The Mobile Press-Register
Mobile Press-Register Headquarters, 1982 Until a change in publication status in 2012, the Mobile Press-Register was Alabama’s oldest daily newspaper. That year, the traditional daily newspaper became the three-day-a-week print product of a digitally focused news operation that also directs the reporting of the Birmingham News and the Huntsville Times as news hubs providing information on statewide news online at AL.com.
This transformation is perhaps the most dramatic in the newspaper’s long history, but the paper has had to adapt to changes in the economy, information technology, and society many times. The newspaper also has had many name changes and is often just called the Register. 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.
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 Spain 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.
John Forsyth Jr. 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 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, head of Avondale Mills,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, public ownership of the docks at the Port of Mobile, and an end to convict leasing.
Mobile Register Printing Press, ca. 1930s In 1929, Ralph B. Chandler and several other investors started the Mobile Press to compete with 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.
By the early 1960s, the aging Chandler was in failing health, walked with the help of a cane, and was suffering from emphysema; he would die in 1970. Direction of the Mobile Press-Register increasingly fell on William J. Hearin, general manager since 1944, a member of the board of directors, and executive vice president of the company. In 1965, the directors named him co-publisher, and he took control of the daily operation of the newspaper. In 1966, the board of directors sold the newspaper for $27 million 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. The new ownership of the Press-Register brought no change in the news operation of the paper. Newhouse considered newspapering a business and concerned himself with that side of the enterprise, leaving news matters to Hearin.
Beginning around the end of World War II, the newspaper’s management began emphasizing cutting costs, particularly labor costs, which were rising faster than revenues. Hearin increasingly automated production of the newspaper where he could, adding computers to advertising, newsroom, typesetting, circulation, and mechanical operations. But structural changes taking place in the communications market were causing the Press-Register and other newspapers to lose readers and advertisers. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, major dailies throughout the nation began their first layoffs of news staff in decades, abandoned publication of separate afternoon editions, or merged with competing papers.
In the hope of revitalizing the Press-Register, the Newhouse newspaper group hired Howard Bronson as publisher in 1992. 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 sprawling, modern headquarters on Water Street.
ress Improved local news coverage could not turn around the financial drag on the newspaper’s operations, however. Printed newspapers carried heavy costs: the Press-Register had to maintain expensive printing presses, a warehouse full of newsprint, and fleets of delivery trucks. Even more important, advertising revenue dropped sharply after 2000, and readers fled as well, as people switched to digital content.
By this time, the Newhouse owners had decided that the future of their news operations would be digital as well. The owners replaced Bronson with veteran publisher Ricky Mathews in 2009 to lead the Press-Register and other Newhouse papers in Alabama through the transition and manage the newspapers’ decline as Newhouse built up its online business. (Matthews would later chair the Alabama Coastal Recovery Commission following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.) Newhouse announced in May 2012 that it would combine all three Alabama newspapers into a single online version, Al.com. Starting in the fall of that year, the individual 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. The digital operations needed far fewer people than did the printed newspapers and they required staffers with entirely different skills. The Press-Register laid off a total of 187 reporters, photographers, editors, ad salesmen, clerks, page designers, production staff, and others. All told, Newhouse cut about 400 employees across the state.
Mobile Register Headquarters The course of following events for the Press-Register and other Newhouse operations in Alabama was almost predictable. The buildings that once housed hundreds of staffers stood largely empty after the switch to the new digital operations platform. In January 2013, Newhouse put up for sale the nearly new downtown headquarters of the Press-Register and Birmingham News, as well as the older Huntsville Times building. In 2014, the Press-Register moved to new offices in the renovated historic Kress building on Royal Street. Newhouse made more layoffs at the Alabama newspapers in 2015, leaving about 100 digitally focused journalists to cover the state from Mobile to Huntsville. That was fewer reporters than the Press-Register had fielded alone in the mid-1990s. In 2021, circulation of the Press-Register‘s two daily editions stood at about 13,000 and the Sunday edition at about 23,000.
The Alabama Media Group expanded online news-gathering efforts to 24 hours a day and seven days a week and reduced print newspaper publication to a three-day-a-week schedule. The newspapers were home-delivered and sold in stores on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays only until February 26, 2023, when the last print editions were published. Thereafter, all news was published digitally at Al.com.
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.
———. The Mobile Press-Register: The First 100 Years..” Unpublished manuscript, 2020; https://newspapering.files.wordpress.com/2021/10/mobile-register-first-100-years-v2-1-20211027.pdf.