By Elizabeth Wells
Any newspaper or periodical, including The Alabama Baptist (TAB), is concerned with presentation, size and cost. Until 1919 the newspaper was independently owned and operated. Editors were totally responsible for content, finances and printing the paper.
When the paper was launched in 1843 Love and Dykous, printers of the Marion Herald, published the four-page TAB “on imperial sheet of the best quality with fair type.” However, citing editorial differences, the owners soon moved to The Marion Telegraph.
In January 1850 editor A.W. Chambliss announced his new printer had New York printing materials, making the Alabama Baptist Advocate “equal to any religious periodical in the nation.” With circulation expansion to additional states, he purchased a “new head” and in July The South Western Baptist was issued.
In 1852 a stock company bought the paper, named Samuel Henderson editor and moved the printing to J.J. and T.F. Martin in Montgomery. Martin improved his press, requested more money, but the stock company purchased its own press and moved operations to Tuskegee, in an office over Morton’s and Steven’s store.
Surviving the Civil War and closed by Federal troops, the newspaper moved to Atlanta, home of the Franklin Printing House one of the South’s most extensive publishing houses. On Jan. 6, 1866, the Christian Index and South Western Baptist appeared, Samuel Henderson, Alabama Editor.
Returning to Marion, the four-page Alabama Baptist, edited by Winkler and Renfro, appeared on March 17, 1874. Jon West, pastor and owner of Jon. L. West & Co., Publishers in Selma bought the paper in 1877, but Dec. 1, 1877, fire destroyed the Marion building:
Monday morning after its destruction on Saturday, we took charge of its ashes — without money, without a subscription list, without a type or a lead or a column rule, determined if possible to save it for the denomination. We immediately, purchased for it a new outfit of type and everything necessary for its publication. Within a month, we issued it in its dress from Selma. We assumed and bore all the loss incident to the fire, amounting perhaps to $1,200 to $1,500.
For seven years, West published the newspaper, which had its own type presses and materials but any profits came from other printing and binding jobs. West told the Convention, “I need the denomination to extend patronage to enable me a reasonable support for me and my family.”
In the July 30, 1884, issue, readers learned that Major John G. Harris of Livingston had bought the paper. He soon moved the paper’s office from Selma to No. 14 Dexter Avenue, Montgomery.
Through the years, Harris, senior editor and owner had many associates. C.W. Hare, James C. Pope and J.M. Dewberry, who served as editors, business managers also owned Alabama Printing Company. When they mutually terminated the printing agreement, Harris moved the paper to Number 26 Commerce Street, Montgomery.
In January 1901, readers received the Alabama Baptist printed on singed paper. Harris explained, “on December 24, fire broke out in the adjoining building and in spite of the efforts of the fire department, much property was destroyed. We are figuring a new outfit and hope the paper will soon appear in an entirely new dress.”
On Jan. 17, 1902, subscribers received The Southern and Alabama Baptist, a 16-page edited by Frank Willis Barnett, printed in Birmingham. The front page, with Barnett’s picture, noted the merger of the three newspapers: Alabama Baptist of Montgomery, Baptist Evangel of Birmingham, and the Baptist Herald of Florida bought by Barnett. In March, the paper had new Birmingham offices, and Leslie Printing and Publishing Company. By 1905, wanting to upgrade the paper, Barnett contracted with Advance Publishing company, the “most up-to-date printing plant in Alabama.” The new type, press and paper with “brand new dress” cost about $10,000, “well worth the money” and enabled him to increase content without adding pages or cost.
Additionally, the 9,000-name subscription list required 1,000 pounds of lead to set 110 columns of type. Not available in Birmingham, the lead order was shipped from Philadelphia, and took the machine men two weeks to set up the type, checking each subscription label for correct expiration information.
When circulation reached 10,000, Barnett contracted with Agricola and Crouch, the only exclusive newspaper publishing plant in Alabama. The change insured Tuesday printing and more prompt mail delivery. Assuming the business manager’s job, Barnett used those funds to order additional illustrations.
Barnett sold the paper to the convention in 1918. In his farewell of Jan. 23, 1919, Barnett, like his predecessors answered the question, “How do you publish The Alabama Baptist?”
“It seems funny that I am no longer the editor of The Alabama Baptist, for having given 17 of the best years of my life to it. I had grown to feel that it was a part of me. For years, its columns and my pen and voice were at the call of my people without money and without price. Holding it as a sacred trust I felt that the hour had come for me to step aside and give others a chance to make it more useful.”
P.S., Barnett wrote, “The first thing I did after selling the paper was to fork over $5 for a three-year subscription. No one ought to get it free but every head of a Baptist family ought to take it and pay for it.”
Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Wells is a retired archivist for Samford University and librarian for its Special Collection and Archives department in Birmingham. She also did the research for the upcoming book “The Alabama Baptist: Celebrating 175 Years of Informing, Inspiring and Connecting Baptists.” This article was originally published in The Alabama Baptist in April 2017.