Press Box

The Great Press War of 1897

The New York Times’ Adolph Ochs won. Or did he?

Press scholar W. Joseph Campbell recently voyaged to the late 19th century and has returned with a brilliant new book that pegs 1897 as the exceptional year in which “the contours and ethos of American journalism began to take shape.”

Campbell’s cross-century road trip, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, rarely leaves New York City, where three schools of journalism captained by three men in their 30s were battling for supremacy. In one corner stood Adolph Ochs, who preached an impartial, just-the-facts-ma’am approach to newspapering, and who in 1897 was enjoying his first year as the proprietor of the New York Times.

In the second corner was press lord William Randolph Hearst, who practiced the “journalism of action” that “gets things done” at his crusading New York Journal, where he had become publisher in 1895. He spent wildly on new technology, covered sporting events aggressively, and defined his paper by its activism in public affairs. Others slagged Hearst’s style as “yellow journalism.”

In the last corner was Lincoln Steffens. Appointed city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser in late 1897, he advocated literary journalism, an anti-journalistic model and reaction against the growing commercialism of the news. He preferred hiring young college graduates over professional journalists and urged them to report the story behind the story.

The journalistic upheavals documented in The Year That Defined American Journalism speak across the centuries because our media atmosphere is equally volatile, what with the emergence of the Web, the proliferation of cable TV news and opinion, the decline of newspapers, and the rancorous debate over standards. All this would be grist for a book that sought to define 1997 as another defining fin de siècle year for journalism.

Unlike many media critics and scholars, Campbell finds as much to admire in the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst as he does to censure. Hearst’s Journal “injected itself as a prominent actor in solving crime, extending charity, and thwarting suspected abuses of municipal government,” he writes. Hearst gave bylines to reporters, hired talented female journalists—unlike the Times of the day—and paid his stars very well. He also inflated social issues beyond their true importance with relentless coverage designed to concentrate public opinion on his side. Campbell can’t resist comparing Hearst’s yellow Journal to the yellowish ways of the New York Times under Executive Editor Howell Raines, who tried to shame the Augusta National Golf Club into accepting rich women as members with the paper’s news overkill in 2002.

To be sure, Hearst’s Journal ran oddball Sunday features speculating about the sun spinning out a new planet, advocated war with Spain, “was known to err badly in its daily reporting,” and was inclined not to acknowledge its errors. When Campbell cites a press observer from the time writing that Hearst could create the best English-language newspaper if he were to “cut his newspaper in two, publish the real, vital news in one part, and the sensations, rot, and nonsense in the other,” you can’t help but think how much you could improve CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC by ripping Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, Rita Cosby, and other sensation-seeking ratings whores from their lineups.

Back in 1897, critics decried the “decay” of American journalism—sound familiar? Politicians sought ways to undermine the pugnacious press. Reacting to the provocations of Hearst’s Journal, the New York Senate passed a bill prohibiting publication of caricatures without first obtaining the permission of the target. The measure died, as did a law introduced to the U.S. Congress requiring newspapers to reveal the names of the writers of editorials. Advancing technology was changing the look and feel of newspapers: In 1897, the New York Tribune published the first halftone photograph in a mass-circulation newspaper; color presses were being deployed; newer models of typewriters—some as portable as today’s laptops—were coming into vogue in newsrooms.

The 1897 paradigm clash took place as newspapers reached their greatest historical popularity: 2.61 newspaper copies circulated within the average urban dwelling in 1900 compared with 0.72 copies in 2000. (Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s Journal cost 1 cent, which is about 22 cents in today’s money. To escape a potential circulation scandal, Ochs dropped the price of his money-losing Times from its premium price of 3 cents to 1 cent in 1898.) The household penetration of newspapers was probably even higher in the nation’s largest cities like New York. There were 2,226 daily newspapers publishing at the end of the century compared with 1,457 today. New York was home to 58 dailies, some of them in foreign languages. The Yiddish Forverts, today’s Forward,conveniently debuted in 1897.

