Press Box

The Lost World of Joseph Pulitzer

A century ago, newspapers were bigger, bolder, and more beautiful. What happened?

Who says the blind can’t see?

As the 19th century began to fade, so, too, did the eyesight of newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer. Yet his New York World became ever more visual, reaching its ophthalmic zenith in the Sunday editions published around the turn of the century.

Despite the historical importance of the World and other old newspapers, libraries across the globe have been ditching the bound volumes in their collections to save space. Sometimes libraries simply trash the sets; sometimes they auction them to cannibals who razor out specific pages or advertisements and resell them.

In the late 1990s, novelist turned paper worshipper Nicholson Baker learned that the British Library was jettisoning its New York World collection from the turn of the 19th century. Pronouncing an original set of the World “a good deal rarer than a Shakespeare First Folio or the Gutenberg Bible,” Nicholson and his wife, Margaret Brentano, rescued the set. They eventually found the World a proper home at Duke University, but before surrendering custody they photographed select pages and have now persuaded the Bulfinch Press to publish the glory that is The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911).

Having conquered St. Louis, in 1883, budding press magnate Joseph Pulitzer purchased the money-losing, 15,000-circulation World from financier Jay Gould. Pulitzer fused political muckraking with pure sensationalism to make the paper the hugely successful voice of the city’s Democratic working class. By 1898, 1.5 million copies reached readers daily.

Rewriting the rules of New York City journalism, he was as likely to run an exposé of tenement life as he was a story (illustrated, of course) headlined “French Scientist and Explorer Discovers a Race of Savages with Well-Developed Tails.” The World established the first separate sports department at a New York daily, writes biographer Denis Brian in Pulitzer: A Life, and forged another path by aggressively hiring female journalists. One of his most famous recruits was investigative reporter Nellie Bly, who once checked herself into an insane asylum to reveal its stark living conditions.

But what made this vivid copy sing was its graphic and typographical presentation. Pulitzer’s people bulldozed the dreary, gray newspaper design template. The World ran headlines across a couple of columns, not just one, or completely across the page if it really wanted to provoke readers.

Halftone photos, dramatic and comic illustrations, inset graphics, hand-lettered headlines, and buckets of color enlivened these artful pages. See, for example, the treatment given to a cover story about New York skyscrapers in the World’s Jan. 20, 1907, Sunday magazine, which beckons the reader to enter its universe. Today’s newspaper designers construct layouts so they can be comprehended in a flash. But the World’s designers invited the eye to explore, to soak up detail, to appreciate subtlety, to partner with the brain in forming a lasting mental image. The skyscraper layout resembles an Advent calendar, saying “open me” in countless spaces.

The heavy reliance on illustrations makes the World look old-timey, but, once you accept the conventions of the period, the pictures take on a three-dimensional quality that rivals the finest modern photography and reproduction. There’s something fantastically real to me about this Aug. 13, 1911, World magazine cover illustration of man-meets-beast in “The Submarine’s Encounter—Whales!” (This whale page and others cited in this piece were originally posted at Baker’s American Newspaper Repository Web site.)

A designer assigned to such an oceanic story today would probably scatter the collected images—whale, submarine, surface ship, dolphin, shipwreck, shark, splashing surf, seaweed, and chase ship—over a couple of pages. But, like many World layouts that Baker and Brentano salvaged, the submarine’s pas de deux with the whale tells a complete graphic story on one page; its images stimulate the reader’s appetite for text.

A big fat Sunday newspaper such as the World was the pre-radio era’s home-entertainment center, and a family could peel off sections for its various constituencies: the women’s pages for mom, sports pages for big brother, the front section for dad, the fashion pages for sister, the comics for the kids. Today’s newspapers compress comics into cellblocks sometimes measuring as small as 1 inch by 4 inches. The World’s comic “strips” routinely ran a full page, as this installment of the Plunk Family shows, and the pages were much larger than those found in the modern broadsheet. This gave comic artists the real estate to tell a story, to set up a punch line, to convey a sense of motion and the passage of time. The World was crafted to be unpacked, savored, and saved. It encouraged readers to “waste” time reading and rejected the notion that the newspaper experience should be a quickie that catapults you into a busy day.

The downsizing of graphic ambition continues apace today, as American publishers contemplate following their British cousins and converting their already slimmed broadsheets into tabloids. Just this week, the Guardian adopted the reduced “Berliner” format, a mere postage stamp compared with the aircraft carrier deck that was the World.

World layouts contain a carnival aspect, a promise of adventure that enlists the reader as a participant. I suspect that for many, the arrival of the Sunday World on the kitchen table was the high point of the day. Still, let’s not swoon too long over the New York World just because she was beautiful. The ghastly reportorial standards of the period foul plenty of her pages.

But in the spirit of saying kind things about the dead, let me tell a story from two decades ago: When I was figuring out how to edit an alternative weekly in Washington, D.C., my senior editor, Jon Cohen, suggested that I visit the archives of the defunct Washington Star at the public library for inspiration.

It proved a terrific recommendation. The turn-of-the-century Star often spoke more loudly to us than what we read in the Washington Post each morning. It was our little secret that the long-dead Star helped chart our editorial course. Had we gotten our hands on a book as magnificent as The World on Sunday, I’m sure it would have inspired us to go back to the future graphically.


Note to Slate Design Director Kathleen Kincaid: For our upcoming redesign, let’s replicate the look and feel of the New York World. Compose your design quibbles and send them to (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)