Evolution of News: Phase 2

Phase 2: The Rise of the Times

The New York World, revived by Joseph Pulitzer in 1883, and the New York Journal, bought by William Hearst in 1895, were the two largest newspapers of the late nineteenth century. In their age, these newspapers faced the same moral opposition from their contemporaries such as the Herald and the Tribune, which had themselves been its target five decades ago.

Growth of Advertising

Still selling at a penny a copy, Pulitzer invented the practice of selling ads on the basis of circulation. The ratio of ad-space to content quickly shifted from 30-70 to 50-50. Ads accounted for 44% of revenue in 1880, and grew to 55% by 1900. This was timely; as manufacturing output as well as consumption grew, so did advertising. Pultizer’s move transformed ad-space into a commodity that could be bought and sold by advertising agents that managed their clients’ ad spend. Instead of judging their advertisers, newspapers were now subject to scrutiny from them.

In setting the paper’s tone, Pulitzer repeatedly appealed to “the people”, and frequently resorted to a crusade with attention-grabbing headlines and exposes. Yet, his sensationalism had more to do with style than substance. The use of illustrations, larger headlines, articles that brazenly self-advertised the newspaper’s circulation, and the attention the newspaper received from reputable figures formed the elements of the World’s sensational stories. In contrast to the 1830s when the penny papers discovered that everything, including ads could be news, in the 1880s, newspapers discovered that everything including news could be an advertisement for themselves.

The Times They Are A Changin’

Yet, it was the New York Times that was to define the highbrow standard of newspaper reporting in the forthcoming decades. Bought by Adolph Ochs in 1896, it had a daily circulation of just 9,000 copies compared to the World’s 600,000 and the Journal’s 430,000. “All the News That’s Fit to Print” first appeared on the editorial page two months after the takeover, emphasizing decency and accuracy of information. In Oct 1898, the Times lowered its price from three cents to a penny. Circulation climbed from 25,000 (1898), to 75,000 (1899), 82,000 (1900), 121,000 (1895), 192,000 (1910), 343,000 (1920). Ochs’ explanation was that people bought the World and the Journal because they were cheap, not because they were sensational. Given an alternative of “a clean newspaper of high and honorable aims, which prints all the news that is fit to print, and expresses its editorial opinions with sincere conviction and independence,” they would much prefer it to base sensationalism.

Garet Garett, an editor of the Times, wrote about Ochs in his diary, “His ambition is to produce a highbrow newspaper for intellectuals,” but noticed:

“Intellectually he is the inferior of any man at the council table… I am aware, however, that the presence of Mr. O. gives our thoughts and expressions an elasticity that they did not have in his absence. None values his mental processes highly, and yet, he has a way of seeing always the other side that stimulates discussion, statement and restatement, and leaves a better product altogether than is approached in his absence.”

Turns out that Ochs had a better understanding of the crowd’s emotions, and could anticipate its reactions better than others at the table could.

Still, it is not clear what made the Times more respectable. Was it the people who read it? Was it the “information-driven” and orderly view of the world that appealed to the educated and wealthy classes, compared to the “entertainment-driven” and chaotic view of the World that appealed to the newly literate and aspiring? Was the Times for the rational person, compared to the World which was for the masses for whom things were unusual or unpredictable?

The Times certainly delivered more detailed financial information, and political views that matched the affluent class conservatism. It sensed the need for differentiation through decency, and transformed news from an angry crusade or a guilty pleasure into an intellectual necessity.

Yet, nothing about newspaper journalism suggested a need for objectivity. World War I was yet to break the bubble of bounded rationality, and skepticism was yet to enter the collective conscience.

Next – Phase 3: The Ideal of Objectivity

Previous – Phase 1: The Penny Papers

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