William S. “Billy” Morris III will soon no longer be the owner of The Augusta Chronicle.
For many in Augusta, that news is still impossible to believe.
While it’s true that Morris Communications has also agreed to sell 10 of its other daily and non-daily newspapers such as The Florida Times-Union, The St. Augustine Record, The Savannah Morning News and The Athens Banner-Herald to the New York-based GateHouse Media, the announcement last week that Morris is expected to finalize the sale of the Chronicle on Oct. 2 was a shocking revelation for local readers.
After all, the Morris family has owned the Chronicle since 1945, when William S. Morris Jr. and North Carolina financier Herman Moore purchased a controlling interest in the Chronicle Publishing Co.
A decade later, William S. Morris Jr. bought out Moore’s share of the company.
It is a tremendous local success story considering William S. Morris Jr. joined the paper as a 26-year-old bookkeeper in 1929, according to the Chronicle’s archives.
By 1937, William S. Morris Jr. was already named publisher and company president. He later acquired the Chronicle’s afternoon competition, the Augusta Herald in 1955.
It wasn’t until 1966 that Billy Morris took control of Southeastern Newspaper Corp. and was named publisher of the Chronicle and Herald.
But for more than 50 years, Billy Morris has been the man behind The Augusta Chronicle.
That’s why last week’s announcement of the newspaper’s pending sale to GateHouse Media was so shocking for the Augusta community.
It was also obviously a difficult decision for Billy Morris.
“Since 1929, the Morris family has had a great love and passion for journalism and the local communities that they serve,” Billy Morris, chairman of Morris Communications and publisher of the Chronicle, stated in a press release.
“However, every newspaper company in America is battling trends and redirected advertising dollars, so it is necessary for newspapers to be part of a large newspaper group to build and maintain the necessary resources to compete.”
The sale of 11 of Morris Communications’ daily and non-daily newspaper holdings, its Texas-based commercial printing operation and other related publications to GateHouse Media is part of the company’s “strategic restructuring to focus its business on lifestyle and niche publications, broadband operations, property development and new business,” the press release stated.
“We are deeply grateful for the many friendships and business relationships we have enjoyed for these many years,” Billy Morris stated, “and look forward to the impact the next generation will make.”
Morris Communications did announce that Billy Morris is expected to remain on as publisher of The Augusta Chronicle and will oversee editorial-page policy for the three Morris newspapers in Georgia.
But many wonder how long that arrangement will last under the newspaper’s new ownership by GateHouse Media.
The other big question that remains is, how will The Augusta Chronicle change?
The Augusta Chronicle is known as “The South’s Oldest Newspaper,” but it is also one of the oldest in the nation.
In fact, The Augusta Chronicle is older than The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post.
The Augusta Chronicle is said to be the third oldest continuously published newspaper in the United States, after the New Hampshire Gazette which began in 1756 and the Hartford Courant which was started in 1764.
While it began as a weekly newspaper called the Augusta Gazette by owner Greenberg Hughes on Aug. 30, 1785, he left Augusta the following year.
The newspaper’s second owner and publisher, John Smith of Germany, officially changed the name to The Augusta Chronicle and Gazette of the State by 1789.
Smith’s plan was to develop the newspaper into a public forum that he hoped would promote “free and ample discussion of political topics,” according to the Chronicle’s archives.
In fact, Smith added on the newspaper’s masthead a quote from the Georgia Constitution: “Freedom of the Press, and Trial by Jury, to remain inviolate forever.”
From the very beginning, the newspaper was a clear symbol of the enormous progress being made in the Augusta area.
By May 1791, The Augusta Chronicle was reporting on several significant developments in the region including a visit by Gen. George Washington, then the president of the United States, according to the book, “Memorial History of Augusta, Georgia” by Charles C. Jones Jr.
After being greeted by Georgia Gov. Edward Telfair along with several local dignitaries, Washington praised Augusta and its grand reception.
“I receive your congratulations on my arrival in Augusta with great pleasure,” Washington stated, according to the May 21, 1791, article in the Chronicle. “I desire to assure you that it will afford me the most sensible satisfaction to learn the progression of your prosperity. My best wishes for your happiness, collectively and individually, are sincerely offered.”
By 1831, a new owner, A. H. Pemberton, reportedly shortened the newspaper’s name to The Augusta Chronicle and began using the newspaper to voice opposition to the growing abolitionist movement across the country.
In fact, he advocated for secession and initially was against the establishment of the railroad to Augusta because he was concerned it would negatively impact the city’s river trade.
