On January 10, 1901, Marcellus E. Foster, a young reporter for the Houston Post, was assigned to cover the anticipated first oil well at Spindletop, near Beaumont. Foster recognized that he was witnessing an event of epic importance when that historic event occurred, so he gambled thirty dollars, a week's pay, and bought an option on the well. A week later he sold his option for $5,000, which in those days was a king's ransom. He returned to Houston with his new-found wealth and a dream of owning his own newspaper. Within days he had sold his friends on the idea, and they invested an additional $20,000. On October 14, 1901, the Houston Chronicle was founded in a squalid three-story building on Texas Avenue in the heart of downtown Houston. The Chronicle, which sold for two cents a copy, had a circulation of 4,378 at the end of its first month of publication, remarkable in a city of 44,638. Foster was a risk-taking, enterprising man not afraid to take on the establishment when he believed Houston's best interests were not being served. And the people of Houston responded favorably. By 1904 the paper's circulation had grown so well that Foster started a Sunday edition with forty-four pages of news and advertising and a revolutionary feature, four pages of comics in color. By 1908 Houston's growth was attracting national attention and the newspaper had outgrown its modest home. Foster turned to Jesse H. Jones, a young builder and entrepreneur, who, just twelve years after coming to the Bayou City, was a man of growing civic leadership and stature. They struck a deal under which Jones would build a ten-story plant and office building for the Chronicle at the corner of Travis and Texas and receive a part interest in the paper under a buy-sell agreement. Subsequent additions produced the granite and glass offices and printing plant that now occupy the entire block where Jones first built.
In 1922 the Ku Klux Klan reared its hooded head. An overwhelming number of officeholders in Harris County were known to be members of the Klan. The city became engulfed in fear and hatred, a city divided. The Chronicle stood tall in the front ranks in the fight against the Klan, and Foster was the standard bearer. He wrote blistering editorials attacking the Klan, while the Houston Post's less aggressive attitude led Klan opponents mistakenly to believe that the Post was in favor of the Klan. But Foster's stand was expensive for the Chronicle. Readership, circulation, and advertising all suffered so much that the paper's department heads pleaded with the editor to soft-pedal his attacks. "Before I do that," Foster answered angrily, "I'll dismantle the presses and throw the pieces into Buffalo Bayou."
As time went by, Jones became enamored with the newspaper business and the opportunity it gave him to help guide the growth of Houston. Under the terms of the buy-sell agreement Jones became the sole owner of the paper. Foster then joined the Houston Press as editor and continued his journalistic fervor until his death in 1938. After Foster's departure, C. B. Gillespie was named editor. In 1929 he was succeeded by William O. Huggins, who served until 1934. Subsequent editors have been George W. Cottingham (1934–48), M. E. Walter (1948–61), W. P. Steven (1961–65) Everett Collier (1965–79), P. G. Warner (1979–87), and Jack Loftis (1987-). Under Jones's stewardship the Chronicle became the voice and power that helped him accomplish great things for his adopted city. He built some sixty buildings and gave generously of his time, his finances, and his influence in the affairs of the city, state, and nation. When he died in 1956, he and his wife, Mary Gibbs Jones, left the Houston Endowment with resources that have financed scores of living memorials to the Joneses' affection for Houston, one of them the Houston Chronicle. With the death of Jones, his nephew, John T. Jones, Jr., was named president, a position he held until his resignation in 1966. Houston Endowment president Howard J. Creekmore then assumed the role of publisher.
In March 1964 the Chronicle purchased the assets of the Houston Press, its evening competition. In 1967 Creekmore named Frank E. Warren president of the paper. When Warren died suddenly in 1972, vice president Richard J. V. Johnson, who joined the paper in 1956 as a promotion-copy writer, was named president. Under his leadership the paper made its greatest gains. Beginning in 1973, Johnson began to move the Chronicle's evening circulation to morning. When the conversion was completed, there were fewer than 20,000 evening subscribers and the paper was well ahead of the Post in total circulation. Johnson initiated a plan to modernize every department so that today the paper's operations are highly automated. When the Houston Endowment had to divest itself of the profit-making paper under new state laws, the Chronicle was sold to the Hearst Corporation in 1987 for $415 million, at that time the highest price ever paid for an American newspaper. Johnson continued to serve as president until 1990, when he assumed the title of chairman and publisher. At that time his close associate, longtime Chronicle executive Gene McDavid, was named president. In April 1995 the Houston Post closed its doors, and the Hearst Corporation purchased the Post's assets from the Media News Group, making the Chronicle the only major daily in Houston. On November 1, 1995, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported its circulation to be 541,478 morning daily and 743,689 Sunday. That year the Chronicle was the ninth-largest daily and Sunday newspaper in the nation.