Yellow Journalism and the Circulation War of 1896
Yellow Journalism and the Circulation War of 1896
Sunday World. During the 1880s the Sunday edition of Joseph Pulitzer’s World increasingly became a collection of features, advertising, and drawings; each issue had forty-four to fifty-two pages. Circulation passed 250,000 in 1887. The young editor was Morrill Goddard, who had a talent for the feature angle on the news. He not only embellished facts but virtually created the pseudo science articles featured in later tabloids, thus increasing the popularity of the World.
Yellow Ink. In 1893 Publisher installed color pressed to print the Sunday supplements, and Goddard used them to expand the comics section, which had been inaugurated in 1889. The most popular cartoon, drawn by Richard Outcault, was “Hogan’s Alley,” which depicted life in the tenements of New York, through the eyes of “The Kid,” a jug-eared, bucktoothed toddler in a dirty nightness. The usual yellow ink gave the pressmen a headache because it took so long to dry, and when they finally formulated a quick-drying shade, they tried it out on the expanse of the boy’s dress. The Yellow Kid was born and in the process heralded a new era of journalism.
Hearst Arrives. In 1895 William Randolph Hearst bought the ailing New York Journal for $180,000 and immediately tried to buy the staff that had made the Sunday World such a success. Hearst’s business cards bearing the words “Call me,” mysteriously turned up on the desks of the Hoffman House, where the publisher handed him an envelope containing $15,000, an instant bonus if he would agree to come over to the Journal. “But I need my writers and artists,” the editor gasped. “All right,” agreed Hearst. “Let’s take the whole staff.” Goddard spent the afternoon depositing the money in various banks, in case Hearst changed his mind. The World Topped Hearst’s offer, but Hearst raised his by another 25 percent. Just one secretary remained at the World.
Two Kids. Pulitzer hired the brilliant, young Arthur Brisbane to replace Goddard, and Brisbane soon drove the circulation of the World past six hundred thousand. To replace Outcault, who had also gone over to the Journal, Brisbane hired George I. Lucks to continue “Hogan’s Alley.” Both papers used the image of the Yellow Kid in their promotions, and he became the indelible symbol for the sensationalistic journalism both papers practiced in their escalating rivarly, thus the term “yellow crepe, don’t let them put the Yellow Kid on my tombstone, and don’t let the Yellow Kid himself come to my funeral. Make him stay over on the east side, where he belongs.” In 1897 Brisbane also defected to Hearst and became editor of the Evening Journal.
Wars. In 1896 the circulation of the Journal topped 150,000 at the price of a penny, so Pultizer cut his twocent price in half. Meanwhile Hearst, as the owner of several silver mines, backed William Jennings Bryan’s fight against the gold standard and gained notoriety in the conservative East. His headlined grew steadily more outrageous, promising miracle cures, immortality, the truth about monsters and dragons, and the secret lives of criminals. Like Pulitzer, Hearst crusaded against political corruption, but he promised to do more than just print words. He carried headlines that boasted of “Journalism that Acts; Men of Action in All Walks of Life Heartily Endorse the Journal’s fight in Behalf of the People.” Hearst installed his own color presses, and his Sunday supplement eventually titled American Weekly gained the largest circulation in the country and maintained it for decades.
Parity. Circulation figures for theJournal and the World hovered around the half million mark in 1896 and 1897. On the day following the presidential election in 1896 each paper sold an astonishing 1.5 million copies. The two titan publishers had set the tone for urban journalism for years to come.
Sidney Kobre, The Yellow Press and Gilded Age Journalism (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1964);
Joyce Milton,The Yellow Kids: Foreign Correspondents in the Heyday of Yellow Journalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1989);
W.A. Swanberg, Citizen Hearst (New York: Scribners, 1961).
YELLOW JOURNALISM. James Gordon Bennett, who founded the New York Morning Herald in 1835, was the first American publisher to introduce sensationalism in news stories, but not until the 1890s was the term "yellow journalism" applied to this kind of news presentation. In 1895 William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, purchased the New York Morning Journal and began a subscription war with Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the New York World. Pulitzer responded in 1896 by creating a color supplement for which staff cartoonist, Richard Outcault, produced a comic strip known
as the "Yellow Kid," named after the main character who wore a yellow nightshirt. The great popularity of this comic strip led Hearst to drop the price of his paper, to begin his own color supplement, and to hire Outcault away from the World. The role of Outcault's Yellow Kid character in these events lent the name "yellow journalism" to the circulation wars between the two papers and to the sensationalistic journalistic practices that this competition spawned.
Both New York City papers exploited the Cuban crisis of the 1890s, and the reporting surrounding these events was perhaps yellow journalism's most famous episode. Headlines screamed the latest developments and feature stories detailed Spanish atrocities. When a young Cuban woman was jailed for resisting rape, Hearst orchestrated her rescue by one of his reporters and publicized her travails widely. This lurid sensationalism fueled the anger of the American public and made it difficult for President McKinley to effect a peaceful resolution, particularly after Hearst published on 8 February 1898 a private letter by Spain's minister to the United States, which insulted McKinley. When the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor, Hearst had a field day. Although investigation ruled the explosion an accident, Hearst used his paper, including the comic strip character "the Yellow Kid," to denounce Spain and whip the American public into a frenzy for war. While some of their practices were outrageous, the tactics pioneered by Pulitzer's World and Hearst's Journal influenced the style and content of newspapers in most major American cities, and many of yellow journalism's innovations, such as banner headlines, sensational stories, copious illustrations, and color supplements have become a permanent feature of newspapers today.
Bleyer, Willard G. Main Currents in the History of American Journalism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927.
Campbell, W. Joseph. Yellow Journalism. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.
Cohen, Daniel. Yellow Journalism. Brookfield, Conn.: Twenty-First Century Books, 2000.