The origin of Tennessee’s newspapers dates back to the late 18th century. The state’s first newspaper – the Knoxville Gazette – was the vision of the Southwest Territory Governor William Blount. Printers George Roulstone and Robert Ferguson hauled their printing press from North Carolina and published the paper from Rogersville, Tenn., in November 1791, before moving to the capital, Knoxville, the following year. With the rapid development of printing and communications technologies, by the twentieth century, most Tennessee towns had at least one newspaper, many had more. The state’s major cities were often able to support two dailies – usually a morning and an evening paper. However, as newspaper publishing was not consistently profitable, it was not uncommon for newspapers to go out of business after only a few years, or even months.
Tennessee has been home to a multitude of notable newspaper men and women, many of whom are recognized nationally and internationally – names such as: Ida B. Wells, co-owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight; William “Parson” Brownlow, publisher and editor of the Whig (in several towns, over several decades); Henry Watterson of Nashville’s Republican Banner and the Chattanooga Daily Rebel, later became owner and editor of the Louisville [Ky.] Courier; and Adolph Ochs, who began his newspaper career under William Rule at the Knoxville Chronicle, and went on to purchase the Chattanooga Times, before heading to New York City to acquire a failing newspaper, which he turned into one of the nation’s greatest dailies – the New York Times. The high quality of work produced by Tennessee’s newspapers and journalists has not gone unrecognized. Several have been awarded the Pulitzer prize for national and international reporting, editorial cartoons, photography, and meritorious public service.
Preservation and access to Tennessee newspapers
Tennessee is fortunate to have a state library that has long recognized the importance of preserving its newspapers. The Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) began microfilming newspapers in the 1950s. Some of those papers were over 100 years old even back then! TSLA’s micrographics department continues to microfilm newspapers for preservation today.
In 1994, the Tennessee Newspaper Project (based at the University of Tennessee), sent out a newspaper holdings survey to almost 900 Tennessee institutions such as libraries, historical societies, museums, newspapers offices, as part of the US Newspaper Program (USNP). The USNP, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, was a national effort to locate, catalog, preserve on microfilm, and make accessible, newspapers published in the United States from the earliest colonial days to the present. Tennessee’s survey resulted in finding about 10,370 newspaper holdings across the state. Although many repositories hold the same titles, approximately 6000 unique titles were identified. TSLA created microfilms for holdings that had not yet been microfilmed. Information collected from the survey was made available to public online through a database, and is now available via the US Newspaper Directory found on Chronicling America.
Since 2010, the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee State Library and Archives have partnered on the Tennessee Newspaper Digitization Project, part of the NEH/LC supported National Digital Newspaper Program. Now in its third phase, TNDP has digitized and provided access (through LC’s Chronicling America website) to over 200,000 Tennessee newspaper pages from the Civil War era up to the early 20th century. Phase III focuses on the World War I era and will add another 100,000 pages to the site.