a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Biographies » Gannett, Frank (1876-1957)

Gannett, Frank (1876-1957)

Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations.  If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate 

The Gannett Company, founded by Frank Gannett in Rochester in 1906, is an international corporation with headquarters in McLean, Virginia. Its daily newspaper group circulation is more than 7 million and includes USA Today, a highly popular, nationally distributed daily.

Frank Gannett

Frank Gannett Dies:
A Report from the Unitarian Register,
February 1958

Frank Gannett, 81, Rochester, N.Y., publisher and one of the nation’s most eminent Unitarian laymen, died December 3, 1957, of complications resulting from a fall suffered the preceding April.

Funeral services were conducted in the First Unitarian Church of Rochester by Dr. David Rhys Williams, who had been Mr. Gannett’s minister for nearly 30 years.

Mr. Gannett was noted for the development of his publishing group of 22 newspapers in 18 cities. The Gannett Company also owns four radio and three television stations.

Mr. Gannett’s other achievements and activities were numerous, and he was the recipient of many honors.

A Republican, he campaigned as an avowed presidential candidate in 1939 and 1940, and his name went before the convention at which Wendell Wilikie was nominated. He urged 25 years ago the inclusion of a Secretary of Peace in the President’s cabinet.

Kynie Gannett, circa 1955.

Kynie Gannett, circa 1955. © 2001 George Eastman House, Rochester, NY.

Mr. Gannett also was noted for his philanthropic support of research, especially in the newspaper and aviation industries and in the fields of health and medicine. One of the projects he supported produced the Teletypesetter, a typesetting device which can be operated at long distances by electrical impulses. Another was a $500,000 grant by the Gannett Newspaper Foundation to build a student health clinic at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. He also was keenly interested in the development of public recreation facilities.

Honors conferred upon Mr. Gannett included the Civic Medal of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences, received jointly with his wife; honorary membership in Phi Beta Kappa; the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award; an honorary degree of doctor of journalism from Bradley University and a long list of other honorary doctor’s and master’s degrees.

Mr. Gannett’s newspaper ventures began with his purchase in 1906 of a half-interest in the Elmira, N. Y., Gazette. The Gazette absorbed competition in the Ithaca-Elmira area, and he bought in 1918 two Rochester newspapers, merging them into the Times-Union, and moved to Rochester.

There he looked up a distant cousin, Rev. William Gannett, who was minister of the Unitarian church. Mr. Gannett shortly became a Unitarian and remained throughout the ensuing years a leader in the church.

Frank Gannett, 1953.

Frank Gannett, 1953. © 2001 George Eastman House, Rochester, NY.

Noting that most of the persons attending the funeral were familiar with the story of Mr. Gannett’s life, Dr. Williams said that “there is one phase of that story about which I may be presumed to speak with some measure of authority. I refer to his religious life.

“Frank Gannett took his religious duties seriously. He made a conscientious effort to be present in the church of his choice on as many Sunday mornings in the year as his health and other obligations would permit.

“I have many reasons to cherish the memory of this man, but I shall cherish it most of all because be faithfully supported not only the freedom of the press over the years, but also the freedom of this pulpit during a 30-year ministry which must often have tried his faith in such a freedom. He was one who could disagree completely with the content of any specific sermon and still find inspiration in the sincerity of its utterance.

“lt has been a rare privilege and a challenging responsibility to serve as his minister, for his religion was bound by no narrow creed. It was to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God.”

Gannett book

Excerpts from A History of Gannett

Frank Gannett was born Sept. 15, 1876. The nation was still smarting over the deaths nearly three months earlier of Col. George A. Custer and 210 soldiers of the 7th Cavalry at the hands of the Sioux in the Battle of Little Big Horn. Transcontinental rail travel had been achieved only seven years earlier.

Three years before Gannett bought into his first newspaper partnership in Elmira, N.Y., in 1906, Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved the first powered flight of a heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Gannett saw warfare intensify from the Spanish-American War’s mounted cavalry charges to World War II’s atomic devastation.

Just a few weeks after he died in 1957, Explorer I was the first U.S. earth satellite to be launched into orbit at Cape Canaveral, Fla. And within a year, National Airlines began domestic jet airline service in the United States with a flight between New York City and Miami.

