editorial Cartoons

This year marks the centennial of the start of World War I, which began on July 28, 1914, and lasted until Nov. 11, 1918. America entered the war in April 6, 1917.

The war pitted the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire against the Allied forces of Great Britain, the United States, France, Russia, Italy and Japan. The Great War, as it was known by those who fought it, resulted in the deaths of more than 9 million soldiers.

As long as the Europeans were fighting among themselves, The Mobile Register opposed the United States getting involved in the war.

After German submarines in February 1917 resumed sinking all merchant ships, including American ships, supplying the allies, the Register demanded the United States declare war. As a port, Mobile's livelihood depended on seaborne commerce.

With a U.S. declaration, the Register made the anti-German syndicated cartoons of J.H. Cassel, such as the one above, and Rollin Kirby an almost daily feature in the newspaper.

Unlike during the Spanish-American War, the Register did not prepare for independent coverage of the Great War. Such coverage had become far too expensive, so the newspaper depended on the Associated Press for reports on the war.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

English-born Journalist Covered 1889 Murder Trial Still Talked About Today

Tom McGehee, who is the museum director for the Bellingrath Gardens and Home, put me on to this story.

He is writing an article for the October edition of Mobile Bay Magazine about Nettie Chandler, who wrote the popular “Betty Letters,” for The Mobile Press Register in the 1930s. The letters from the fictitious Betty Bienville lavishly chronicled the goings on of Mobile society. Nettie’s sister Mary also worked for the newspaper.

The Chandler sister were cousins of Florence Elizabeth Maybrick, who was accused of poisoning her much-older husband James, a wealthy Liverpool, England, cotton broker in 1889. She was born Florence Elizabeth Chandler in Mobile, Alabama, in 1862. She was the daughter of William George Chandler, a partner in the banking firm of St. John Powers and Company, and at one time mayor of Mobile.

Earlier this year in The London Mail, author Kate Colquhoun reported on the case, which became a cause célèbre that scandalized Victorian England and attracted international attention. Colquhoun also just published a book on the case titled Did She Kill Him?: A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic.

One of the reporters covering the Florence Maybrick trial was 19-year-old John C. “Jack” O’Connell, who would later work for newspapers in Mobile, Montgomery, New Orleans and New York.

According to his New York Times obituary, O’Connell was born in Liverpool on July 7, 1870. His father, John, had been a cotton broker when Englishman William Steenstrand’s cotton firm attempted to corner the market on cotton and raise prices. Steenstrand failed, cotton prices fell and O’Connell’s family was thrown into poverty. [The New York Times story said this happened in 1881, but the event known as the “Steenstrand failure” actually occurred in 1890.]

At age 14, O’Connell started on The Liverpool Daily Post as an editorial messenger boy and studied stenography in his spare time. He became a junior reporter on the Post and moved up to local correspondent and then to circulation agent in Crewe, a railroad center of Cheshire.

Apparently discontented with working for the newspaper, O’Connell signed on a sailing vessel as a seaman and sailed around the world. In 1893, he shipped from Liverpool on a timber ship bound for Mobile. In Mobile, he contracted malaria. The ship sailed without him and O’Connell stayed in Mobile under the care of the British consul.

He worked on the Mobile docks for two years helping to load timber and cotton ships.

Then he went to work on a New Orleans newspaper before returning to Mobile in 1896 to work as a court reporter for The Mobile Daily News.

During the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1897, he aided sufferers as a member of the Can’t-Get-Away Club. Every day he took medicine and food to the homes of people with the fever.

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, O’Connell acted as correspondent for The New York Sun and The New York Herald. He distinguished himself for his expose of unsanitary conditions in Southern Army camps during the short-lived conflict.

In 1898, he joined The Mobile Register where he moved through the posts of the telegraph editor, city editor and managing editor. In 1912, O’Connell and a group of local businessmen bought controlling interest of the 14-year-old Mobile Item, with O’Connell serving as editor.

He eventually left Mobile, perhaps in 1916 when Mobile Register owner Frederick I. Thompson bought the Item, to become the managing editor of the afternoon edition of The Montgomery Advertiser. He also edited “Alabama Farm Facts,” the Advertise’'s agricultural and livestock weekly.

O’Connell became active in Alabama politics and worked in the gubernatorial campaign of William W. Brandon, who was inaugurated in January 1923.

