By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
11:29 AM EDT, May 8, 2012
A little more than 175 years ago, an ex-journeyman printer from New England boarded a carriage bound for America's southernmost big city. His hope was to start a newspaper there and run it himself.
His friends thought he was out of his mind.
Baltimore, they told Arunah S. Abell, already had six daily papers. It was rough-and-tumble, no cradle of literacy. And America was on the brink of a depression.
A decade later, Abell was at The Baltimore Sun, the business he'd built, when he learned that, 1,900 miles away, the Mexican army had surrendered in a battle and, in effect, the Mexican-American War. The Sun got word to James K. Polk a day before the War Department did.
"I am requested by the President to thank you for your obliging kindness in communicating this information," Polk's secretary, J. Knox Walker, wrote on April 10, 1847.
What happened in between was the tale of a shrewd entrepreneur who understood his adopted hometown and took risks to serve it.
No one living, of course, remembers Arunah Abell, who died in 1888, rich and well-regarded. It's historical accounts, a few photos and a smattering of his writings that bring his image to life.
So does the collective memory of his descendants.
"He wanted to get the word out to as many people as quickly as possible," says great-great-grandson Kevin Abell, a Baltimore businessman who displays an oil portrait of the patriarch in his living room. "His hallmark was innovating to achieve that. ... It's how you build something that lasts."
Arunah Shepherdson Abell, scion of a line of Puritans, was born in East Providence, R.I., in 1806. His grandfather had been a captain in the Revolutionary War; his father, a farmer, had fought in the War of 1812.
He left school at 14, soon to work as an apprentice at the Providence Patriot, where he mastered the cast-iron hand press. He rode that skill to a job in Boston, where he quickly rose to foreman.
The "eminently reasonable" man of "less than medium height," as one historian put it, had an ambition to practice journalism. At 22, he moved to New York, hub of the trade as it was practiced in 1828.
American newspapers then served explicitly as bullhorns for political parties or commercial interests. "News" was whatever advanced those interests. The publishers of the nation's 400 newspapers targeted readers of means and set their price high, at five or six cents an issue.
"That was a significant portion of what a working person could earn," says Mitchell Stephens, a media historian and professor at New York University. "Newspapers were very specifically for society's elite."
A tradesman himself, Abell didn't merely have an "ambition that soared above his trade," as Gerald W. Johnson put it in The Sun's centennial history, The Baltimore Sunpapers 1837-1937; he was also an "alert student of the trend [in] the publishing business."
Abell and friends started gathering to share ideas.
One image survives from Abell's young adulthood. There he is in a daguerreotype at age 31, standing between two taller business partners, Azariah Simmons and William Swain. He wears the boulevardier's look of the day — mutton-chop sideburns, beaver top hat, ascot — and a look of focus.
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.
In 1843, when telegraph inventor Samuel Morse lobbied Congress for funds to connect Washington and Baltimore, Abell lent his influence. A year later, when Morse tapped out his first coded message — "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT" — on May 24, it arrived at the B&O's Mount Clare Station and was rushed to Abell's newsroom. It ran in The Sun the next day.
Plain and generous
It took Abell a decade — and some planning — to turn his hunch into a world-class operation.
With the U.S. and Mexico headed for war, he created a communications network to New Orleans. It included steamships, stagecoaches, railways, telegraph lines and a 60-horse pony express. When Mexico surrendered in the siege of Vera Cruz, he got word to Polk — and readers — first.
"It took a war to establish the Sun as a great paper, competitive for the news," wrote reporter E.B. Furgurson in "Light For All: 150 Years of the Baltimore Sun," a feature that appeared May 17, 1987.
Such foresight typified the plain-spoken Abell, who was able to leave his children a $5 million estate when he died on April 19, 1888.
The next day, his paper printed tributes from rich and poor alike. Most mentioned his integrity, his businesslike demeanor and his feel for the common man. Even the composing room employees weighed in with a formal resolution.
"[We] have lost a kind-hearted and generous employer, the entire craft a worthy member, and the community an enterprising citizen," they wrote.
That's what his descendants like most about the patriarch — that he did well without losing his human touch. "That was rare in his day," says Kevin Abell, who worked as a Sun reporter from 1977 to 1987 and still keeps an eye on the newspaper world.
It's a time of declining revenues, but he doubts that would have discouraged his great-great-grandfather.
"Arunah was a creative guy. I think he'd have started getting into cable TV and radio 25 years ago, maybe figured out how to put up an [Internet] paywall," Abell says. "But he'd have stayed true to the idea. He cared about getting it right."
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