Edward Willis Scripps, the son of James Mogg Scripps, was born at Rushville, Illinois, on 18th June, 1854. His half-brother, James Edmund Scripps (1835-1906) started his own newspaper, The Detroit News in 1873. Scripps and his sister, Ellen Browning Scripps, were both employed on the newspaper.
In 1878 E. W. Scripps borrowed money from his brother and sister in order to produce The Penny Press in Cleveland. This newspaper was highly successful and by 1887 he also owned newspapers in St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Scripps' newspapers were aimed at a mass audience. In his autobiography, Damned Old Crank he argued: "I am one of the few newspapermen who happen to know that this country is populated by ninety-five per cent of plain people, and that the patronage of even plain and poor people is worth more to a newspaper owner than the patronage of the wealthy five per cent." His newspapers were low-priced and tended to support progressive causes and the trade union movement. He once wrote: "I have only one principle, and that is represented by an effort to make it harder for the rich to grow richer and easier for the poor to keep from growing poorer."
In one interview Scripps claimed that he viewed his newspapers as "the only schoolroom the working people had". He added "I am the advocate of that large majority of people who are not so rich in worldly goods and native intelligence as to make them equal, man for man, in the struggle with individuals of the wealthier and more intellectual class".
In 1894 Scripps joined with his half-brother, James Edmund Scripps, and Milton Alexander McRae, to form the Scripps-McRae League of Newspapers. Scripps now had a controlling interest in 34 newspapers in 15 different states.
Scripps founded the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1902. This was the first syndicate to supply feature stories, illustrations and cartoons to newspapers. Five years later Scripps joined with others to form the news service, United Press International (UPI). Scripps later said "I regard my life's greatest service to the people of this country to be the creation of the United Press." Scripps' main objective was to provide competition to the Associated Press.
E. W. Scripps continued to work with his sister, Ellen Browning Scripps and in 1903 they joined together to found the Marine Biological Station in San Diego. She later established the Scripps College for Women in Claremont, California. E. W. Scripps also gave a lot of his money away: "The possessor of great wealth may be, and frequently is, corrupted. No matter how good and moral a man may be, the possession of great wealth must have a certain amount of corrupting influence upon him. The possession of great wealth isolates a man to a great extent from his fellows. This isolation results in a constantly diminishing sympathy for mankind."
Lincoln Steffens and Clarence Darrow met E. W. Scripps when he was 57 years old. Steffens later recalled "His (E. W. Scripps) hulking body, in big boots and rough clothes, carried a large grey head with a wide grey face which did not always express, like Darrow's, the constant activity of the man's brain. He was a hard student, whether he was working on newspaper make-up or some inquiry in biology. That mind was not to be satisfied. It read books and fed on the conversation of scientists, not to quench an inquiry with the latest information, but to excite and make intelligent the questions implied."
Throughout his career E. W. Scripps found that advertisers continually put him under pressure to drop his radical causes. He later recalled: "A newspaper fairly and honestly conducted in the interests of the great masses of the public must at all times antagonize the selfish interests of that very class (the advertisers) which furnishes the larger part of a newspaper's income. It must occasionally so antagonize this class as to cause it not only to cease patronage, to a greater or lesser extent, but to make actually offensive warfare against the newspaper."
In 1911 he decided to publish a newspaper that was completely free of advertising. The tabloid-sized newspaper was called The Day Book, and at a penny a copy, it aimed for a working-class market, crusading for higher wages, more unions, safer factories, lower streetcar fares, and womens right to vote. It also tackled the important stories ignored by most other dailies. According to Duane C. S. Stoltzfus, the author of Freedom from Advertising (2007): "The Day Book served as an important ally of workers, a keen watchdog on advertisers, and it redefined news by providing an example of a paper that treated its readers first as citizens with rights rather than simply as consumers."
Carl Sandburg was one of the journalists employed on the newspaper. Dorothy Day was one of those who read the newspaper and later admitted that it informed her about people like Eugene Debs and organisations such as the Industrial Workers of the World: " Through the paper I learned of Eugene Debs, a great and noble labor leader of inspired utterance. There were also accounts of the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World who had been organizing in their one great union so that there were a quarter of a million members throughout the wheatfields, mines, and woods of the Northwest, as well as in the textile factories in the East." Though the Day Book’s financial losses steadily declined over the years, it never became profitable, and publication ended in 1917.
E. W. Scripps told Lincoln Steffens: "I'm a rich man, and that's dangerous, you know. But it isn't just the money that's the risk; it's the living around with other rich men. They get to thinking all alike, and their money not only talks, their money does their thinking, too. I come off here (his San Diego ranch) on these wide acres of high miles to get away from - my sort; to get away from the rich. So I don't think like a rich man. They talk about the owner of newspapers holding back his editors. It's the other way with me. I get me boys, bright boys, from the classes that read my papers; I give them the editorship and the management, with a part interest in the property, and, say, in a year or so, as soon as the profits begin to come in, they become conservative and I have to boot them back into their class." In 1922 Scripps transferred his business interests to his son, Robert Paine Scripps (1895-1938), who three years later joined forces with Roy W. Howard (1883-1964), to form the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain.
Just before his death E. W. Scripps wrote: "To grow old sensibly, one should always keep one's eyes turned from the past to the future, and continue to strive with all his might to serve those who are coming even more efficiently than those he has served shoulder to shoulder with in the past."
Edward Wyllis Scripps died on 12th March, 1926. A collection of his unpublished writings, Damned Old Crank: A Self-Portrait of E.W. Scripps, was published in 1951.