In 1839, Simon Perkins Jr., his wife Grace and the first three Perkins children were living in their then two year old stone mansion high atop Mutton Hill in Akron. It would be five more years before John Brown moved his family into the small, wood frame house across the street from the Perkins home. Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was 20 years away.
In 1839, Ferdinand Schumacher, AKA The Oatmeal King, was 17 years old and still living in Hanover, Germany.
In 1839, Glendale Cemetery opened and Charles Goodyear vulcanized rubber for the first time. And on Monday, April 15, 1839, the Summit Beacon, a forerunner of today’s Akron Beacon Journal, went to press. It was a four page edition and published weekly.
Founded by 24-year-old Hiram Bowen [its owner until 1844] the Summit Beacon squared off against competitors with names like: Ancient Middlebury the Pioneer (1825); the Akron Post (1836); the Akron Journal (1836); the American Balance (1837); and the American Buzzard (1837). And the newcomer faced a bleak economy too. By 1839 the whole country was bogged down in the Panic of 1837 – a depression at least as severe as that of the 1930s and just as long lasting. Only a few years before, Akron had been a boomtown, spurred to enormous profit from business with the heavy traffic on the Ohio Canal.
Samuel A. Lane in his 1893 Fifty Years and Over of Akron and Summit County wrote: “So disastrous was the collapse in Akron that only two or three out of the score or more of mercantile establishments of the town maintained their financial integrity.”
Cash had virtually disappeared. Banks had failed, their paper money now worthless. Struggling survivors gave discounts up to 90 percent in trade. In most of Akron, money was rarely seen and commerce had been reduced mostly to barter.
But the scrappy little upstart had something to fight for – Akron merchants wanted their own newspaper to stimulate trade, and the Whig party politicians wanted a vehicle to campaign for the creation of a new county with Akron as the seat. Akron was in Portage County at the time. But Bowen was confident of success and chose the name Summit Beacon anyway. Bowen succeeded and Summit County was created in 1840 and Akron became the county seat in 1842.
But a series of fires and name changes would soon follow. On the night of June 9, 1848, a devastating fire – the first of three to hit the paper – destroyed a row of buildings on Howard Street near Market containing the Beacon and its rival the American Democrat. Not long after the fire, former editor of the Ohio State Journal in Columbus, John Teesdale, bought the paper. British born Teesdale put up a new building on the site and gave the paper more local news, becoming the largest weekly in Ohio by 1849.
In March 1850 the Beacon moved into a new brick building on Howard Street. The paper moved once again in December 1855 across Howard to a new stone-front building. But fire struck again in 1857, and the paper moved to the east side of Howard Street. Along with the move came a new name, the Summit County Beacon.
The first reporter in the history of the weekly was added to the Beacon staff in January 1869 in anticipation of going to a daily publication schedule. After his arrival, the paper moved across Howard Street again into a three-story, 20-by-60-foot brick building. On Dec. 6, 1869 the paper became a daily with a new name – the Akron Daily Beacon.
A fire struck in 1872 and a new building was constructed on the Howard Street site. By 1889, circulation had grown to 3,500 and the paper was in a new five-story home at the northeast corner of Main and Mill streets designated as the “Beacon Block.”
The Daily and Sunday Republican, a rival paper started by political opponents, was forced to merge with the Beacon due to bad times. From that emerged the Akron Printing and Publishing Co. With the financial panic of 1893, a rival paper, the Akron Evening Journal, was founded. Finally, on June 7, 1897, came the merger that produced the first Akron Beacon Journal. A change in ownership came in 1903 that would shape the character of the paper from that day forward.
The Knight Dynasty
Charles Landon Knight was born on a farm near Milledgeville, Ga. C.L.’s father, William, traced his ancestry in America to St. John Knight, a soldier under Oliver Cromwell in England who came to Massachusetts Bay in 1662. The family sent C.L. north for higher education. He graduated from Columbia College in New York City with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1889 and two years later received a law degree from the same school. Next, he studied politics and social institutions in Europe for two years before eventually setting up as a lawyer in Bluefield, W. Va.