By 1840, the newspaper was again sold to two brothers, William and James Jones, who supported states’ rights and slavery in the South.
Under their leadership, the newspaper began to gain more content because the brothers saw the potential of the newly invented telegraph machine for acquiring news content.
Around 1849, the Chronicle began receiving telegraphic dispatches in the paper, according to the book, “Memorial History of Augusta, Georgia” by Charles Jones Jr.
“The issue of Jan. 1, 1849, has a dispatch which is said to have left New York on ten o’clock on Friday night, and to have been received in Augusta on Saturday afternoon,” Charles Jones wrote. “It appears in the paper on Monday morning, or some 60 hours after; but slow work as this appears now, it was a wonderful improvement then.”
By 1850, the Jones brothers began the first Sunday edition of the Chronicle and soon boosted the circulation to 5,500 readers, which was reportedly the largest in Georgia at the time.
Once the Civil War began, the Jones brothers were instrumental in the formation of the Press Association of the Confederacy, a consortium of 15 southern daily newspapers founded in Augusta in 1862, according to research by the Georgia Humanities Council and the University of Georgia Press.
The Jones brothers soon sold the newspaper, and Nathan Morse eventually became the editor and owner of the Chronicle.
“Morse, a Connecticut native, was a controversial choice for the time,” the University of Georgia Press reported. “Although initially an advocate of the Southern cause, he became increasingly critical of Confederate president Jefferson Davis as the war continued, and he ultimately used the paper to urge an end to hostilities.”
However, by 1866, Morse sold the Chronicle to new owners, H. P. Moore and former Confederate General Ambrose Wright.
By the time the Chronicle’s centennial edition was published in 1885, it was honored as “the pioneer in the journalistic field” of Augusta.
“A newspaper one hundred years old!” the centennial edition proclaimed. “A gazette that for three generations has, in its each recurring issue, set out the current history of the day, and been read in each succeeding epoch by grandsire, by father, and by son. A contemporaneous annalist of the times, keeping pace with decades and lusters until a century is complete. Such is now The Augusta Chronicle.”
The special edition of the paper proclaimed that the Chronicle had survived along with the city of Augusta through ravages of yellow fever, the battles of the Civil War and the struggle to rebuild the South.
“Southern journalism fairly starved. But the difficulties of that period daunted our predecessors not,” The Augusta Chronicle wrote in 1885. “If printers could not be found, they were made; if new type could not be had, the veterans of the past were furbished up and set to work again; if your fine, white, double extra, improved printing paper had become a mere historical reminiscence, there was enough of that dingy, home-made, cartilaginous, saffron-hued product, known as Confederate paper, to take the impress of the type. Amid the war, as through the pestilence, the Chronicle came out promptly at the appointed day.”
Following the Civil War and the end of slavery, Charles Jones wrote that several new editors and owners of the Chronicle began to promote the values of “humanity, morality, and good government.”
“Mr. H. Gregg Wright was an exceedingly attractive and forcible writer, and systematically devoted his great abilities to discountenancing dueling and lynch law,” Jones wrote. “He steadily iterated and reiterated the great truth that no people can truly prosper who do not cherish an abiding faith in and reverence for the majesty of the law.”
By 1880, a new publisher and owner from Ireland, Patrick Walsh, “fought for black civil rights and campaigned against lynchings, both unpopular stances for the era,” the Chronicle stated.
In the early 1900s, the newspaper began being used by then editor and publisher, Thomas Loyless, to promote Augusta as a commercial center.
“In 1911, Loyless became the majority owner of the Chronicle as part of a group of investors that also featured baseball legend Ty Cobb,” the Chronicle wrote. “Three years later, Loyless moved the newspaper into the city’s first skyscraper, The Chronicle Building. Now called the Marion Building, it stood a whopping 10 stories, and was heralded as ‘fireproof.’ But two years later, the great fire of 1916 gutted the structure. The Chronicle left the building and never returned.”
From 1919 until 1937, Thomas Hamilton was the publisher and became known for the column, “Ambitions for Augusta,” that detailed his visions for the city.
“Hamilton wrote of Augusta’s need for a $20 million power dam, dredging of the Savannah River, an airfield, a city planning commission, resort hotels, a new black grammar school and a University of Augusta,” the Chronicle reported. “Much of his vision became reality before his death in 1937, including construction and enlargement of the levee, completion of the $2 million New Savannah Lock and Dam, and the planning stages of Clarks Hill Dam.”
