Until 1953, Rockdale was one of the state's most unstable newspaper markets. In Rockdale's past were the graveyards of many newspapers that had flared brilliantly for a few years and then disappeared, without even a semblance of their name or masthead left to recall them. Among them was the "Conyers Solid South" in the 1880s and 1890s, whose editor of that Period, M.D. Irwin, was the main force in organizing the Georgia Press Association. Irwin was the first GPA President, in 1887, and served another term as President in 1891. Irwin and "The Solid South" both disappeared from the Conyers scene in the 1890s, and information about Irwin's subsequent career is meager. "The Solid South" changed its name, and became known as "Hale's Weekly, after J.N. Hale who had bought it from Irwin.
There were a number of other weekly newspapers before and after "The Solid South" that served the city and county. The first one, apparently, was "The Rockdale Register," started in 1876 by Judge A. C. McCalla. A "Conyers Courier" appeared in 1878, published by W. P. Reed, a former employee of "The Register," That same year another weekly, "The Examiner" started publication, although it seems to have been "The Register" under a different name.
In 1883, "The Conyers Weekly" appeared, with J. N. Hale as an assistant editor. Hale would be associated with several Conyers newspapers in the next few years. Then came "The Solid South" in 1885, published by John R. Maddox and Irwin. Two years later both "The Conyers Weekly" and "The Solid South" would send representatives to the first meeting of the Georgia Weekly Press Association. Both Marcus D. Irwin and J. R. Irwin were listed among the charter members representing "The Conyers Solid South," and R. J. Guinn was listed from "The Conyers Weekly." Later "The Weekly's" name was changed to "The Rockdale Banner," and under the ownership of W.S. Wardlow, it became the leading weekly in Rockdale's crowded newspaper field at the turn of the century. "The Weekly" and "The Banner" were merged in the 1900s and for a time were published semi-weekly.
But it was "The Conyers Times," started by the Harper Brothers in 1909, which became the dominant newspaper in the county for the next 30 years. By 1891, it was the only newspaper being published in Conyers. Edward Augustus Harper, know as Guss, was editor and publisher of this paper for about six years until his untimely death on New Year's Eve, 1914, at the age of 44. Based on reprints of editorials from throughout the state, which are preserved in an old issue of "The Times," Harper had quickly become one of the most respected editors in Georgia. "The Clarkesville Advertiser" called "The Times" one of the state's brightest newspapers. "The Walton News" said, "'The Conyers Times' is one of the most interesting exchanges that comes to our table, and we read it weekly with pleasure." "The Lawrenceville News-Herald" praised Harper for having "established 'The Times' so firmly that it drove able competition from the field and sustains its reputation as one of the best Georgia weeklies, and is the only newspaper in Rockdale County."
From these comments, it seems that Harper and "The Times" had a strong impact in newspaper circles despite the short period in which he was associated with the paper. "The Times" continued as the only newspaper in Rockdale County from 1911 until 1928 when "The Rockdale Record" began with J. M. Towns as editor. "The Times" and "Record" were merged just two years later in January 1930, with Towns continuing as editor for nearly 20 years.
A Covington Based paper comes to Conyers
Another new weekly came on the scene in 1941 when "The Conyers News" was established by Belmont Dennis of Covington. Dennis operated several newspapers, including "The Covington News." His general manager, W. Thomas Hay, lived in Conyers, providing an advantage in the competition for the meager advertising market in a county which then had only 8,000 residents. Dennis bought "The Conyers Times-Record" in 1952, and it soon disappeared from the scene, adding another tombstone to Rockdale's huge newspaper graveyard.
Hay sold ads for "The Covington News" and "The Conyers News" as a combination to advertisers wanting to cover both counties. Before 1-20 extended into these counties, they were not considered suburban. Dennis and Hay were a successful team for nearly 20 years before they came to a sudden parting of the ways in 1953. Hay had gone to work for Dennis in 1933, two years after Dennis took over The Covington News. Dennis, who had only a grade school education, was one of Georgia's most colorful and inventive publishers for nearly three decades. He had joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 13 by telling officials he was 18. He was selling intertype machines when he got a chance to buy "The News" for $10,000. Dennis had also been press foreman for the Charleston, South Carolina, "Evening Post," and in 1935 he contracted to buy a 32-page rotary press from "Post." In those days few weekly publishers in Georgia had rotary presses, as they mostly used flatbeds, but Dennis was planning to get into the printing business in a big way.
