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Don't stop the press: Old Johnson City newspaper in the process of being preserved online

David Floyd • Feb 22, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Today, loyal readers pick up a copy of the Johnson City Press when they want the news, but back in the early 20th century, Johnson Citians received their necessary information from another publication.

The Johnson City Comet, a local weekly newspaper that published editions from 1884 to about 1918, is in the process of being digitized and published on the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website.

“(We’re hoping) to make them available for study, scholarship and research,” said Louisa Trott, the project coordinator for the Tennessee Newspaper Digitization Project, “and to the widest audience possible.”

Editions published from 1884 to 1909 have been uploaded, and the issues the paper published between 1910 and 1918 will appear online by the end of the summer. All the editions published by the Comet are free to access.

According to the Chronicling America website, the paper was first published by Nathaniel Love on March 15. The paper then went through a series of shifts in editorial control, starting with attorneys Robert Burrow and Robert Taylor — a future Tennessee governor — serving as editors.

Within a few months, Robert Burrow had been replaced C.J. St. John Jr., but a little less than a year later, Burrow and Cyrus Lyle purchased the paper, leaving Taylor as editor.

Taylor was a staunch Democrat, and from the onset, the paper declared its allegiance to the Democratic party.

“At that time, the papers were very much partisan and reflected the opinions of editors and publishers,” Trott said.

The Johnson City Comet started many years after the general end of the partisan press.

Amber Roessner, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee — Knoxville, said some communication historians believe the partisan press fell out of popularity after two significant events: the 1824 election of John Quincy Adams, who was elected after a contentious, rhetoric-fueled campaign period, and the early 1830s with the rise of the “penny papers,” publications that were inexpensive and easy to produce.

“Some communications scholars point as those two dates as the end of the partisan model,” Roessner said, “and the emergence of a commercial model that was based on both subscriptions and ad sales and the decline of newspapers that were ... representing a particular individual.”

Roessner said, however, that the aftereffects of the partisan press persisted well into the late 19th century, a tailwind that the Johnson City Comet appears to have captured.

Burrow retired in 1891, and in the same year, Lyle decided to make the paper a daily, a pipe dream that lasted for about a year before Lyle reverted the publication back to a Thursday weekly.

“Publishing a daily paper in Johnson City is like running a free lunch counter in Washington,” said an article in the June 29, 1893 issue announcing the decision. ”It is well patronized, but not profitable.“

The paper persisted through several noteworthy periods in American history, including the Spanish-American War, the Chicago World’s Fair and a significant portion of World War I, and devoted a significant portion of its content to train schedules the development of local railroads.

Even though their content reflects events that occurred many, many years ago, Roessner said there is still significant value in studying old newspapers.

“It’s crucial to preserve these older newspapers,“ Roessner said. ”It gives us key insights into how our history has influenced our present circumstances and our future prospects — so the real determinant nature of history.“

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