The Launch of the Mercury, on Adolph Ochs’s Birthday

The Knoxville Mercury is out today. Knoxville’s 224-year history of independent local journalism is officially revived. I’m not even sure yet where to pick up your copy, but I’m told they’re all over the place.

It’s an auspicious day to launch a newspaper, I would think. I didn’t realize it until just this morning, but today is the birthday of Knoxville’s most influential journalist, Mr. Adolph Ochs, patriarch of the modern New York Times.

He was born on March 12, 1858, in Cincinnati, to Jewish-Bavarian immigrant parents, Julius and Bertha Ochs, who had previously lived in Knoxville, and who would move back about six years later. He always considered Knoxville his hometown.

His parents had opposite sympathies during the Civil War, and Knoxville, where he and his family lived for most of the period from 1864 to 1877, was so fractured by war and politics that I think he grew up with a health respect for the idea of being fair. It was an unusual trait in 19th-century journalists perhaps first posited by Ochs’ early mentor, Knoxville Chronicle editor William Rule.

Convinced he’d learned all he could about the journalism business here, he moved to Chattanooga in the late 1870s and bought a flagging paper called the Chattanooga Times, and hired several members of his family, including his father, to help him run it.

Several years later, with his earnings, he bought another failing paper coincidentally called the New York Times, and fixed it. He founded that newspaper’s famous book review and magazine section, and borrowed a slogan from his Knoxville cousins, the Blaufelds, who ran a cigar shop on Gay Street: “All the seegars fit to smoke.” He also fashioned a new Manhattan landmark called Times Square and commenced the New Year’s Eve party there. He was so important to the history of that city and its most important newspaper that 80 years after his death, his name is still in the masthead. His descendents are still in charge.

Upon returning to Knoxville, as he did several times as publisher of the Times, he loved to regale us with after-dinner speeches about his youth here, especially how his enthusiasm for learning every detail of journalism came about partly by way of his fear of the First Presbyterian graveyard. My favorite of all Knoxville stories, it has appeared in four of my books, most recently the one about Market Square, and I don’t feel obliged to tell it again here.

It’s enough to remind you that today is the birthday of a very interesting fellow. When he left Knoxville for Chattanooga, his colleagues toasted the popular kid they called Muley in a Market Square saloon. For those so inclined, it would be an apt observance on Adolph Ochs’ 157th birthday.

Meanwhile, have a look at the Mercury, launched today, and let us know what you think.

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