The contrasts in Gannett’s own life were equally remarkable. At his death he had achieved wealth that amply qualified for the denigrating cliche “filthy rich.” Yet he was born in upstate New York’s hardscrabble country to struggling farmers who could accurately be described as dirt poor.

Despite having the means to indulge the trappings of leisure, he set a personal example of his belief in hard work.

He was accused by labor of being a pinch-penny, for which there is considerable evidence, yet condemned as a traitor by fellow businessmen for his early advocacy of profit-sharing and pension plans.

As a child of struggling parents, he wrote and spoke fervently against the railroads, the trusts and monopolies. As a successful businessman, he was distressed by envious condemnations of his newspapers as monopolistic predators on their communities.

His early newspapers staunchly supported the Democratic Party, yet he went on in his 60s to mount a quixotic and ill-fated campaign for the Republican nomination for president.

Frank Gannett's philanthropy

The products of Gannett philanthropy:
Background: The Frank Gannett Building at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which houses photography, printing science, and graphic arts programs.
Inset left: An animation produced by the RIT graphic arts program.
Inset right: The Frank E. Gannett Memorial Library at Utica College

He was an acquaintance and early supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but founded and mobilized the National Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government, which was the primary deterrent to FDR’s attempt to pack the U.S. Supreme Court.

He went from evangelical isolationism in the late 1930s to unstinting support of the Allied effort to win World War II. His eloquent tributes to First Amendment freedoms were occasionally sullied by intemperate and unsubstantiated attacks on Roosevelt.

Stereotypical caricatures of him as a grasping profiteer contradicted his ready philanthropies, not the least of which was placing most of his fortune into a foundation to provide job security for Gannett employees and assist the communities they served.

Vin Jones, who succeeded Fay Blanchard as head of the News and Editorial Office, recalled, “One of the odd things about Frank Gannett was he hated radio and television. God, he couldn’t stand them, although he owned several radio stations. He never wrote anything that he didn’t just absolutely castigate radio and television.”

The Gannett Company

Gannett Headquarters

The headquarters of the Gannett Company.

Founder of a modest newspaper chain made up of medium-sized dailies in New York and New Jersey, Frank Gannett paved the way for the establishment of a $3 billion multimedia conglomerate. By the 1930s, the Gannett chain was already among the six largest in the nation. After Gannett’s death, his corporation converted to public ownership and became the largest newspaper company in the nation. It also pioneered the successful national publication USA Today in the 1980s.

A native of New York, Frank E. Gannett (1876-1957) worked his way through college at Cornell and purchased the Elmira Star-Gazette in 1906 after a brief newspaper stint in Ithaca and Pittsburgh. By the end of the 1920s, Gannett owned 15 dailies in medium-sized markets in New York as well as a few papers in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois. Determined that his papers would reflect editorial independence, Gannett allowed local editors to set editorial policy. Gannett showed a keen business sense as well as a regard for the nurturing of public goodwill. The principal supplier of newsprint, International Paper Company, owned stock in four Gannett papers in the 1920s and sought to influence their policies. After the Federal Trade Commission publicized the extent of International’s newspaper influence in 1928, Gannett quickly paid off his debts to International and ended dealings with the company.

The major expansion of the Gannett chain, directed by chief executive Paul Miller, came after its founder’s death in 1957. Miller anticipated an important trend in media industries in 1967 when he made Gannett a publicly owned company. The company possessed only about 16 dailies in 1957, but 20 years later, its 73 dailies made Gannett the largest newspaper chain in the United States. Much of the expansion came by purchasing smaller chains rather than individual properties: Westchester Rockland (1964), Federated and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin group (1971), and Speidel (1976). Although Gannett had the most papers in 1977, it ranked fourth in circulation among the chains, with 2.9 million.

Gannett and the typesetter

Frank Gannett’s interest in technological advancement was keen. He was one of the earliest champions of the teletypesetter, believing—correctly—that it would dramatically change the way newspapers gathered and reported news.

The major splash by Gannett came in 1982 under chief executive Allen Neuharth with the launching of the national circulation, computer copy-set USA Today. It was a serious gamble that has made Gannett even more influential and wealthy. USA Today was published five days a week and featured concise news stories interspersed with charts, graphs, pictures, and lots of color. It targeted a vast general-interest audience, with a focus on national and international news events, entertainment, financial news, and sports. Gannett spent a lot of money to research its future product before beginning publication. After one year, the circulation surpassed the 500,000 figure; by 1989, its circulation of 1.3 million was second only to the Wall Street Journal. However, advertising did not keep pace with sales, and USA Today lost money from the outset. USA Today was also published in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Switzerland.