Two years later, O’Connell moved to New York to take a post on the telegraph desk of The New York Times, where he remained for several years. Then he joined the staff of the reserve news department, serving there until his retirement in 1944. O’Connell died April 1, 1945, at age 74.

O’Connell was another one of the colorful journalists who passed through the offices of The Mobile Press Register and whose stories make researching the newspaper’s history fun.
This building at 252 Government St. in Mobile was once the Chandler Mansion, family home of Florence Chandler. Built by the Chandlers in 1850, it was sold to the McGill brothers and opened as the McGill Institute, a Catholic school, in 1897. The building no longer exists.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

1930s Newsboys Learned Lessons that Lasted a Lifetime

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story below is adapted from one I wrote for The Mobile Press Register in 1984.

Many prominent people in Mobile learned about work by delivering newspapers during the 1930s.

The paperboys shared many things in common. The 1930s were the years of the Great Depression and the newspaper carriers were young boys looking for a little money for themselves and their families.

W.C. Helveston, who was the Mobile County administrator from 1971-1995, recalled that “It was the only money I had. My people didn’t have any” money to give him to spend.

Kenny Crow Sr., who in 1984 was retired from Crow-Kennedy Electric Co., Inc., remembered winning $50 in a citywide subscription campaign for The Mobile Times.

“Fifty dollars in those days, cap’n, was a lot of money for a kid to get a hold of,” he said. “I really did it for the money. Nobody had any.”

For delivering about 200 papers in the Washington Square area, Helveston earned about $10 to $12 a week.

Andrew M. Wiik, who in 1984 was with the CPA firm of Wiik, Reimer, Lawrence & Dudley, had a much smaller route, making about $2 or $3 from his subscribers of the Times.

W.C. Helveston
Helveston was 13 years old when he began throwing papers from his bicycle for The Mobile Press in 1939. Later he switched to a route for The Mobile Register, which he said caused him to develop a life-long habit of reading the morning newspaper.

Helveston recalled that when the paperboys had to throw the Sunday paper they would just stay up all night Saturday. Helveston and the other carriers would take dates to see a movie and, after taking their dates home, they would go to the Electrik Maid Bake Shop, eat pastries and play pinball until it was time to get their newspapers.

Crow just got up at 3 a.m. Sunday to fold and load his papers.

The 10- to 12-page papers were small enough then, Helveston said, that the paperboy could roll the paper into a tube shape and crimp it into a half-moon before sending it sailing to the porch.

While Helveston rolled his papers into a tube shape, most others had to fold their papers into a square, recalled Maurice Castle, a newspaperboy for the Times from 1933-35. Castle, who in 1984 was the clerk of Mobile County Circuit Court, also was a former city editor of The Mobile Press.

Wiik, who began carrying papers when he was 16, said he just folded his papers in half. “I got pretty good where I could fold them in half and sail it,” he said.

During the 1930s, subscribers paid weekly, although a few did so monthly. Saturdays were devoted to collecting the 10 or 12 cents a week subscription cost.

A universal experience among paperboys, who bought their papers on credit from the newspaper, was the difficulty of collecting the money due them from subscribers.

“I had trouble at times collecting money,” said Crow, who delivered papers beginning in his sophomore year at McGill Institute. “Some people just didn’t have it.”

Crow explained that some people took the newspaper although they couldn’t afford the 10 cents a week because, while radio had passed its infancy and TV was yet to be, people depended on papers for the news.

Part of the paperboy routine for Times carriers was to solicit subscribers one or two nights a week, Castle said.

The papers offered prizes for the most subscriptions—baseball gloves and bats, bicycles and, in the case of Crow, money desperately needed in the Depression.

Robert Zietz, who in 1984 was head of the Special Collections Division of the Mobile Public Library, had a somewhat different experience from the other carriers.

Zietz began delivering The Mobile Register in Chickasaw when he was 9 years old. But rather than run his own route, Zietz delivered papers for Mrs. J.C. Davis, mother of the man who was the Chickasaw mayor in 1984. Mrs. Davis paid Zietz a weekly salary. She held the franchise on an entire district and paid others to deliver for her.

Zietz worked to get spending money like the other carriers, but instead of using a bicycle, he walked his route.

Quite different from the experiences of the paperboys who delivered papers to subscribers at their homes was that of the paperboys who sold papers on the streets.

