Adolph S. Ochs, along with Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, helped lay the foundation of modern American journalism. He was born March 12, 1858, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of Bavarian immigrants. His father, an abolitionist, and his mother, a secessionist, differed greatly on the issues of the day, and from his earliest years Ochs learned the importance of tolerance and conciliation. Driven from the North by his mother’s Southern sympathies during the Civil War, the Ochs family settled in Knoxville. There, at age eleven, Adolph Ochs began his newspaper career delivering the Knoxville Chronicle to help support his impoverished family. Three years later, when he was promoted to office boy, Ochs decided to make newspapers his life’s work.
At the Chronicle Ochs mastered the skills of newspaper composition and was soon much sought after as a printer and typesetter. In 1877, after working briefly in Louisville, Ochs took a position with the Chattanooga Dispatch. The paper soon failed, but Ochs remained in Chattanooga and a year later, at the age of twenty, he bought another failing local publication, the Chattanooga Times. Starting with just $12.50 in working capital, Ochs transformed the ragged daily into one of the South’s leading newspapers. A technical perfectionist and a political moderate, Ochs produced a paper that was attractive, accurate, and fair. Though an ardent Democrat, Ochs resisted the extremism of Tennessee’s Bourbon leaders and instead urged cooperation with the North and moderation towards blacks. Locally he pressed for reform, and the Times became an outspoken advocate of honest, efficient government.
Ochs contributed to the community in other ways as well. He helped establish the town’s first public library, assisted in the effort to establish the Chickamauga-Chattanooga Military Park, and led a movement to preserve much of Lookout Mountain. Ochs was also an important figure in Chattanooga’s Jewish community and contributed heavily to the town’s Reform congregation.
Soon after acquiring the Times, Adolph Ochs emerged as Chattanooga’s greatest booster, and he tirelessly pursued the city’s economic development. Ochs’s efforts helped create a local economic boom in the 1880s, and Chattanooga’s rapid growth brought the young publisher considerable wealth and prestige. Emboldened by his sudden success, Ochs invested heavily in area real estate and organized vast syndicates to develop nearby lands. His plans were soon dashed, however, when land values crashed in 1887, leaving the publisher with huge financial losses.
The Panic of 1893 dealt Ochs another severe economic blow, and by 1896 his modest empire was on the verge of collapse. Desperate for income to pay his mounting debts, he drew on his remaining credit and set out to buy another failing newspaper. Equipped with “$70,000 and a letter from Grover Cleveland,” Ochs acquired the nearly bankrupt New York Times on July 1, 1896. Applying lessons learned in Chattanooga, Ochs turned the metropolitan daily into one of the nation’s great publishing dynasties, and the Ochs-Sulzberger family played a leading role in twentieth-century American journalism.
Adolph Ochs left Chattanooga shortly after his purchase of the New York Times, yet he continued to have an active interest in the community and its development. He died there April 8, 1935, during a final visit to the city he loved and helped to create.