The USA Today experiment did not divert Gannett from its previous newspaper acquisition program. In fact, Gannett began to purchase some major dailies under Neuharth’s successor John Curley. The company paid $315 million for the Louisville Courier-Journal and obtained the Des Moines Register from the Cowles family for $200 million, both in 1986. It also added the Detroit News to its holdings for $717 million. By 1987, Gannett revenues passed the $2.7 billion mark, compared with 1967 revenues of $186 million. In 1988, Gannett newspapers numbered 89 dailies with a circulation of over 6 million—no longer first in the number of papers, but number one in circulation. Gannett had also diversified into broadcast ownership (12 percent of revenues) advertising (7 percent of revenues), but newspapers continued to dominate company holdings. Gannett established its own news service—open only to company newspapers and broadcast stations. The company also founded a Center for Media Studies in New York City, headed by Everette Dennis, to examine various elements in media such as technology and ethics.

— From The Media in America by Daniel Webster Hollis, III

The Gannett Company Profile

Gannett Co., Inc. is a large diversified news and information company. Here is a brief rundown of its operations in the USA and abroad:

OPERATIONS WORLDWIDE: Gannett is an international company with headquarters in McLean, Va., and operations in 43 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Hong Kong.

NEWSPAPERS: Gannett is the USA’s largest newspaper group in terms of circulation. The company’s 95 daily newspapers in the USA have a combined daily paid circulation of 7.7 million. They include USA TODAY, the nation’s largest-selling daily newspaper, with a circulation of approximately 2.3 million. USA TODAY is available in 60 countries worldwide.

In addition, Gannett owns a variety of non-daily publications and USA WEEKEND, a weekly newspaper magazine of 23.6 million circulation delivered in 591 Gannett and non-Gannett newspapers.

Newsquest plc, a wholly owned Gannett subsidiary acquired in mid-1999, is the largest regional newspaper publisher in England with a portfolio of more than 300 titles. Its publications include 15 daily newspapers with a combined circulation of approximately 600,000. Newsquest also publishes a variety of non-daily publications including Berrow’s Worcester Journal, the oldest continuously published newspaper in the world.

BROADCASTING: The company owns and operates 22 television stations covering 17.7 percent of the USA.

ON THE INTERNET: Gannett has more than 100 web sites in the United States and the United Kingdom including USATODAY.com, one of the top newspaper sites on the Internet.

OTHER VENTURES: Other company operations include Gannett News Service; Gannett Retail Advertising Group; Gannett TeleMarketing, Inc.; Gannett New Business and Product Development; Gannett Direct Marketing Services; Gannett Offset, a commercial printing operation; Gannett Media Technologies International; and Telematch, a database marketing company.

HISTORY AND FINANCIAL: Founded by Frank E. Gannett and associates in 1906, Gannett was incorporated in 1923 and listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1967. The company has approximately 51,500 employees. Its more than 265 million shares of common stock are held by approximately 13,700 shareholders of record in all 50 states and abroad.

Gannett recorded $6.3 billion in operating revenue in 2001.

Gannett services map

Map of states, with the United Kingdom, served by Gannett newspapers or television stations.

A Battle Against Gannett

Almost a century after the founding of the Gannett Company—and nearly half a century after the death of the founder—an attack on the corporation was published in 1996 by the University of Missouri Press: The Chain Gang: One Newspaper versus the Gannett Empire. It was written by Richard McCord, a celebrated journalist who had worked with Bill Moyers for years on the staff of Newsday, New York. Concerning this investigative report Ben Bagdikian—Unitarian Pulitzer Prize winning journalist—declares:

"The Chain Gang"“Richard McCord’s The Chain Gang takes the losing battle for the soul of American newspapers from the euphoria accounts on financial pages to show what corporate news chains can mean in human terms to the people and the vitality of the victimized cities and towns. His is a unique account of the power and depredations of the Gannett Chain under its glib empire builder, Allen Neuharth. It goes behind the facade of slick public information and financial killings for investors to show what happens when a ruthless and ambitious wheeler-dealer gets control of our news.”

Were he able to do so, might not the socially alert Unitarian, Frank Gannett, vigorously agree with the attack of Richard McCord?