He married Clara Irene, daughter of civil war veteran Col. James K. Scheifly of Shenandoah, Pa., on Nov. 21, 1893. Their eldest son, John Shively, was born in Bluefield on Oct. 26, 1894. His brother, James Landon, was born in Akron on July 22, 1909.
In 1903, C.L. Knight and Maj. T.J. Kirkpatrick bought the paper. C.L. was a master of editorial writing, and biographers have called him “The last of the great personal journalists.” C.L. bought out Kirkpatrick in 1907 and assumed the title of editor and publisher in 1909.
When C.L. appeared on the scene in Akron, the Beacon Journal had a circulation of 7,000 and two rivals – the Akron Times (1867) and the Akron Press (1898), a Scripps-Howard newspaper known locally as a “Liberal” or pro-New Deal paper. They merged into the Times-Press in 1925. In response, the Beacon Journal built a modern plant at the southeast corner of East Market and Summit streets, and occupied it in 1927.
C.L. died in 1933 and the torch was passed to his eldest son, J.S. Knight who was well-seasoned as a newspaperman and ready to carry on the operations of the Beacon Journal. In 1937, Knight bought the first of what was to become Knight Newspapers, Inc. when he acquired the Miami Herald. Under Knight’s leadership, in 1938, the Beacon Journal Publishing Co. bought out the Times-Press, acquiring in the process a building on the old music hall site at Exchange and S. High streets.
Starting with the Beacon Journal, Knight was to develop a group of important newspapers. In 1974 they merged with the Ridder Group to become Knight-Ridder. It claimed the largest total circulation in the nation. Knight’s empire grew to 32 papers and several TV stations with more than $3 billion in annual sales. The McClatchy Company bought Knight-Ridder in June 2006 and on August 2, 2006 sold the Beacon Journal to Black Press, its current owner.
The Akron Beacon Journal was home to some power hitters in the realm of women’s journalism.
Helen Stocking Waterhouse, 1892-1965, was the “most controversial newspaperwoman in Akron history,” wrote Managing Editor Murray Powers. Waterhouse could be abrasive and inaccurate but she also had great sources, enormous energy and enthusiasm and an eye for a story, he observed. Over her almost 40 years with the Beacon Journal, she wrote many front page stories.
Waterhouse started her journalism career as a freelance writer for the Beacon Journal in the mid-1920s. Freelance writers were paid by the column inch. By 1928, Waterhouse was selling so many stories to the Beacon, she was making more than many staff reporters. John S. Knight hired Waterhouse full-time as a way to save money.
An aviation enthusiast, she was friends with most of the early pilots in the nation – Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post and Col. Charles Lindbergh. It was her connection with Lindbergh that explained why the Beacon sent Waterhouse to cover the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, accused of kidnapping and killing the aviator’s son. In 1935, she was competing with the likes of reporting legends Walter Winchel, Lowell Thomas and Dorothy Kilgallen. Waterhouse also covered the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, N.Y., in 1937.
After the war, she concentrated on international reporting from France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia. But it was the stories that she wrote about Akron and its residents that made her a favorite with Beacon readers. She was the “queen bee” of the Soap Box Derby.
Waterhouse was a member of the National Aviation Writers Association and the Overseas Press Club. She founded the Ohio Press Women’s Association. She won many awards during her long career. In 1940, 1941 and 1943, she won TWA’s award for the best newspaper work in aviation. She won 15 awards from the National Press Women’s organization. That group named her Press Woman of Achievement in 1957 and 1958 and Woman of the Year in 1963.
Frances Burke Murphey, 1922-1998, a Beacon Journal reporter for 55 years, brought home many honors and awards over her long career but her greatest contributions to the city were the stories she left behind. While other reporters and editors were covering the “big” stories, Murphey liked to tell the “little” ones, the ones about ordinary men and women building the city.
Her mother was a reporter for the Akron Times-Press. When Murphey was in junior high, she tagged along with her mother when she covered political meetings. Murphey graduated from Hudson High School. She planned on a journalism career when she enrolled at Kent State University. When she graduated, she got a job at the Beacon Journal as a reporter. (Even as a student, she had worked for the Beacon as a stringer covering Kent, Brimfield and Brady Lake.)
