On Jan. 26, 1947, what was then called The Gainesville Daily Times published its first edition in the basement of a former funeral home, though this fact alone doesn’t provide a full picture of the paper’s humble beginnings.
Before that first edition hit shelves, Times co-founder Charles Smithgall had gathered all of his savings, traveled to Mississippi and purchased a used flatbed press from a segregationist senator named Theodore Bilbo.
When he returned to Ward’s Funeral Home at the corner of Maple Street and West Washington, “the undertaker had almost moved out, but not quite,” he wrote in the 50th anniversary edition in 1997. “They brought a couple of wreck victims in while we were erecting the press, and Buck Ward, former mortician, started sewing this fellow up.”
There were about 2,500 copies of that first edition, and a yearly subscription cost $7.50.
“Times were lean and The Times was lean,” wrote Lessie Smithgall in the 50th anniversary edition, noting that they printed many papers that had as few as four pages. She recalled making calls and soliciting subscriptions out in the country. A woman answered and told her, “Yes, I’ve seen that little paper, but I just need more newspaper than that. I use it to wrap things, put on my shelves, and then we use it out in ...”
“I didn’t let her finish,” Smithgall wrote. “Our wonderful newspaper might be used for that!”
The Times celebrates 75 years
What: Join Times Editor Shannon Casas and former Editor Johnny Vardeman for a virtual discussion of the past, present and future of The Times.
When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 26
Where: Register on Zoom
By 1952, the paper had changed its name to The Daily Times and had moved into a building called the Press-Radio Center, which housed both the paper and the WGGA radio station, also founded by the Smithgalls. That year, a fire broke out in the composing room, threatening to end the paper’s unbroken printing streak. With help from printers around town, however, the paper was published. The paper has never missed a press run.
Several years later, a new high-speed rotary press was installed, increasing the printing capacity of the paper from 4,200 pages an hour to 30,000 pages an hour. It was an important milestone.
“The press and its accompanying equipment, including the facilities to run color, should give Gainesville a physical plant equal to any small daily in the country,” Charles Smithgall wrote on the paper’s 10th anniversary.
“When I started, in the newsroom, we were still using manual typewriters,” said Johnny Vardeman, who worked for The Times from 1957 to 1998, including as editor. “We didn’t have any electronics at all.”
The Times launched “Target Ten Thousand” in 1960, and in five years, the paper had achieved a circulation of 11,000.
Throughout the 1960s, The Times supported civil rights efforts, including the desegregation of public schools. Sylvan Myer, editor from 1950 to 1969, was an ardent supporter of civil rights in Georgia.
That support even brought threats from the Ku Klux Klan, Vardeman said.
“We weren’t really afraid, but they didn’t like us as a newspaper because, editorially, we were opposed to their organization.”
Since then, the paper has come to occupy its current building on Green Street, dedicated in 1970, and a couple of years later, the paper dropped “Daily” from its name.
In 1981, Gannett Co. Inc. purchased The Times and upgraded the press, printing USA Today for parts of the Southeast.
In 2004, The Times was acquired by Morris Multimedia Inc., a company based in Georgia and one of the largest private media organizations in the country, founded by Charles Morris Sr. in Savannah in 1970.
Morris’s son, Charles H. Morris Jr., established Metro Market Media and in 2018 took control of The Times and its sister publications, Forsyth County News and Dawson County News.
The 75th anniversary of The Times is marked by both continuity and change. Its guiding principle of informing the public has remained, as enshrined on a plaque on the outside of the building: “Guided by the constitutional principle of the public’s right to know, we dedicate this building to the continued enlightenment and freedom of the people of North Georgia.”
Since its inception, The Times has upheld that ideal and worked to enrich the community.
“The Times through the years has proven to be a good neighbor to its many different audiences,” said General Manager Norman Baggs. “From supporting sound economic development to informing readers what they needed to know about government, education, public safety, people and the North Georgia community, the mission to make the area better has remained the same through decades.”
On the paper’s 25th anniversary, its editors wrote: “No worthy community effort has gone without Times support. Most of the good around us was first proposed in these pages.”
But if the main aim has remained unaltered, the methods for delivering the news have changed considerably in recent years.
Newspapers nationwide have struggled to stay afloat as media giants like Facebook and Google siphon advertising revenues, and this trend has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. This has compelled a shift to generating revenue primarily through subscribers.
“I think there's still a huge demand for news and knowing what's going on in the community, especially with the way Hall County's growing right now,” said Editor in Chief Shannon Casas. “Some people have no idea the news industry is struggling the way it is, and other people think it's dying, and it's not either of those things. It's just in this huge transformative process and has been for a few years, and it requires us to be innovative.”
That innovation includes a focus on growing digital subscribers, distributing stories in email newsletters and on social media, hosting events and doing contract press work, the biggest of those being the upcoming daily printing of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The press room is currently undergoing fast-paced renovations to begin printing for the AJC, a partnership that is expected to bolster the sustainability of The Times.
Times owner Charles H. Morris Jr. said he is passionate about figuring out how to make community journalism sustainable, and he believes wholeheartedly in the importance of local news.
“I think that we are making some pretty great strides,” Morris said. “We’re just thrilled that the residents of Hall County are supportive of our efforts. I think having a strong community newspaper in any given community is a very positive thing.”