Soon he managed to land a contract with Sears Roebuck Department Store to print a million-plus circulars on a regular basis. Hay recalls that the Covington plant was not large enough to handle the printing, packaging and shipping of such a large job. "We worked on the sidewalks, in empty buildings across the street and anywhere we could find space," he says. Later Dennis got the printing contract for the weekly "Georgia Market Bulletin" plus other printing jobs that soon made his plant one of the busiest and most prosperous in the state.
"The Covington News" also grew as a newspaper, and Dennis became active in state politics, twice running for lieutenant governor. He spent more and more time away from the office, always wintering in Florida and sailing on his 65-foot yacht, which was the third and largest yacht he owned. Hay, as general manager, supervised the Covington and Conyers papers, and was also manager of the Dennis-owned Covington radio station. "During this time I felt quite secure in my position," Hay recalls. But events were building for a split in the working association of Hay and Dennis, with consequences that would greatly affect the newspaper business in Newton and Rockdale counties.
Dennis' brother-in-law, Leo Mallard Sr., had joined the company about 1950 and took an increasingly active role in its management. Hay asked Dennis for some assurance that his future with the company was secure in the event Mallard took over, but Dennis said he couldn't offer any. So in the summer of 1953, Hay plunged out on his own and started weekly newspapers in both Conyers and Covington, in competition with the two Dennis papers. Hay called his Covington weekly "The Citizen-Observer" and his new Conyers paper "The Rockdale Citizen." Its first edition appeared in July 1953.
A Unique Battleground
Thus was joined a unique battle in Georgia newspaperdom, two new paid-circulation weeklies battling two established weeklies in counties next to each other. Of the four newspapers in the battle the one which was weakest at the time and seemed to have the most doubtful future was "The Rockdale Citizen," which 30 years later would not only be one of the survivors but a daily and the strongest of the survivors. Recalling the all-out battle, Hay wrote years later:
It was dog eat dog for five years, with Dennis and me trying to better the other. Dennis started running a box on Page 1 that said '20,000 readers.' We came back with a box that said '20,001 readers.'" Prices for ads dropped as low as 15 cents an inch. When I left 'The Covington News' it was running 32 to 36 pages a week, and the number rose to more than 40 pages later on. We started out in Covington with 24 pages a week but soon dropped to an average of 12 pages and hung on. We got the services of a professional circulation company, gave away two automobiles, started a paper in Lithonia and ended up with about $800 in the bank from the circulation drive. That got our combined (Covington and Conyers) paid circulation up to about 5-6,000.
In 1958 both of us were losing money and Dennis approached me about a settlement. About that time my papers got a big break by receiving a trial series of ads from Colonial Stores (subsequently Big Star). They alternated between the two competing papers in each city, and the legal advertising was also on alternating years between the papers. That brought things to a head. Dennis and I met one night in his office and struck a deal. He offered me the Conyers papers and $10,000 in exchange for closing down my Covington paper. At that time, of course, the Covington market and papers were the largest.
Dennis and I remained good friends. He often stopped in Conyers to visit and showed a genuine interest in my success or failure. There was always a sort of father-son relationship between us despite our five-year battle.
Hay now had the only newspaper in Rockdale County, and he added a commercial printing shop and an office supply business. The newspaper was still small, compared to "The Covington News." Newton County had twice the population of Rockdale at that time, and Covington had been a major trade, industrial and educational center for years. But Interstate 20 was coming to both counties, and the one it helped most was the one closest to Atlanta, which was Rockdale.
Hay and his brother, S. M., his wife Jewell, and later his daughter, Elizabeth, were the key management personnel on "The Citizen" and its related operations from 1958-1977, as the county more than doubled in population, and most important for the newspaper, many new retail businesses opened. The open fields around the I-20 intersections began filling up with shopping centers.
"The Citizen" became a semi-weekly (Tuesday and Thursday) in 1972 and by 1976 Hay had ideas of turning it into a daily. In preparation, he employed two circulation men to convert "The Citizen" from mail-delivery to carrier-delivery. Hay by now was 66, however, and he had built "The Citizen" into a valuable property. Several companies had contacted him about a possible sale. One contact was from Millard Grimes, who in 1976 was head of a newspaper group based in Opelika, Alabama. Grimes had bought "The South Fulton Recorder" in February 1975 and had noticed among the exchange papers at Fairburn that the Atlanta suburban newspaper that seemed to have the most ads was "The Rockdale Citizen."
One day he dropped by "The Citizen" office in Conyers and introduced himself to Hay. They had a friendly talk and Grimes told Hay that his company would like to make an offer if Hay ever considered selling. "In about 18 months, I might be interested," Hay said. That was in February 1976. In August 1977, Grimes got in touch with Hay again. At that time Grimes was forming a new company, "Grimes Publications," and was in the process of selling "The Opelika-Auburn News." He told Hay "The Citizen" would be the flagship of his new company. An agreement was reached on virtually the exact offer Grimes first made. Hay kept the commercial printing company (today this still operates as THP Co.) and Grimes got the newspaper. Grimes, primarily a daily-oriented publisher, hoped to follow through as soon as possible on Hay's plan to go daily.
