[Masthead] Overcast ~ 55°F  
High: 60°F ~ Low: 58°F
Monday, Nov. 30, 2015

End of the newspaper war

Saturday, February 2, 2008

It was 60 years ago Saturday that what I'll call "the great Shelbyville newspaper war" ended.

Look at our masthead (actually at the bottom, not head, of page 4; it's a traditional newspaper term) and you'll see the phrase "The Bedford County Times and Shelbyville Gazette, consolidated Feb. 1, 1948."

The newspapers had competed as weeklies for many years. After World War II ended both were owned by older men wishing to retire.

New owners took over both 3,000-circulation newspapers the first week of March 1946.

The Times went to a familiar face -- Franklin Yates, who'd been county agent for five years and had actually published a small, agricultural-related newspaper during the war years. Importantly, he'd worked for a Knoxville newspaper after graduating from the University of Tennessee.

The Gazette was sold to the Wilmer C. Surber family from Virginia. A family bio in their first edition described Surber as having operated movie theaters in the Tidewater area of Virginia. His son, Wilmer C. "Bill" Surber Jr., a young World War II veteran in his late 20s with a background in radio, took over as editor and did well despite having no formal journalism training.

Both owners dreamed of owning daily newspapers.

Within a few months the Gazette began publishing Thursdays and "Sundays" -- the Sunday edition was published early to be distributed to the Saturday night crowds populating the square in those days.

Surber began publishing local photos during a time in which they had to be sent out of town for printing plates to be made; doing some investigative reporting (one on the old "poor house" out Horse Mountain Road); and redesigned the Gazette to an unusual format for its time that would actually look good today.

The Times changed relatively little except for more local reporting. It was hampered by a hand-fed press purchased by its previous owner, whose background was in commercial printing, which printed unusually well for its day but was too slow to print a daily newspaper.

Both staffs were apparently on friendly terms. When the senior Surber died suddenly of a heart attack in 1947 the Times provided the Gazette's news content for a week.

Then came the third week of November 1947 -- and the real battle began.

Surber and his publisher/mother, listed only as "Mrs. Wilmer C. Surber Sr." (NOT "Wilma" as incorrectly stated in the T-G's Bicentennial book), installed Associated Press wire service in the Gazette's Holland Street building and began publishing as a tabloid-sized morning daily Monday through Saturday.

The same week, the Times installed a nearly 50-year-old press in the basement of its Gunter Building offices. The print quality declined slightly but the new press was fast enough to print daily. They followed up by increasing publication to Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Both newspapers battled to get the news first -- at least through the holiday season.

By January the Gazette -- with a news staff consisting of Bill Surber solo -- was filled primarily with AP copy and appeared to be slowly collapsing while the Times, as usual, was saturated with local news.

During January 1948 the Surbers were dealing with mounting money problems. Merger talks began, with the public being told that advertisers were complaining about having to advertise in two newspapers.

February 1948 dawned with merged ownership, a merged name and the Gazette's typesetting equipment, staff and AP service being moved into the Times office.

The war was over.

The combined newspaper used the Times' press (until 1963, when a new one was bought) with Surber serving as editor, and the Times' traditional approach with a few Surber tweaks.

Bill Surber left two months later, although he later returned as editor for a year and a half, and by spring the only visible remnant of the Gazette was some of its typefaces. Close observers of early Times-Gazettes can see clashing news copy typefaces from slightly mismatched equipment.

Surber went on to become managing editor of the Nashville Banner in the 1960s before dying relatively young in 1969, ending his career at the Tullahoma News.

Yates, as most readers probably know, ran the T-G until his health failed in 1994; his family owned the T-G until 2004.

We've come a long way; today our main competition is Nashville TV stations. Our dedication to covering the news, though, is just as strong.

T-G staff writer David Melson welcomes comments at dmelson@t-g.com .

David Melson
On the Loose

Related subjects