Which brings us back to when William S. Morris Jr., Billy Morris’ father, was named publisher and company president in 1937.
The Morris family has owned the newspaper ever since.
When William S. Morris Jr. took over, the politics of the newspaper began to once again change.
“Under his leadership, the paper broke with its longstanding support of the Democratic Party by endorsing segregationist Strom Thurmond, a State’s Rights Democrat, over Harry S. Truman in the 1948 U.S. presidential election,” according to the University of Georgia Press.
By 1956, Billy Morris, who began delivering newspapers from horseback in Augusta as a boy, officially joined the company only a few days before his 22nd birthday, according to the Morris Media Network.
He became publisher of the Augusta newspaper and president of the corporation 10 years later.
Ever since that time, Billy Morris, now 82, has been the face of The Augusta Chronicle.
Even though his son, Will Morris, became president of Morris Communications in 1996 and is the third generation of the Morris family to hold that position in the media business, Billy Morris is still chairman of the company.
Under Billy Morris’ leadership, the company diversified into magazine and book publishing, outdoor advertising and commercial printing services, in addition to acquiring more than a dozen newspapers.
Over the years, Billy Morris has also taken great pride in the opinion page of the Chronicle, which has clearly maintained a politically conservative editorial voice.
Back in its heyday, the editorial page attracted the most attention by showcasing the award-winning artwork of longtime editorial cartoonist Clyde Wells alongside columns written by the highly controversial editorial writer Phil Kent.
Beginning in 1971, Wells drew politically conservative cartoons for The Augusta Chronicle for 27 years, unabashedly going after everyone from county commissioners to local sheriffs to the president of the United States.
“Back then, we had a five-person county commission full of characters,” Wells said, chuckling. “I had an easy job because they were constantly involved in political fights and it was just one crisis after another. And there were extremely bitter political races.”
When Wells worked for Billy Morris, there was no doubt at all who was in charge of the editorial page, he said.
“As everybody knows, the Chronicle is known as a staunch conservative newspaper, so now that GateHouse has purchased the paper, it’ll be interesting to see if they truly maintain that,” Wells said.
“They are saying that Billy (Morris) is going to oversee the editorial page, but I think that might be an interim thing because I don’t believe Billy hovers over the editorial page like he used to. He used to control it. I mean, Billy ran that page.”
For the more than 25 years he worked at the Chronicle, Wells admits he and Morris had quite a few heated arguments about the content of his editorial cartoons.
“I am conservative, but I was not as far right as Billy and not nearly as far right as Phil Kent,” Wells said, smiling. “So Billy and I argued sometimes, but we did a lot of arguing behind his door because Billy had one rule: you could say anything you wanted to, but it just didn’t leave the building.”
Above and beyond anything else, Wells said the two men had great respect for one another and the work that they did.
“We had a stormy relationship, but we both were always wanting to put out the best paper we could,” Wells said, adding that Morris once told him he was “the heart” of the Chronicle. “And I should point out, I never worked for another newspaper. I enjoyed my job.”
Billy Morris also understood that Wells knew his facts when it came to political issues facing Augusta, the state and the nation, Wells said.
“He told me once after a heated argument, ‘You win nine out of 10 of these debates, you know that don’t you?’” Wells said, laughing. “And I replied, ‘I just overwhelm you with the facts.’”
When Kent became the editorial editor for the Chronicle in the late 1970s, he definitely shook things up.
For more than two decades, Kent waged blistering editorial battles against many local and state politicians.
“After writing scathing commentary about then-Columbia County Sheriff Tom Whitfield, Kent was falsely arrested and, on a separate occasion, assaulted by the sheriff’s son,” the Chronicle reported in 2001, after Kent announced he was leaving the newspaper. “Kent’s career at the Chronicle has been as influential to some as it was controversial to others. A die-hard conservative, he is known nationally for his views, which were described as candid and straightforward by conservatives, radical by liberals and even racist by some black leaders.”
While Kent always denied being racist, some local leaders questioned that claim, particularly former Georgia Sen. Majority Leader Charles Walker.
In fact, the Chronicle pointed out in 2001 that Walker labeled Kent as “the problem with Augusta.”
When Kent left the Chronicle in 2001, Billy Morris praised the editorial columnist for his work over the years.
“For more than a quarter of a century, Phil Kent has been the conscience of the community. His constant vigilance of local politics at times has struck fear into the heart of politicians,” Billy Morris reportedly stated. “He made them accountable for their acts like no one on the local scene has in recent years.”