There weren’t very many female reporters at the Beacon Journal at the time. Ruth McKenney, an early reporter, had already moved on, so Murphey needed to develop her own style. She was best known for her attire – bib overall and boots. Murphey was also known for her dogged determination in getting a story. Murphey is credited with single-handedly forcing both the University of Akron and the Akron-Summit County Public Library to open their board meetings to the public.
Murphey won many awards during her career. In 1996 she won Knight-Ridder Newspaper’s John S. Knight Excellence Award for Community Service. In 1993, she won a special recognition award from the Associated Press Society of Ohio. Over her career, Murphey held many jobs at the Beacon – school editor, spelling bee editor, State Desk reporter-photographer and, of course, columnist and travel writer.
Mark J. Price has been with the Akron Beacon Journal for 17 years as a copy editor after serving as copy editor on his hometown paper for about ten years. He began writing his This Place, This Time local history column one year after arriving at the Beacon. Price sees the need for copy editors in the future as things change in the digital age. “Well, I know there’s a need for it the way things are in today’s world – you want everything faster. I know that sometimes things get out there a little too fast. So you need copy editors to make sure that things are right. You want to get things out there right.”
In speaking of the past Price said, “One thing I can say about 175 years ago, we were a weekly newspaper and you had more time to look at things, I think. Probably a much smaller staff than we have now. There is so much, so many words that flash past our eyes now; we have to be pretty nimble at editing and getting things out online in a timely fashion.”
As to the format of the earliest editions, Price had this to say, “There were probably no headlines back then, it was mostly advertising and talking about goods and services, and then maybe some little lines here and there of news. If you go back, it’s interesting how many newspapers this town used to have. Newspapers back then were very dense and required a lot of reading. You couldn’t usually scan [over] things like people are used to scanning headlines and things now, you had to read the newspaper back then to get the news out of it.”
Price explained how that created a challenge when doing research, to go back and find a story, “You really have to read everything. You can’t find the headlines as easily as you can today,” he said
“When you think about all the newspapers that used to be in this town – some obscure ones, some famous ones. We had the Times, the Press, and then the Times-Press, and other ones like the Argus and the Akron Free Democrat Standard – lots of ones that nobody knows about anymore. But luckily, a lot of them are on microfilm. If you think about all the newspapers that existed – and there must have been dozens at one time or another – and now we are the last one standing, out of 175 years of newspapers,” Price added.
David Giffels, a former local news columnist who was at the Beacon from 1994 to 2008 is now a professor of English at the University of Akron. He explained what journalism graduates could expect to face in today’s digital landscape and how to prepare themselves. “They won’t be working for a ‘paper’ newspaper much longer. So they should be preparing themselves to write for multi-media, learning digital skills and all of the important story-telling techniques and the ethics of old journalism, but finding a new way to do it,” Giffels said. “They [ABJ] just made some big changes to try to adapt, too, in terms of how they are presenting their page,” Giffels added.
Columnist Bob Dyer started at the Akron Beacon Journal in 1984 as a copy editor and did several other jobs. His Dyer Streets column began in 2001 and ran through 2010. Dyer is now a general interest columnist covering “any topic under the sun.” When asked for his thoughts about the future of news reporting, he had this to say: “It’s going to be tough. That’s a great question.” Dyer has yet to see a business model that supports an enormous newsroom. “When I first got here there were 185 people in the newsroom and now we are down to about 60, I think. Obviously, it’s going to be in some form. I can see it going, somewhere down the road, I don’t know if it’s two years or five, that everything’s on-line. That wouldn’t shock me.”
While his opinion reflects that of others in the industry, he’s an old-fashioned kind of guy. “I think it’s easier to read longer things on paper than it is on-line,” he said.
Editor Bruce Winges began his career at the Beacon June 1982 and became editor in May 2007 and was enthusiastic about the challenges print media faces in today’s digital world. “Actually, it opens up a lot of opportunities for us, because it gives us other places to tell our stories where the audiences are. We have the largest news in Summit Co. and we can tell the story of Akron better than anybody else and now we can get it to more people and that’s where our audience growth is – in the digital sphere.”
As to his vision of the future for the paper, Winges said, “I think we’ll be around for another hundred and seventy five years. How’s that?”
Happy birthday, Akron Beacon Journal. Here’s to 175 more.