Berkley Thompson, who in 1984 was retired from a highly successful newspaper supply business he founded, was one of the street sales paperboys.

Thompson began selling newspapers on the street at age 11 for The Mobile Register in 1931. By age 14 he became a street sales manager for The Mobile Times and later for The Mobile Press Register.

Between 1929 and 1932 the Register and the Press were separately owned and competition for sales was fierce. Street sales work was particularly rough.

At time, delivery trucks were overturned and bundles of newspapers would be set on fire, Thompson said.
On the four corners at Royal and St. Francis streets, paperboys staked out their territory and trespassing was cause for a fight, Thompson said.

Thompson said he had about 350 paperboys on the streets selling papers for the Register. Because it was during the Great Depression, many of the paperboys were not boys at all, he said, but big husky men looking to earn some money.

All of the paperboys from the 1930s thought their experiences were good for them and taught them lessons that lasted a lifetime.

“You had to be at the job,” Helveston said. “You always had to out on your route. You went out sick and in the rain.” Sometimes, Helveston said, he delivered his papers while he was sick, but then wen t home to bed and missed school.

Crow said being a paperboy taught him “how to sell.” Working for the underdog Times, which was therefore harder to sell, Crow said he learned how to confront people, how to act.

Helveston said “It taught you how to manage a business. The better job you did, the more money you made.”

Helveston died in 2013 at the age of 86.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Taking a Research Break...

I’m taking a break during the summer from regular blogging in order to focus on researching and writing a history of my Dad’s experiences during World War II.

I still will post as I have time or as the mood strikes me.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

'Passionate Pilgrim' an Improbable Sojourner

Alma Reed serenaded by los Hermanos Hernadez, New York City, 1936.
Enrique Riverón papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

World War II absorbed thousands of men from the newspapering business for soldiering and brought many women into the newsroom, including one improbable sojourner to The Mobile Press Register, Alma Marie Reed.

Mrs. Reed’s “extraordinary life” is profiled in the biography Passionate Pilgrim by Antoinette May.

Mrs. Reed already had earned something of an international reputation as a woman reporter in her younger days.
Born Alma Marie Sullivan in 1889 in San Francisco, Mrs. Reed (who married young and divorced young) shocked her family by becoming a reporter at the San Francisco Call. Reporting wasn’t considered an honorable vocation for women.

Author May says that writing under the pseudonym byline of “Mrs. Goodfellow,” Mrs. Reed crusaded through her articles and one feature story resulted in California sparing the life of a Mexican youth and reforming its laws on capital punishment.

That made Reed a heroine in Mexico and won her a tour of the country where she made many friends, including the Yucatan Gov. Felipe Carrillo Puerto, to whom she became engaged. Before they could be married, Carrillo was executed during the Mexican Revolution.

In Mexico, Mrs. Reed reported on the discovery of the Mayan temple Chichen Itza and its treasures for The New York Times. She developed a lifelong interest in archaeology and reported on many other discoveries around the world.

She even went on an underwater quest for the lost continent of Atlantis, setting a deep-sea diving record.

In the 1930s she ran a struggling art gallery in New York and her Greenwich Village apartment was a gathering place for foreign artists and intellectuals to discuss the cause of world peace.

The world was not at peace, and the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 not only sank U.S. battleships, but also Mrs. Reed’s gallery business as the public concerned itself with issues more serious than art.

When the New York art gallery went under, May says, an art collector in Mobile suggested that Mrs. Reed apply for a vacant position as art editor at the Press Register. At first rejecting the idea, Mrs. Reed eventually decided to go to the Port City.

Ann Battle Hawkins, officially the Society Editor during the war years, but forced by the manpower shortage to serve as “everything but the breakfast food editor,” told me more than 20 years ago that the 52-year-old Mrs. Reed contrasted sharply with the mostly young Press Register staff.

“She was a little intimidating to the younger people,” the late John Fay told me many years ago. Fay worked with Mrs. Reed for a few months in 1946 before replacing her as arts editor. She walked through the newsroom like a ship under full sail, Fay said.

Mrs. Hawkins said Mrs. Reed had a “right pretty face,” but “dressed differently than other women,” favoring long, flowing skirts, flamboyant shawls and large hats. A tall woman, Mrs. Reed’s flowing skirts served to cover her ample girth.