However, many leaders in Augusta’s black community have frequently voiced their concerns over some of the Chronicle’s conservative coverage.
Even after Kent left the paper, Walker continued to point out what he believed to be unjust political coverage by the Chronicle.
Walker, who was found guilty of 127 felony counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and filing false tax returns and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in 2005, voiced his displeasure with the Chronicle in his book, “From Peanuts to Power: The Road to Wealth, Success and Happiness.”
Specifically, Walker wrote that the media, including the Chronicle, was one of the main reasons he went to prison.
“The Augusta Chronicle was threatened by me,” Walker wrote. “I had started my own newspaper — the Augusta Focus — to counter the one-sided politics of the Chronicle and its sister paper the Augusta Herald. The Focus was a small weekly. If the other papers were buying ink by the barrel, I was buying it by the teaspoon. Still, they felt threatened.”
Walker said the Chronicle was threatened because of his political messages.
“I would put the spotlight on black issues, covering stories of interest to the black community and publishing relevant commentaries,” Walker wrote. “And although my paper was small, other papers would pick up on my stories. The Augusta Focus became very influential.”
Walker claimed the Chronicle didn’t like that fact.
As far as racial tensions in Augusta over the years, Wells acknowledged it was sometimes difficult to address some racial issues in the newspaper, but he insists that, as the longtime editorial cartoonist for the Chronicle, he always treated everyone the same.
“If you did something wrong, I didn’t care if you were black or white, I called you out on it,” Wells said. “But, looking back at the 1970s and 80s, that was a very tumultuous time.”
Through the years, Billy Morris and the Chronicle have also driven the discussion of several local projects in the Augusta area.
Everything from the 25-year-old partnership between the city and Augusta Riverfront LLC, a company owned by Billy Morris, which developed the original $43 million Augusta Riverfront Center along the Savannah River to the development of Augusta Convention Center on Reynolds Street in 2013.
Paul Simon, president of Augusta Riverfront LLC and a longtime employee of Billy Morris, has long sung the praises of his boss.
As Augusta natives, Simon said he and Billy Morris have always only wanted to do what was best for Augusta-Richmond County.
“I was born and raised here in Augusta. My career was built here in Augusta,” Simon told the Metro Spirit in 2015. “Billy Morris was also born here. We love Augusta and we want the best for Augusta. We want to see Augusta to continue to grow.”
Simon said all of the projects that Billy Morris has proposed over the years have been to improve the Augusta area.
“Billy Morris is criticized a lot, but the company and Billy Morris have given more to this community than anybody else,” Simon said in 2015, adding that he has personally chaired campaigns for Augusta State University, Historic Augusta, the former Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, The First Tee of Augusta and the former National Science Center that raised millions of dollars for those projects and entities. “We bought the former mall (along the Riverwalk) for $2.2 million, raised about $5 million and got the state to give $10 million for the exhibits in Fort Discovery. The company, Billy Morris, gave that property to the National Science Center. But he doesn’t get credit for that and it’s too bad.”
But the truth is, if the city and the community don’t support such projects, they can’t last, Simon said.
“The National Science Center was a wonderful thing for kids,” Simon said. “The Georgia Golf and Gardens was beautiful. But we lost all of it. And it’s a shame because if you go anywhere in Europe, there are gardens all over the place. And here we are the Garden City and now those gardens are gone.”
Several years ago, the company also encouraged the city to possibly build a new civic center at the former Regency Mall location in south Augusta, Simon said.
“The company even bought the hockey team,” Simon said, chuckling. “We weren’t interested in hockey. Good gracious. I didn’t know anything about it. But we bought the hockey team, ran it and lost money, all because we hoped that a new civic center would work. But we couldn’t get the traction we needed to make it happen.”
For decades, supporters of Billy Morris believe Augusta has only benefited from the generosity of Morris’ companies and the long legacy of The Augusta Chronicle.
“The company and Billy Morris have really given back to the community,” Simon said. “However, they don’t get the credit.”
Many longtime readers of the Chronicle are extremely anxious to see how the newspaper may change under the leadership of GateHouse Media.
“It will be interesting to see what this GateHouse does with paper,” Wells said, pointing over at a hard copy of the Chronicle sitting on his coffee table. “I still read it every day. I just hope that the newspaper doesn’t lose its local edge. I mean, Billy was born and raised here. He definitely knows Augusta. The Chronicle needs that local edge.”