Honoring Adolph Ochs
A plaque on Market Square recognizes the legendary publisher of The New York Times, who learned the newspaper business as a youth in Knoxville.
In 1869, an 11-year-old boy, the son of Bavarian Jewish immigrants, started delivering newspapers for the Knoxville Chronicle. He soon took on other jobs — office boy and printer’s devil, primarily — at the Chronicle’s Market Square offices.
Adolph Ochs got his start in journalism at age 11 with the Knoxville Chronicle.
The industrious, engaging young boy was superstitious. At night, rather than walk past the First Presbyterian Church graveyard to his family home in a shotgun house on Central Street, he stayed at the Chronicle into the early morning hours and learned from publisher William Rule how to run a newspaper.
The boy’s name was Adolph Ochs, and the lessons he learned in Knoxville provided him with the knowledge and savvy he later used to transform The New York Times from a struggling daily into the nation’s most influential newspaper. His descendants still run “The Gray Lady,” which now has a global digital reach.
On Thursday, a small group of journalists, city officials, Ochs family members and others gathered next to the Wall Avenue flank of 36 Market Square for the unveiling of a plaque honoring Ochs’ fabled and remarkable career.
Jack Neely, writer and executive director of the Knoxville History Project, who is fond of telling the story of young Ochs and his fear of ghosts, noted the enduring global influence of the young printer’s devil who became a journalism icon.
“This connects Knoxville to the world,” he said.
The national Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ), which provided funding for the plaque, has named 36 Market Square a Historic Site in Journalism, one of only two such designated places in Tennessee.
Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon read a proclamation declaring Sept. 29 as Adolph Ochs and Journalism Appreciation Day in Knoxville.
“We are glad that he had his mark on journalism and we’re grateful for all the people who continue to make journalism their career and their profession and their passion,” she said.
Referring to the plaque, Kincannon said, “It’s an homage to a great Knoxvillian and an homage to journalism.”
‘Without fear or favor’
Ochs’ story after leaving Knoxville is well-known. He moved to Chattanooga for a newspaper job at age 17, took control of the Chattanooga Times in 1878 and in 1896, at the age of 38, he acquired The New York Times. He famously pledged “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor.”
At the time he took over The New York Times, most American newspapers were overtly partisan and sprinkled opinions throughout news accounts. As he had done with the Chattanooga Times, Ochs separated news and opinion pieces. He insisted that news reports stick to the facts and welcomed all opinions in letters to the editor. He also lowered the price of the daily from 3 cents to a penny. As a result, its circulation and influence soared.
In 1904, Ochs moved the paper’s offices to Longacre Square, which was renamed Times Square. He began celebrating New Year’s with fireworks celebrations that year, then switched to a festive ball drop three years later. The paper moved out of Times Square long ago, but the tradition lives on.
By the 1920s, The New York Times was America’s most influential and imitated newspaper, with a circulation approaching 800,000. Ochs died in 1935 during a visit to Chattanooga.
‘Tenacity and Timing’
Georgiana Vines, a former editor and longtime columnist with the News Sentinel, spearheaded the effort to publicly recognize Ochs’ life in Knoxville. She overcame resistance and various obstacles to make Thursday’s event a reality.
“I just thought Adolph Ochs ought to be recognized,” she said. “Tenacity and timing, that’s what it took.”
Vines enlisted the support of the East Tennessee chapter of the SPJ (she is a charter member of the chapter and a former president of the national SPJ), the University of Tennessee College of Journalism and Electronic Media, and the Front Page Foundation. Neely’s research and writings about Ochs were used to help persuade the national SPJ to endorse the project.
Scott and Bernadette West, who own 36 Market Square, paid to have the plaque mounted there. The building at the northeast corner of Market Square, now home to Tommy Trent’s Sports Saloon, is near the location of the Chronicle office.
“I think it’s neat the plaque is at a bar — Adolph Ochs would have liked that,” Vines quipped.
On Wednesday night, the ETSPJ and UT College of Journalism and Electronic Media held a panel discussion on Ochs’ Knoxville years and the state of modern journalism at the East Tennessee History Center. The panelists were Alex S. Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and author, with his late wife Susan Tifft, of a history of Ochs and his progeny; Michael Martinez, media historian and assistant professor at the UT School of Journalism and Electronic Media; and Neely.
Julius and Bertha Ochs brought their family from Cincinnati to Knoxville in 1855. Only about 8,000 people lived in the city at the time, and Julius opened a clothing and “exotic” grocery store, Neely said. They quickly gained prominence in the local Jewish community, and Julius was a co-founder of Temple Beth El.
Julius had dreams of building a mansion on Sharp’s Ridge but ran into financial difficulties. The family’s bankruptcy had a profound effect on Ochs, according to Jones. “They sold the chamber pots,” he said. “They literally sold everything in the house.”
Bertha, whose family had settled in Mississippi, was a Confederate sympathizer during the Civil War, but Julius joined the Union army. Still, they were devoted to one another and their family. Neely said the political split apparently played a role in Ochs’ adopting fairness and objectivity as guiding principles.
“Adolph probably learned to be careful about what you say and how you say it,” Neely said.
Rule, Ochs’ mentor at the Chronicle, was a prominent Knoxvillian who was twice elected mayor. Young Adolph Ochs learned how to apply his ingrained sense of fairness to what was then a rough-and-tumble profession (Rule and publisher Parson Brownlow, who later became governor, once got into an altercation on Gay Street).
“William Rule was remarkably objective,” Neely said. “He was one of the most admirable men of the era.”
A Family Business
Ochs took most of his tight-knit family with him when he moved to Chattanooga. Many, including his father, worked for him at the Chattanooga Times, and newspapering became the family business. Ochs’ granddaughter, Ruth Sulzberger Holmberg, was the longtime publisher of the Chattanooga Times. To this day, the Ochs/Sulzberger family controls The New York Times, and Ochs’ great-great grandson, A.G. Sulzberger, is the current publisher.
The family was represented at the two events by sisters Celia Walker and Dr. Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg. The great-great-great granddaughters of Julius Ochs’ sister, they grew up in West Knoxville, but now Walker is a librarian at Vanderbilt University and Schwarzenberg is a pediatric gastroenterologist and hepatologist in Minneapolis, Minn.
“We’re very proud, of course, to be members of the Ochs family,” Schwarzenberg said after the plaque was unveiled. “It’s a wonderful story of immigrants coming to the United States and making it better.”
She recounted a bit of family lore that ties Knoxville to The New York Times. In the 1870s, an Ochs relative named Jacob Blaufeld was a tobacconist with a shop on Gay Street. His slogan was “All the cigars that are fit to smoke.” Legend has it that Ochs modified the phrase for his own use as “All the news that’s fit to print,” which remains the slogan on the masthead of The New York Times.
While she is glad Knoxville is honoring Ochs, Schwarzenberg said she hopes people who read the plaque take away a lesson about tolerance and acceptance that can be applied today.
“We are feeling the impact of anti-Semitism rising in this country,” she said. “The Jewish people are part of this country and have done wonderful things for this country. I hope people will see this plaque and see that.”