Edited by James Dale
Biographer James McGrath Morris shares selected excerpts from his book Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power
LIKE Alfred Nobel, Joseph Pulitzer is better known today for the prize that bears his name than for his contribution to history. This is a shame. In the 19th century, when America became an industrial nation and Carnegie provided the steel, Rockefeller the oil, Morgan the money, and Vanderbilt the railroads, Joseph Pulitzer was the midwife to the birth of the modern mass media.
What he accomplished was as significant in his time as the creation of television would be in the 20th century, and it remains deeply relevant in today’s information age. Pulitzer’s lasting achievement was to transform American journalism into a medium of mass consumption and immense influence. He accomplished this by being the first media lord to recognize the vast social changes that the industrial revolution triggered, and by harnessing all the converging elements of entertainment, technology, business, and demographics.
In 1883, when Pulitzer purchased the New York World newspaper, he launched his journalistic revolution modestly. The dramatic changes for which he would eventually become known were still years away. At this point, he sought solely to condition his editorial staff to his principles of how a paper should be written and edited. This effort, however modest it may seem, is how the World began on its path to becoming the most widely read newspaper in American history. In an era when the printed word ruled supreme and 1,028 newspapers competed for readers, content was the means of competition. The medium was not the message; the message was. This was where Pulitzer started.
The paper abandoned its old, dull headlines. In place of “BENCH SHOW OF DOGS: PRIZES AWARDED ON THE SECOND DAY OF THE MEETING IN MADISON SQUARE GARDEN,” on May 10 came “SCREAMING FOR MERCY: HOW THE CRAVEN CORNETTI MOUNTED THE SCAFFOLD,” on May 12. Two weeks later the World’s readers were greeted with “BAPTIZED IN BLOOD,” on top of a story, complete with a diagram, on how 11 people were crushed to death in a human stampede when panic broke out in a large crowd enjoying a Sunday stroll on the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge. In a city where half a dozen newspapers offered dull, similar fare to readers each morning, Pulitzer’s dramatic headlines made the World stand out like a racehorse among draft horses.
If the headline was the lure, the copy was the hook. Pulitzer could write all the catchy headlines he wanted, but it was up to the reporters to win over readers. He pushed his staff to give him simplicity and color. He admonished them to write in a buoyant, colloquial style comprising simple nouns, bright verbs, and short, punchy sentences. If there was a “Pulitzer formula,” it was a story written so simply that anyone could read it and so colorfully that no one would forget it. The question “Did you see that in the World?” Pulitzer instructed his staff, “should be asked every day and something should be designed to cause this.”
Pulitzer had an uncanny ability to recognize news in what others ignored. He sent out his reporters to mine the urban dramas that other papers confined to their back pages. They returned with stories that could leave no reader unmoved. Typical, for instance, was the World’s front-page tale, which ran soon after Pulitzer took over, of the destitute and widowed Margaret Graham. She had been seen by dockworkers as she walked on the edge of a pier in the East River with an infant in her arms and a 2-year-old girl clutching her skirt. “All at once the famished mother clasped the feeble little girl round her waist and, tottering to the brink of the wharf, hurled both her starving young into the river as it whirled by. She stood for a moment on the edge of the stream. The children were too weak and spent to struggle or to cry. Their little helpless heads dotted the brown tide for an instant, then they sank out of sight. The men who looked on stood spellbound.” Graham followed her children into the river but was saved by the onlookers and was taken to jail to face murder charges.
For Pulitzer a news story was always a story. He pushed his writers to think like Dickens, who wove fiction from the sad tales of urban Victorian London, to create compelling entertainment from the drama of the modern city. To the upper classes, it was sensationalism. To the lower and working classes, it was their life. When they looked at the World, they found stories about their world.
In the Lower East Side’s notorious bars, known as black and tans, or at dinner in their cramped tenements, men and women did not discuss society news, cultural events, or happenings in the investment houses. Rather, the talk was about the baby who fell to his death from a rooftop, the brutal beating that police officers dispensed to an unfortunate waif, or the rising cost of streetcar fares to the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue and the mansions needing servants. The clear, simple prose of the World drew in these readers, many of whom were immigrants struggling to master their first words of English. Writing about the events that mattered in their lives in a way they could understand, Pulitzer’s World gave these New Yorkers a sense of belonging and a sense of value. In one stroke, he simultaneously elevated the common man and took his spare change to fuel the World’s profits.
The moneyed class learned to pick up the World with trepidation. Each day brought a fresh assault on privilege and another revelation of the squalor and oppression under which the new members of the laboring class toiled. Pulitzer found readers where other newspaper publishers saw a threat. Immigrants were pouring into New York at a rate never before seen. By the end of the decade, 80 percent of the city’s population was either foreign-born or of foreign parentage. Only the World seemed to consider the stories of this human tide as deserving news coverage. The other papers wrote about it; the World wrote for it.
The World’s stories were animated not just by the facts the reporters dug up but by the voices of the city they recorded. Pulitzer drove his staff to aggressively seek out interviews, a relatively new technique in journalism pioneered by his brother, among others. Leading figures of the day were used to a considerable wall of privacy and were affronted by what Pulitzer proudly called “the insolence and impertinence of the reporters for the World.”
Not only did he have the temerity to dispatch his men to pester politicians, manufacturers, bankers, society figures and others for answers to endless questions, but he instructed them to return with specific personal details that would illustrate the resulting articles. Pulitzer was obsessed with details. A tall man was 6 feet 2 inches tall. A beautiful woman had auburn hair, hazel eyes, and demure lips that occasionally turned upward in a coy smile. Vagueness was a sin.
As was inaccuracy. A disciple of the independent press movement, Pulitzer was convinced that accuracy built circulation, credibility, and editorial power. Words could paint brides as blushing, murderers as heinous, politicians as venal, but the facts had to be right. “When you go to New York, ask any of the men in the dome to show you my instructions to them, my letters written from day to day, my cables,” Pulitzer told an associate late in life. “You will see that accuracy, accuracy, accuracy, is the first and the most urgent, the most constant demand I have made on them.”