In discussing the industry with his printer buddies — Swain, Simmons and Benjamin Day — Abell found Day especially amusing. Day kept expressing a bizarre idea: that you could sell a penny newspaper to the general public. Such a publication, he argued, could cover the ordinary stuff people talk about: crime, weather, local oddballs. A name even came to him: The New York Sun.

"Abell made no end of fun of [the idea]," Day remembered in an interview years later. "Every time we met, he would say, 'Well, Day, how is that penny Sun? Ha, ha! Ho, ho!'"

Abell, a serious man, had a genial streak, but he didn't laugh long. Day founded the Sun in 1833. Within a year it had a circulation of 10,000, twice that of any other New York paper. He sold his creation in 1837 for $40,000 — about $1 million in today's terms.

A good entrepreneur knows when to bend. It was Abell who talked Swain and Simmons into moving to Philadelphia and sinking their savings ($1,033.37) into a penny paper in 1836. Twelve nerve-racking months later, The Public Ledger was turning a profit.

Abell thought he was glimpsing the future.

A rollicking town

We don't know what Abell was thinking during that 10-hour coach ride to Baltimore. He never wrote a biography, and no journals or letters survive. We do know roughly what he saw there.

America's second-largest city, Baltimore boasted 90,000 residents, a brisk shipping trade, the nation's first cathedral and the Washington Monument. But streets were unpaved and there was no police force.

The "turbulent and lawless" town struck him as ripe for a penny paper. When he returned to Philadelphia, Swain and Simmons backed Abell's dream on one condition: that he run things himself. He packed up a hand press, headed south and set up shop at 21 Light St.

One night that spring, he and his crew of eight cranked out 15,000 copies of a four-page tabloid. On Wednesday, May 17, 1837, The Baltimore Sun hit the streets.

Abell included a mission statement. "Our objective will be the common good without regard to that of sects, factions or parties," he wrote, "and for this object we shall labor without fear or partiality."

He also made bold choices, such as covering the City Council meeting. It was the kind of story the six-penny press neglected: small scale, of interest to the town. Its appearance established a new ideal, that "a newspaper is to furnish its readers with the news in which they are interested, whether or not it conforms to the editor's prejudices," as Johnson put it.

Within seven months, The Sun had 12,000 daily readers, more than its competitors combined. "It has often been said," reporter Harold E. West wrote 85 years later, "that its success was more immediate and more rapid than has attended any similar enterprise in the country."

Speed of light

Abell had risen by working hard, and his way of thinking suited his new hometown.

It came across in The Sun's tone. If a brawl broke out, the paper ran a story. When a banking controversy broke out, it sided with shareholders. And when Niccolo Paganini prepared to tour the U.S. in 1837, you could all but hear Abell harrumph.

"We do not know that the whole country should be put on the tenter-hook of excitement about him," the publisher wrote of the violin virtuoso.

Abell also grasped that "the paper must be brought to the reader before he learns the news from any other source," his great-grandson, William Shepherdson Abell, wrote in Arunah Shepherdson Abell (1806-1888), a 1988 biography.

Abell spent the rest of his career not just making money but plowing it into advances that would speed and expand The Sun's reach and help define modern journalism.

In 1837, Abell hired a "Washington correspondent" who placed dispatches on Baltimore-bound trains. He kept 500 carrier pigeons near Patterson Park to fetch news from nearby. He invested in faster cylinder presses.