She said that editors who handled Mrs. Reed’s copy “swore that she wrote in Sanskrit.”

One-time Living Today Editor Tommye Miller recalled how Mrs. Reed’s desk was piled so high with papers that she could barely be seen behind them. She said one day Executive Editor George M. Cox ordered her to clean off her desk. Mrs. Reed declined saying she had “a date with destiny.” Cox responded, “I wish you would keep it.”

Jeanette Keyser Maygarden, who was the Women’s Department editor from December 1941 to August 1951, remembered how Mrs. Reed often held soirees in her apartment for young people on the newspaper’s staff. After consuming the finger-food Mrs. Reed offered, the young staffers where then required to listen to her reading poetry.

Besides working for the newspaper, Mrs. Reed produced a weekly radio show discussing cultural events, her biographer says. And when the International Peace Conference was scheduled to open in San Francisco in 1945, Mrs. Reed got a consortium of newspapers to sponsor her coverage of the event.

Mrs. Reed left the Press Register about October 1946, returning to New York in an unsuccessful attempt to re-establish her gallery. In 1950, at age 60, she moved to Mexico to write a weekly column for the recently established, English-language Mexico City News. She died in November 1966, a colorful footnote in the long history of journalists at the Press Register.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

From Newsboy to World Renowned Biologist

Former Press Register colleague Sam Hodges pointed me to the autobiography of Edward Osborne Wilson, who was a teenage newsboy for The Mobile Register in the 1940s.
A young Edward O. Wilson collects insects with a net
behind his grandfather's home in Mobile in 1942.
Photo from the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Wilson grew up to become a biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist and author. His is considered to be the world's leading authority on ants.

In his autobiography, Naturalist (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1994), Wilson recalls his time as a newsboy:

By the fall of 1942, at the age of thirteen, I had become in effect a child workaholic. I took a job with backbreaking hours of my own free will, without adult coercion or even encouragement. Soon after the start of the war there was a shortage of carriers for the city newspaper, the Mobile Press Register. Young men seventeen and over were departing for the service, and boys aged fifteen to sixteen were moving up part-time into the various jobs they vacated. On the lowest rung of unskilled labor, many paper routes came open as the fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds moved up. Somehow, for reasons I do not recall, an adult delivery supervisor let me take over a monster route: 420 papers in the central city area.

For most of that school year I rose each morning at three, slipped away in the darkness, delivered the papers, each to a separate residence, and returned home for breakfast around seven-thirty. I departed a half-hour later for school, returned home again at three-thirty, and studied. On Monday nights from seven to nine I attended the meeting of my Boy Scout troop at the United Methodist Church, on Government and Broad streets. On Sunday mornings I went to service at the First Baptist Church. On Sunday evenings I stayed up through Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio. On other nights I set the alarm soon after supper, went to bed, and fell asleep.

Four hundred and twenty papers delivered each morning! It seems almost impossible to me now. But there is no mistake; the number is etched in my memory. The arithmetic also fits: I made two trips to the delivery dock at the back of the Press Register building, each time filling two large canvas satchels. When stacked vertically on the bicycle front fender and strapped to the handlebars, the bags reached almost to my head and were close to the maximum bulk and weight I could handle. The residences receiving the papers were not widely spaced suburban houses but city dwellings, apartment buildings with two or three stories. It took perhaps a maximum of one hour to travel back and forth to the Press Register dock, load the papers twice, and make two round trips in and out; the delivery area was only a few minutes’ ride away. That leaves three and a half hours for actual on-the-scene work, or an average of two papers a minute—during which I reached down, pulled out the paper, dropped it, or threw it rolled up for a short distance, and passed on, moving faster and more easily after one satchel was emptied.

The supervisor collected the week’s subscription money from the customers on Saturday, twenty-five cents apiece, so I didn’t have to work extra hours that day and had time to continue my field excursions. I made thirteen dollars a week, from which I bought my Boy Scout paraphernalia, parts for my bike, and whatever candy, soft drinks, and movie tickets I wanted.

At the time it did not occur to me that my round-the-clock schedule was unusual. I felt fortunate to have a job and to be able to earn money…I still assumed, without any real evidence, that the same level of effort would be required of me as an adult.

You can read more about Wilson on the Encyclopedia of Alabama website. You can learn more about his work at the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation.
Edward Osborne Wilson in 2009.