Influential mid-twentieth-century journalist and newspaper editor Edward J. Meeman was born in Evansville, Indiana, to German-born, Catholic, working-class parents. His father was a cigar maker and a local union official. Meeman received his education in Evansville public schools, graduating from high school in 1907. Following a brief service in the U.S. Navy during World War I, Meeman took his first newspaper job as a four-dollar-a-week reporter for the Evansville Press. He later served as editor there, reported for the Terre Haute (Indiana) Times, and wrote for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a Cleveland-based feature story and editorial syndicate.
In 1921 the Scripps-Howard Company selected Meeman to organize and edit the Knoxville News, later the News-Sentinel, an afternoon daily. After a decade of Meeman’s management, the newspaper dominated its rivals in advertising revenue and circulation. Meeman used his editorial position to advocate federal spending for the improvement and development of the Tennessee River. He also supported the conservation and recreational development of what later became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In 1931 Scripps-Howard sent Meeman to manage another languishing property, the Memphis Press-Scimitar. Meeman again supported local economic development. Anticipating the extension of benefits to West Tennessee, Meeman was an early advocate of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He also promoted public health and played a prominent role in raising support for the modernization of local medical facilities.
Meeman soon found himself at odds with the political machine of Edward Hull “Boss” Crump in Memphis and Shelby County. Meeman supported reforms such as a council-manager form of municipal government, permanent voter registration, the use of voting machines, and the hiring of African Americans as policemen. The racially liberal editor opposed the machine’s practice of buying African American votes through the poll tax. In 1948 Meeman led an anti-Crump band of reformist lawyers, union leaders, and businessmen in support of Estes Kefauver in his Democratic primary victory over the machine candidate and subsequent election to the U.S. Senate.
Meeman considered England and Germany his “spiritual homelands.” In the early 1930s he went to Germany to study forestry and conservation techniques; he returned as a convinced opponent of Nazism. In the 1940s he advocated U.S. membership in the Atlantic Union, a federation of western democracies against the threat of the Soviet Union. His anticommunism did not prevent Meeman from arguing as early as 1964, however, for an end to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.
Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1946, Meeman retired from the editorship of the Press-Scimitar in 1962. Until his death on November 15, 1966, he served as conservation editor of the Scripps-Howard syndicate. As a young man, Meeman was briefly a Socialist; in middle life, he became affiliated with Christian Science; throughout his life, he opposed what he considered to be shoddy, ugly, and mendacious.
When he died, the former four-dollar-a-week cub reporter left a multimillion-dollar estate, of which the largest portions went to institutions of higher learning in his adopted hometown of Memphis. The Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, north of the city, recognizes his importance in the history of American environmentalism. The Edward J. Meeman Biological Station, now a part of the University of Memphis and adjacent to the forest, facilitates research in natural history, ecology, and environmental biology.
Edwin Howard, ed., Edward J. Meeman. The Editorial We: A Posthumous Autobiography (1976); Clark Porteous, “The Two Eds of Memphis–Meeman and Crump,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 45 (1991)