Hay had been publisher and his wife, Jewell, was the bookkeeper or business manager. Their daughter, Elizabeth (Libby) Staples, served as editor for several years and was the general manager at the time of the sale. Grimes, a strong believer in local-oriented publishers, asked Ms. Staples to succeed her father as publisher, putting her in line to become the first woman publisher of a general circulation daily newspaper in Georgia.
The Citizen Becomes a Daily
The sale was completed on December 9, 1977, and less than nine months later on August 1, 1978, The Rockdale Citizen published its first daily (Monday through Friday) edition. Staff members at the time included Fred Turner, editor; Jane Patterson, advertising manager; Jenell Orr, business manager; Tom Barry, sports editor; Harvey Cowan, photographer, Roger Young and Vickie Garner, composition. All of these, including Ms. Staples, the publisher, had been with "The Citizen" virtually all of their adult careers.
(The above is an excerpt from The Last Linotype , a story of Georgia newspapers published in 1995 by permission of the author, Millard Grimes).
In 1994 Grimes decided to put the Rockdale Citizen on the market and in June of that year negotiated a sale to Gray Communications out of Albany, Georgia. The paper operated under Gray's ownership with little change until Richard Rae joined the company as publisher in February, 1996.
Rae appointed Alice Queen, former editor of the Covington News, as editor of the paper. Expansion of the production facility was also begun as the newly-acquired sister paper, The Gwinnett Daily Post, also published by Rae, was printed at the Conyers facility.
In July, 1996 a deal was made with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games for the Citizen to be distributed on the shuttles to and from the equestrian events at the Georgia International Horse Park. In order to handle this the Citizen had to switch to morning delivery and add a Saturday edition in order to provide results for Friday events and schedules for Saturday.
This worked out very well and after the Olympics ended it was decided that the morning publishing cycle and Saturday edition would be retained.By early 1997, the circulation and page volume of the Gwinnett and Rockdale papers had grown to the point where they could no longer be printed on the six units of once-around press housed in the Citizen building in Olde Town, Conyers.
In May, 1997 new ten unit, twice-around presses and related production equipment had been installed in a new production facility located on Sigman Road. Pages for both newspapers were then transmitted electronically to this site for printing and packaging.
Expansion Into Newton County
In the latter part of 1999 planning began on an expansion of the Citizen into adjacent, Newton County. With Covington and Conyers just eight miles apart and with more and more news stories written that involved both counties this seemed a logical step.Many residents of Conyers worked in Newton County as likewise, many from Newton worked in Conyers. Similarly, there was much interplay among families where grandparents or siblings of those in one County lived in the other. Athletic events involving the five high schools (three in Rockdale, two in Newton) meant teams played against each other in the same leagues and both counties faced similar problems coping with traffic and the expansion of Atlantans moving to the suburbs.
As a result, the Newton Citizen was launched in February, 2000. The paper was almost identical to the Rockdale Citizen with certain key pages re-made and edited to focus on stories more of interest to the Newton County audience. At the same time the paper moved from six to seven day publication adding a Sunday paper and, as Rae pointed out on a column in that first Sunday edition, the Citizen raised the number of Sunday papers in the USA from 898 to 899.Then, on April 20, 2004 the decision was made to spin the Newton Citizen off as a stand alone newspaper. Management felt that the Covington/Newton County market was strong enough to support it's own daily newspaper and the Newton Citizen was established as a daily newspaper, published Monday through Friday.
The new Newton daily, published Monday through Friday, still shared stories of mutual interest to both Counties with it's sister paper in Rockdale County but had a much more local flavor than before. The Rockdale paper continued to be published Monday through Sunday each week with it's weekend editions available in both Counties, and it, in turn concentrated heavily on news relating to Rockdale County.
Later in 2005, on the final day of the year, Gray Television Inc.'s board of directors approved a spinoff of its newspaper publishing and wireless business, giving the Rockdale and Newton papers a new owner. The move put the two papers under the banner of Triple Crown Media in Lexington, Ky.
The company was renamed Southern Community Newspapers in 2010 and is now owned by Golden Tree, a private equity firm.
Today the newspapers are published three days a week in print — Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday— and daily online from consolidated offices in Conyers. The Rockdale Citizen is the legal organ for Rockdale County. Both newspapers are members of the Georgia Press Association.