Scripps was born in 1835 in London to James Mogg Scripps and Ellen Mary (Saunders) Scripps. His father was a prominent bookbinder and came to America in 1844 with six motherless children. Scripps grew up on a Rushville, Illinois, farm. Securing employment at the Chicago Tribune in 1857, Scripps moved to Detroit in 1859 and in 1862 became manager of the Detroit Tribune and also became at length part owner and manager of the Detroit Daily Advertiser. When the paper was burned out in 1873, Scripps took his $20,000 insurance money and with it start his own newspaper.
In 1873, Scripps decided to tap the growing class of working men and women by launching a newspaper, The Evening News (later, The Detroit News). Running with an idea new for its time, he filled the paper with inexpensive advertising and instructed his reporters to write "like people talk." His competitors called The News "a cheap rag" and labeled his reporters "pirates," but Detroiters loved it.
With his younger half-brother, E.W., James later had an interest in newspapers located in Cleveland, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Chicago. After a lengthy European acquisition tour, James aided prominently in founding the Detroit Museum of Art (later, the Detroit Institute of Arts), in 1889 presenting it with a collection of old masters costing $75,000 (in 1889 dollars). Scripps died in 1906.
James's sister and one-time partner, Ellen Browning Scripps, was the founding donor of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography located in La Jolla, California and was the founder of Scripps College, located in Claremont as part of the 5Cs. She was also instrumental in helping younger brother E.W. get started in the newspaper industry, resulting in the E.W. Scripps Company media conglomerate.
Back in Detroit, James’ eldest daughter, Ellen Warren Scripps (1863-1948), married George Gough Booth, who subsequently became the publisher of the Evening News Association and independently founded Michigan’s Booth Newspapers chain (acquired by S.I. Newhouse's Advance Publications in 1976). Together, George and “Nellie” also founded the world-renowned Cranbrook Educational Community in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.