Frank Gannett c. 1940 (Getty Images / Time Life Pictures / Pix Inc. / Hans Knopf)
He started with a paper route, moved on to reporting stories for $1 a piece, and as a city editor refused to bow down to critical advertisers. How many people know the story of Frank E. Gannett, founder of the eponymous media giant? The company now counts among its properties 82 U.S. daily newspapers and 23 television stations. And to think it all started with a sharecropper’s son who needed some pocket money.
Gannett, born Sept. 15, 1876 in upstate New York, was the fifth of Charles and Maria Gannett's six children. Although the family left a hard life as sharecroppers and became hotel owners, money was always tight. At age nine, Frank "had his first practical lessons in industry and thrift" when he began soliciting subscribers and delivering the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., according to J. Donald Brandt's A History of Gannett, 1906-1993.
At age 14, the Gannett family moved to Bolivar, N.Y., where young Frank sold both Buffalo newspapers and bought the town's first modern bike to speed deliveries, according to Laura Dalton, director of corporate communications at Gannett Co. "The effort – finding a better way to speed the news to consumers – would later define Frank Gannett's approach to news and become a Gannett hallmark," she wrote in an email interview.
In high school, Gannett reported for the Buffalo News for $1 per story. As a student at Cornell University, he spent a year at the school paper before moving to a paying job with the Ithaca Journal. (The Gannett Company now owns both the Democrat and Chronicle and the Ithaca Journal.)
Gannett believed in hard work. In addition to managing his college studies and newspaper obligations, he set up his own wire service, hiring other students to write stories for small newspapers throughout the region and major players in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.
"Everyone digs in for me. I don't know why but they do. I am here as early as they are and stay later. I think that counts. And I am not idle a minute. I overheard the boys talking about what a worker I am," Gannett wrote in an undated letter.
Gannett dabbled in other fields after finishing college and graduate school, but soon returned to newspapers. In 1900, he was named city editor at the Ithaca Daily News. While the publisher was out of town, a typhoid epidemic broke out as a result of unfiltered drinking water supplied by a private company from a polluted creek. The paper reported the epidemic and published editorials in favor of public water companies. The private water company and other businesses threatened to pull their advertising unless reporting about the epidemic ceased. Gannett "refused to suppress news of the epidemic," Brandt wrote.
In 1906, the 29-year-old Gannett became half owner of the Elmira Gazette for $20,000. He and new partner Erwin Davenport were experienced newspaper men. In June, their names appeared on the Gazette's editorial page for the first time, and a front-page article hinted what these new owners had in mind: "To repeat the motto of one of the first papers established in America, the Gazette will stand
For the cause that needs assistance.
For the wrong that needs resistance.
For the good that we can do.
About a year after the Gazette's reintroduction, Gannett and Davenport purchased the competition, the Evening Star, and merged the two papers to create the Star-Gazette. Building on that success, the partners purchased two Rochester papers and merged them into the Times-Union and Advertiser. As Gannett's Wikipedia entry notes, "Throughout his career, Gannett would be known as 'The Great Hyphenator.' The media magnate was known to buy and merge money-losing dailies to create profit."
Gannett and Davenport dissolved their partnership in 1924. Gannett carried on alone, working tirelessly to build his company, buying and consolidating newspapers. When Gannett died in 1957, his obituary in Time magazine noted that "his empire includes 22 newspapers, four radio stations and three television stations."
Dalton believes Gannett would be "extremely proud of (the company's) size and reach today – but even more proud of how consumers and advertisers deeply trust, enjoy and value our many different products," she wrote.
Gannett's Wikipedia entry notes that “"He never pushed his political pronouncements onto his papers. Gannett would always send his pronouncements to his editors with a note, 'For your information and use, if desired,' and editors were free to ignore them."
Yet he held strong political opinions. A one-time staunch supporter of the Democratic Party and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he later openly criticized FDR and mounted a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, losing to Wendell Willkie.
"There is nothing more fascinating than the stories of success won by the youth of America through their thrift, industry, character, high ideals and ability," Gannett said in 1942.
His legacy, said Gannett Co.'s Dalton, is strongly reflected in the company's purpose: To serve the greater good of our nation and the communities it serves.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."