Column – Early Times publisher had an entrepreneurial spirit

Published 6:30 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Community newspaper publishers during much of the 19th and early 20th centuries were printers as well as journalists. In fact, job printing worked alongside advertising to keep many small community papers in business.

Jesse Scott, who published The Smithfield Times from 1930 to 1962, was a good example of the breed. His print shop was constantly looking for business, and that quite likely helped to drive Scott’s decision in the mid-1950s to build the brick and concrete building that has since housed The Smithfield Times.

Scott was a Newport News native, but both of his parents were Isle of Wight natives, so his roots here ran deep. He was only 25 years old when he came to Smithfield in 1930 to guide and, quite probably, stabilize a fledgling weekly paper that had seen a series of managers since it was first published in 1920. 

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By the time he came to Smithfield, Scott had already worked as an apprentice printer at the Newport News Record, as well as the Virginian Pilot and Suffolk News-Herald. He had traveled up and down the East Coast, working as a journeyman printer in New York and Miami newspapers. In 1926, at the age of 21, he founded the Jackson N.C. News, a small paper with a print shop that he operated until 1929.

Prior to his arrival in Smithfield, the paper was controlled by a group of local businessmen. In fact, the paper ran a front page promotional story in 1930 proclaiming just that. It listed W.T. Moody as president, J.T. Chapman as treasurer, A.E.S. Stephens as secretary and R.D. Hunter, editor and manager.

These owners appear to have decided to bring an energetic young newspaper man aboard, and Jesse Scott’s name first appeared Jan. 1, 1931, as managing editor.

At some point very soon after that, Scott became the paper’s owner, but that date is difficult to determine. Oddly, he continued to list himself as “managing editor” for another 12 years, and only began using the title of “Publisher” in 1943.

Jesse Scott was an entrepreneur, always looking for new ways to increase his earnings beyond the newspaper. He was willing to experiment, and if a project failed, he simply came up with another idea and kept plugging. That’s another trait common to small paper publishers, but Jesse Scott seems to have had the characteristic in spades.

Added to that was Scott’s understanding of people’s desire to be entertained, an understanding that prompted him to operate a movie theater.

Less than two years after his arrival, a group of Scott family members from Newport News opened the Smithfield Theatre across Main Street from The Smithfield Times. A year later, Jesse appears to have acquired the theater. A newspaper announcement declared that a “new movie enterprise,” which promised “only the best in pictures,” had bought the theater. Everybody in town knew it was Scott, and it’s a mystery why he chose not to simply say so.

Members of Scott’s family told me years ago that his venture into motion pictures actually predated the opening of the theater on Main Street. According to them, he purchased a small projector that could be carried in his car. He went to rural communities, set up the projector and showed movies to eager customers. It must have been something of a business teaser prior to offering a modern movie theater experience in town.

Scott was also an exceptionally good photographer. He carried a large format camera to scenes of accidents, fires and other important local news events and came back with professional-quality photographs to accompany stories.

Regrettably, the quality of Smithfield Times photos under Scott declined in the 1950s when he acquired an early Polaroid camera. You couldn’t blame a one-man newspaper staff for trying to reduce time spent in the darkroom, but the quality of Polaroids never matched his early work.

He also experimented with printing other publications. He briefly published the Surry Herald as well as a small community weekly that was distributed in Windsor and the more rural sections of Isle of Wight. Mixed in with early copies of the newspaper are other short-lived supplements.

In addition, Scott was engaged in the community, another tradition common to small paper publishers. He was a deacon in Smithfield Baptist Church and at various times, president of the Smithfield Rotary Club and Smithfield Ruritan Club as well as the local PTA,

Most people who knew Jesse Scott and his wife, Lillian, however, remember him shooting photos with his Polaroid camera of 4-H clubs or Boy Scout troops, while Lillian set type on a Linotype machine in the newspaper office.

The late Robert Modlin, who founded Modlin Printing, worked as advertising manager for Scott for several years. Modlin’s son Charlie says his father recalled having to hand-feed every broad sheet of newsprint through a flatbed press to print each issue of The Smithfield Times, tedious and time-consuming work. 

When the Scotts sold The Smithfield Times to Tom and Betty Phillips in 1962, Jesse went to work as a salesman and consultant for Prestige Press in Hampton, thus using his printer’s background right up to retirement in 1970.

By then, the days of multitalented publishers like Jesse Scott were pretty much over. In the 1960s, photographic and other typesetting systems had begun changing the way newspapers were produced. That same equipment changed, and diminished the need for, job printing. The combined newspaper and print shop would soon disappear from most communities, and the multitalented publishers, a la Jesse Scott, along with them.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is