The newspaper of 1897 was the sole purveyor of news until the advent of newsreels in the 1910s (Hearst was a pioneer, by the way) and radio in the 1920s. Its comics, fiction, and features made it the home-entertainment center. Ample advertisements made it the shopping bazaar and wish book, too, both of which explain why so many homes consumed more than one daily each day. The competition for readers in New York was intensified, writes Campbell, by the decline of the previously dominant newspapers—Pulitzer’s World, Charles A. Dana’s New York Sun, James Gordon Bennett Jr.’s New York Herald, and Whitelaw Reid’s New York Tribune. Even so, Pulitzer sensed enough of the crisis to order his business manager to recruit a spy within Hearst’s Journal to find the source of the paper’s ideas and identify what dissatisfied talent might be willing to leave Hearst and join him.

The weakness of Campbell’s fine book is that the triangular paradigm punch-out he promises to chronicle was really a one-on-one contest between Hearst and Ochs, whose newspapers openly warred. Steffens’ literary journalism appeared only in the city pages of the Commercial Advertiser, which he edited. “The experiment disintegrated in just a few years,” Campbell writes. Other New York journalists “sneered” at Steffens’ efforts, and Campbell presents no evidence that other newspapers imitated his model. Steffens gets a call-out whenever the traditions of feature writing are discussed, but his experiment doesn’t rate a half a dime, let alone a paradigm in newspaper history.

Ochs’ restraint and impartiality eventually bested Hearst’s action school as the most influential journalistic model, but his victory has less to do with the superiority of his methods than Hearst’s reckless overindulgence of his own. Campbell catalogs Hearst’s errors: Exaggerated coverage of the Spanish-American War damaged his reputation and his paper’s; his attempt to wed his political ambitions with the editorial direction of the Journal backfired; the financial demands expansion placed on his media empire starved the Journal of the resources needed to produce the “journalism of action”; and the negatives associated with Hearst swamped his positives as others accused him of encouraging correspondents to send fake news, boosting circulation with the sordid and the trivial, and of deliberately rousing the rabble.

Campbell cites as one reason behind Hearst’s downfall this 1931 observation from Walter Lippmann that yellow journalism is almost impossible to sustain:

When everything is dramatic, nothing is dramatic. When everything is highly spiced, nothing after a while has much flavor. When everything is new and startling, the human mind just ceases to be startled.

Is that really true? The Hearst tradition of making everything dramatic continues to live large on cable TV. It disgorges oceans of yellow journalism each week in both its news and opinion slots. At CNN, Lou Dobbs pushes the tabloid limits of xenophobia and on the network’s sister channel, Headline News, Nancy Grace specializes in unsolved and weird murders. At MSNBC, the recently demoted Rita Cosby mixes a dumber version of Nancy Grace with whatever trash she can fish off the wires. With the exception of Brit Hume’s program, Fox glows an incandescent yellow at most opportunities.

Although the cable news and opinion shows don’t draw very large numbers—The O’Reilly Factor, the most successful, attracts an average audience of 2 million—they inform the mainstream news agenda in a way that Adolph Ochs wouldn’t approve.

Campbell notes that Ochs would not approve of the “implicit advocacy”—as Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent put it in his now famous 2004 column—that appears in Times coverage of gay rights, gun control, and environmental regulation. Ochs would probably extend an “attaboy” to Executive Editor Bill Keller for his subsequent promise in a newsroom memo to reach “beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation.”

Campbell concludes his book by writing that the “central planks of the Times’ counteractivist model still guide American journalism.” I won’t argue with that assertion, but I’m convinced that somewhere in hell, “loser” William Randolph Hearst is suing everybody for royalties.


What’s the yellowist piece of journalism you’ve ever read in Slate? Send nominations to Also, can anyone tell me why the street boxes for the Express, the Washington Post Co.’s free daily tabloid, are incandescent yellow? (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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