History of the Portsmouth Herald
By Howard Altschiller
Nailing down the date of the first edition of the Portsmouth Herald newspaper has proven as elusive as confirming the birth date of its first editor and publisher, F.W. Hartford, a seven-time Portsmouth mayor and leading supporter of many of the city’s most enduring institutions.
For decades, the Herald masthead said the paper was founded Sept. 23, 1886. In 2011, theoretically the paper’s 125 anniversary, editors asked historian J. Dennis Robinson to research the Herald’s history for a story commemorating the major publishing milestone.
"Sorry to spoil the party, folks,” Robinson wrote. “The first copy of the newspaper actually appeared two years earlier on Sept. 23, 1884. And it wasn’t exactly the Herald. Back then it was called the Penny Post ...”
The Herald’s longtime publisher John Tabor, now retired and serving on the Portsmouth City Council, wrote a history in the early 2000s and, like Robinson, came away with more questions than answers.
Both histories do, however, agree on some important facts.
In 1891, Frank Jones, “King of the Alemakers,” the richest and most powerful man in Portsmouth, put up $2,000 to purchase The Penny Post and
named Hartford editor and publisher. Hartford was also given an ownership stake in the paper.
“Frank Jones had a lot to gain by investing in the local media,” Robinson wrote. “A former N.H. congressman and Portsmouth’s youngest mayor, Jones came to own local banks, hotels, railroads, utilities and insurance companies.”
In a biography of Hartford written for the Athenaeum's Literary Lions project, Tabor described the newspaper landscape in the city when Jones and Hartford took over The Penny Post.
“It was one of six newspapers on the scene: The Evening Times, The Morning Chronicle, The Portsmouth Republican (dailies) and The Portsmouth Journal of Literature & Politics and the New Hampshire Gazette (weeklies).”
Hartford quickly bought up the competition, including the Chronicle, which memorably described “the lump of diseased tissue which serves him as a brain,” and consolidated all the titles under The Portsmouth Herald banner.
As Robinson discovered: “The first mention of Hartford’s new Portsmouth Herald pops up in the 1897 City Directory. … Historian Ray Brighton (a longtime Herald editor) dates the founding of the Herald as 1897.” Robinson reports finding a copy of the Herald on the top floor of the Athenaeum from July 1, 1897. “The start-up paper sold for 2 cents,” Robinson reported.
FW Hartford passed the paper on to his son JD Hartford, who successfully grew the paper until his death in 1963. Hartford left the paper to his wife, Margaret, and key newspaper personnel, including Brighton (whose son Mark is a city gadfly), Roger R. Thompson, Azio Ferrini (father of former mayor Tom Ferrini) and Dick Blalock (father of former mayor Jack Blalock).
Former Mayor Peter Weeks, a local developer, is the grandson of JD Hartford and the great-grandson of FW Hartford.
The newspaper stockholders sold the paper to Thomson Newspapers of Canada in 1968.
In 1972, the Herald moved its offices from Congress Street to Maplewood Avenue, where the paper operated until its 2007 move to Pease Tradeport, where it continues to print and publish the Herald, Foster’s Daily Democrat (acquired in 2015), four weekly newspapers and numerous commercial print jobs, including the Lowell Sun.
In 1997, Thomson sold the Herald to Ottaway Newspapers, a subsidiary of Dow Jones. In 2007, when media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought Dow Jones to acquire the prestigious Wall Street Journal, the Herald and other small Ottaway daily newspapers were swept along in the deal. In 2013, News Corp. sold the Herald to Gatehouse Media, a newspaper holding company that merged with Gannett Media in 2019.
Under Gannett, the Herald and the other Seacoast Media Group publications have turned their focus to growing paid digital subscribers to their two websites, Seacoastonline and Fosters.com, which combined boast more subscribers online than the Herald ever had in print.
Whatever its actual founding date, the Portsmouth Herald has been on hand to cover every major milestone in the city for more than a century, from the Portsmouth Peace Treaty in 1905, urban renewal, the creation of Strawbery Banke and Market Square, closure threats and last-minute reprieves to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the tragic sinkings of the USS Squalus and USS Thresher, the closure of Pease Air Force Base and accompanying recession, the resurrection of Pease into a thriving Tradeport, the discovery of human remains below Chestnut Street and the construction of the African Burying Ground to the development boom of the 2020s that is both praised and cursed as the city prepares for its 400th anniversary in 2023.
Howard Altschiller is the executive editor of Seacoast Media Group and The Portsmouth Herald since 2003.