Alabama's oldest newspaper, the Mobile Press-Register has had many name changes over its long history and is often just called the Register. Throughout its history, the paper has been home to reporters, editors, and owners who were important leaders in journalism, education, arts, and politics in Alabama and the nation. Profound changes in the newspaper publishing industry that have taken place during the early twenty-first century may threaten the Mobile Press-Register’s existence as a traditional newspaper, however.
The Register traces its beginnings to the Mobile Gazette and the Mobile Commercial Register. James Lyon, son of an American Revolutionary War hero, founded the Gazette and many other papers in the early days of the United States. He began printing the Gazette soon after the United States took control of Mobile from the Spanish in April 1813.
Jonathan Battelle and John W. Townsend started the Mobile Commercial Register in 1821. The following year, the two men purchased the Gazette. In 1828 Thaddeus Sanford bought the Register and greatly improved the paper and expanded its influence. Sanford is often overlooked by historians, but his many financial investments made him a leader in Alabama business and society. He also became a leader in the Democratic Party at a time when editors served as the chief party spokesmen and newspaper offices often served as party headquarters. Sanford used his newspaper to voice his support of slavery but opposition to secession.
In 1837, Sanford sold the Register to John Forsyth Jr., who is perhaps the most well-known and controversial of the paper's many editors and owners. Family ties helped connect Forsyth to the Democratic Party and national politics, and the Register served as his voice on many of the most important issues of his day. Forsyth supported states' rights as a way to protect slavery. He also took an active part in politics, serving as an alderman and mayor of Mobile, a state legislator, and U.S. minister to Mexico. In the presidential election of 1860, Forsyth campaigned for Stephen A. Douglas, who learned of his loss to Abraham Lincoln in the Register's office. After Alabama and other Southern states formed the Confederacy, Forsyth served as one of three Confederate peace commissioners to the Lincoln administration. During the Civil War, Forsyth organized some of the best reporters in the South to cover the war for the Register, and sometimes did reporting himself. After the Civil War, Forsyth opposed Congressional Reconstruction and supported white supremacy. He remained involved with the Register until his death in 1877, which marked the end of an era of highly personal and political journalism at the newspaper. Like many other businesses at the end of the nineteenth century, newspaper publishing had grown into a major enterprise that required professional business managers and accountants as well as reporters and editors.
John L. Rapier took control of the paper after Forsyth, adding telephones, electric lights, mechanical typesetters, and large, fast presses that could print hundreds of newspapers a minute. Rapier also expanded the news in the Register by increasing the number of columns, articles, and syndicated features, many of them meant to attract women readers. Horse races, hunting, and other sports of the Old South had long been covered in the Register, but the depth and breadth of sports news increased greatly under Rapier. Comic strips became a regular feature in the early twentieth century.
In 1882, Rapier hired Erwin B. Craighead to direct the expanding news coverage of the Register. Within a few years, Craighead became the vice president of the paper and also took over as chief editorial writer. For the next 28 years, many Mobilians thought of Craighead as the voice of the newspaper. Craighead championed a number of reforms, many of them lead by his wife Lura, that included the placement of delinquent teens in a detention home instead of jail. On the issue of race, Craighead's views reflected white paternalism toward African Americans.
The widening scope of news required the work of many writers. For the most part, white men filled these jobs. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, the paper employed a number of white women, including Anne Bozeman Lyon, who wrote short stories with a regional flavor. The Register also employed the talents of some African American writers as special correspondents, including A. F. Owens, a minister who edited the Baptist Pioneer and who also wrote for papers in Montgomery and Birmingham.
Frederick I. Thompson, an Alabama media baron, bought the Register in 1910. Within a few years, he also acquired the Mobile Item and the Alabama Journal in Montgomery. With former Gov. Braxton Bragg Comer and his brother Donald Comer, Thompson bought the Birmingham Age-Herald. He also bought the Tri-Cities Daily, which covered Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia, and owned stock in newspapers and magazines outside Alabama. Under Thompson, the Register pushed for railroad regulations, publicly owned docks at the port of Mobile, and an end to convict leasing.
In 1929 Ralph B. Chandler and a number of investors started the Mobile Press as competition for the Register. Chandler and Thompson sparred in the columns of their papers over issues important to Mobile and Alabama. Meanwhile, their newsboys often fought in the streets for the right to sell papers on the busiest corners. The Great Depression and competition from the Press hurt the Register's ad sales, and in 1932 Thompson gave up the fight. He sold the Register to the Press, which changed its name to the Mobile Press-Register. In 1966, the board of directors of the Press-Register sold the newspaper to Samuel I. Newhouse, the son of a poor immigrant, who was building the largest privately owned newspaper chain in the United States. He had already purchased the Birmingham News and the Huntsville Times and News.
By the late 1980s, the Press-Register's news coverage and its equipment needed updating. The Newhouse newspaper group hired Howard Bronson as publisher in 1992 and placed him in charge of revitalizing the paper. Bronson added more editors, reporters, and other staff, who improved the quality of the paper's news gathering and writing. A series of editorials advocating reform of the Alabama Constitution earned the paper a place as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. In 2002, after more than a half century on Government Street, the Press-Register moved into a new headquarters on Water Street.
But improved local news coverage could not turn around the financial drag on the newspaper’s operations. Producing a printed paper carried heavy costs: The Press-Register had to maintain expensive presses, a warehouse full of newsprint and fleets of delivery trucks. Even more important, advertising revenue dropped sharply after 2000. Readers fled as well. Between 2007 and 2012, the Press-Register’s circulation dropped 18 percent, down to 82,000. The story was much the same for Alabama’s other Newhouse newspapers, the Birmingham News and the Huntsville Times.
To combat this decline in readership, advertising and profits, Newhouse announced in May 2012 that it would combine all three Alabama newspapers into its online partner al.com. Starting in the fall, the papers would publish print editions only on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
This change marked the end of the Press-Register’s 180 years of daily publication. With the Birmingham and Huntsville newspapers also cutting back, the focus on digital news left the Montgomery Advertiser as Alabama’s largest daily newspaper.
Burnett, Lonnie A. The Pen Makes a Good Sword: John Forsyth of the Mobile Register. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.
Logan, Andy. The Man Who Robbed the Robber Barons: The Story of William D'Alton Mann: War Hero, Profiteer, Inventor, and Blackmailer Extraordinary. New York: W. W. Norton, 1965.
Meeker, Richard H. Newspaperman: S. I. Newhouse and the Business of News. New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
Poore, Ralph. "Alabama’s Enterprising Newspaper The Mobile Press-Register and Its Forebears, 1813-1991." unpublished manuscript, 1992. Mobile Public Library, Mobile, Alabama.
Published January 8, 2008
Last updated March 12, 2013