Pulitzer, Joseph (1847-1911)

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PULITZER, JOSEPH (1847-1911)

Joseph Pulitzer was a Hungarian-born American journalist and innovative newspaper publisher of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but he is perhaps best known as the founder of the Pulitzer Prize.

Recruited by an American agent, Pulitzer immigrated to the United States in 1864 to serve for one year in the Union army during the U.S. Civil War. Afterward he drifted, arriving in St. Louis, Missouri, in the autumn of 1865. Pulitzer studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1867. That same year he became a naturalized citizen. He began reporting for the German-language newspaper Westliche Post in 1868. In 1869, Pulitzer was elected to the Missouri state legislature, where he gained prominence fighting graft and corruption in the St. Louis county government. He later bought a controlling interest in the Westliche Post and then sold it for a considerable profit. In 1878, Pulitzer bought the bankrupt St. Louis Dispatch and merged it with the St. Louis Post, which then became the leading newspaper of the city. In 1883, he turned the Post-Dispatch editorial duties over to subordinates and moved to New York City to purchase (for $346,000) and reinvigorate the financially troubled New York World, which had a circulation of 15,000. Within four years, Pulitzer turned the New York World into New York's leading newspaper, with a record-breaking circulation of 250,000. By the mid-1890s, the New York World was earning yearly profits estimated at $1 million.

Pulitzer's rise to journalism titan took place in the dazzling context of a burgeoning society. From 1870 to 1900, the U.S. population doubled. Immigrants flooded cities and mass-production techniques were stimulating commerce. Newspapers were becoming big business. Pulitzer appealed to the growing immigrant population by using simple language and clear writing. He published editorials of high character and verbally fueled crusades against poverty, crowded slums, and discrimination. Pulitzer urged the poor to educate their children rather than sending them to work. His determination to effect reform and be a voice for the underprivileged was reflected in his ten-point platform, which was published in 1883 and advocated the taxing of luxuries, inheritances, large incomes, monopolies, and privileged corporations. It also proposed a tariff for revenue, reforming the civil service, punishing corrupt officials, prosecuting vote-buying, and punishing employers who coerced employees in their voting behavior.

Pulitzer was responsible for many publishing innovations. For example, he attracted advertisers by reserving more space for advertisements and pricing that space on the basis of circulation. He used illustrations, banner headlines, and large display type. He introduced the sports page, a color magazine section, and the first color comics.

Pulitzer understood that news could be manufactured. Nellie Bly's sensational reporting was a popular feature. She went undercover as a patient in an insane asylum so she could report on the abuses that were going on there. She also managed to beat the fictional record of Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg by circling the world in less than eighty days—completing the trip in seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes, and fourteen seconds. Pulitzer cleverly promoted his paper with such content, but the New York World overall, under his leadership, was a paper based on news and service to the common citizen. Many journalism historians deem him to be the most innovative and effective newspaper editor in American history.

After Pulitzer was well established as a newspaper publisher in America's largest city, a younger imitator became his fiercest competitor. William Randolph Hearst, of the wealthy Hearst mining family, took over the New York Journal in 1895 after building a successful circulation track record as publisher of the San Francisco Examiner. Gene Wiggins, in Three Centuries of American Media (1999), put it this way: "Hearst did everything Pulitzer did, but on a grander scale.… Hearst had learned from the master and now was ready for a little oneupsmanship" (p. 161). According to Wiggins, "what Pulitzer did with genius, Hearst did with money" (p. 161). Pulitzer was the innovator; Hearst was the imitator.

James Wilson and Stan Wilson, in Mass Media/Mass Culture (1998), called this period of fierce competition between Hearst and Pulitzer, which lasted into the early 1900s, "one of American journalism's most degrading circulation wars" (p. 135). It was thought to be degrading because the key weapon was sensationalism—news coverage that emphasized the lurid, emotionally riveting, and titillating, such as sex crimes, gruesome domestic violence, and gossip. "Yellow journalism" is the pejorative term that came to represent such content. The idea for the term was based on a comic strip character that wore a yellow, sack-like garment and was featured in Pulitzer's New York World. Hearst enticed the cartoonist, Richard Outcault, with higher pay, but Pulitzer hired another cartoonist to continue a strip featuring a similar character.

Media historians generally regard Hearst rather than Pulitzer as the most flagrant publisher of sensationalism during this era, but many of his tactics were already in use, some pioneered by Pulitzer and, before him, by Wilbur Storey of the Chicago Daily Times. With a clever metaphor, Wiggins (1999) described it this way: "… editors like Storey poured the foundation for the yellow journalism period, Pulitzer put up the frame while Hearst finished the roof" (p. 158).

Although Pulitzer engaged in sensationalism to sell newspapers, he also practiced ideals that characterize modern journalism. A famous exhortation to his staff was "Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!" At the time of Pulitzer's death, his fiercest competitor had nothing but praise for the man. Hearst said in an obituary, as reported in W. A. Swanberg's 1967 book Pulitzer, "[A] mighty democratic force in the life of the nation and in the activity of the world has ceased; a great power uniformly exerted in behalf of popular rights and human progress is ended. Joseph Pulitzer is dead" (p. 412).

The Pulitzer Prize continues Joseph Pulitzer's legacy of journalism excellence. Under the terms of an agreement made between Pulitzer and Columbia University in 1903, and later made a part of his will, the Pulitzer Prize Fund derives from a gift of $2 million that Pulitzer bequeathed to Columbia. The gift also established Columbia's School of Journalism. The first awards were made in 1917, and they continue to be bestowed annually on the first Monday of May by the trustees of Columbia University, acting on the recommendations of the Pulitzer Prize Board of the university's Graduate School of Journalism. The board is guided by the principles that Pulitzer set forth in his will. In addition to fourteen award categories in journalism, various awards are given for books, drama, and music.

See also:Bly, Nellie; Hearst, William Randolph;Journalism, History of; Newspaper Industry, History of.


Juergens, George. (1966). Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Swanberg, W. A. (1967). Pulitzer. New York: Scribner.

Wiggins, Gene. (1999). "Sensationally Yellow!" InThree Centuries of American Media, ed. Lloyd Chiasson, Jr. Englewood, CO: Morton Publishing.

Wilson, James, and Wilson, Stan Le Roy. (1998). Mass Media/Mass Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wood, Donald N. (1983). Mass Media and the Individual. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.

Charles F. Aust