Thomas Family stewardship of News & Press ends after 64 years
By Samantha Lyles
May 1 marks the end of an era in Darlington County as The News & Press leaves the hands of the Thomas family for the first time in 64 years. As ownership moves to The Herald Group (another family-owned newspaper business), we take a moment to appreciate the steady hand on the till provided by the Thomas family.
The patriarch of local journalism, Morrell Thomas Jr., ran The News & Press for half a century. Born in Spartanburg, he served in the Army during World War II, then earned English and Journalism degrees at Wofford College and received his master’s degree from Emory University. Thomas was just 23 when he took the reins at The Lancaster News, becoming South Carolina’s youngest newspaper editor and winning numerous awards.
A stint in politics followed, and Thomas’ duties as executive secretary for Lancaster district Congressman James P. Richards took him to the House floor in Washington and the United Nations in New York City. But the newspaper business soon called him back.
In 1956, Sara Coffee, then publisher of The News & Press, asked Thomas if he’d be interested in a move to Darlington. He thoughtfully accepted the offer, viewing the move as a sort of homecoming. Thomas’ grandfather, A.P. Turner, was minister of Mt. Elon Baptist Church in Lydia, and Morrell Jr. had spent childhood summers in Darlington County planting tobacco and honing his entrepreneurial spirit by selling hard candy to fellow field workers.
Thomas took to Darlington immediately, settling into a small house on Orange Street and starting a family. He and wife Margaret Ann had already welcomed son Morrell III (aka Morrey, then only 2 months old), and daughter Ann Boyd would soon follow.
As he guided The News & Press into a new era, Morrell became known for his boundless energy. A typical day might involve writing and editing reams of copy, sweeping the building from stem to stern, lunching with a civic club or taking a meal in the boisterous dining room at The Lunch Box, attending a Carolina Bank board meeting, then covering a local government assembly to cap things off.
By 1966, Thomas had bought full ownership of the newspaper from Coffee and her sister, Susie Green. Thanks to a thriving tobacco market, business all over Darlington was booming and advertising dollars flowed in steadily. The News & Press became a keystone of the community.
“Back then, the newspaper industry was so vibrant, it was electrified,” says Morrey Thomas. “If somebody had an event or if an announcement was made, The News & Press was the first place they called.”
Thomas did not take that responsibility lightly, and the paper won scores of awards from the South Carolina Press Association. That commitment to excellence was shared by Margaret Ann, who won a number of writing awards from the SCPA.
Over the decades as Darlington and South Carolina grew and times changed, Thomas resisted the trend to shift the paper’s focus away from community concerns. He understood how to cover pivotal world events and controversial local stories without burning bridges, and he passed that journalistic diplomacy on to his children.
When Morrell passed away in 2005 at the age of 80, his daughter Ann Boyd stepped up from graphic design into the role of publisher. Under her leadership, the paper took on a fresh look and paid extra attention to the social and entertainment possibilities of our area. She established a special magazine insert – Five O’Clock Friday – to spotlight fun and interesting things around the Pee Dee.
A graduate of the University of South Carolina, Ann Boyd loved golfing, dogs, equestrian life, and her hometown, which she served by maintaining high standards for the News & Press. Tragically, her health failed after only a few years; in 2008 cancer ended her life at the age of 45. During her illness, the Thomas family called on Morrell III to help keep the paper running.
Retired Navy veteran Morrey was, at the time, running on all cylinders managing the Brunswick Beacon. Over 19 years, Thomas helped owner Eddie Sweatt build the Beacon into the largest community newspaper in the nation, with a weekly circulation of 17,000 and papers that averaged 80 pages. He tried splitting time between the Beacon and News & Press, but it soon became clear that something had to give. When his sister passed on, Morrey decided to move home to Darlington and carry on the family tradition.
During his 12-year tenure as publisher, Morrey took an active role in the SCPA, working his way up to the presidency – a title once held in the female division by his mother. He also saw the News & Press garner numerous SCPA awards, including multiple wins for General Excellence.
He says that even though the boomtown days have given way to leaner years for the whole industry, keeping Darlington’s newspaper going was a labor of love, and the title of publisher brought with it a sense of duty. After all, the News & Press has covered every aspect of Darlington County life since 1874, and Thomas has confidence that this ownership change will preserve that legacy.
“I believe in my heart that community newspapers like the News & Press will always have a place because we’re going to cover things that a daily newspaper doesn’t. Little League games, daddy and daughter dances, the sweet things about life in your hometown – a community newspaper satisfies those needs,” says Morrey. “We also serve as a community watchdog, making sure people know what’s going in with their government, things that would otherwise go unchecked.”
Thomas hopes that Darlington County will welcome new publisher Johnny Daniels with open arms as he and the Jordan family usher the News & Press toward its future.
“(Johnny) is one of the absolute finest newspaper professionals that I’ve ever known. He’s dedicated and loyal and a 20 hour a day kind of guy,” says Morrey. “The future of the News & Press for Darlington County and the City of Darlington could not be in finer hands.”
With the transfer complete and the course dialed in, there seems to be only one thing left to say to the Thomas family for all their years of dedication to our community… thank you.
Thank you to Morrell and Margaret Ann and Ann Boyd and Morrey, for your hard work, your judicious ethics, your generosity, and your unflagging love for Darlington County.