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Communication in The Americas and their Influence

Yellow Journalism

Penny papers dominated news reporting until the end of the nineteenth century, when they were outdone at their own game by the journalistic innovations of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Beginning in midcentury, though, there were alternative visions of what a newspaper should be. The most notable such experiment was Henry Raymond's New York Times, sometimes referred to as an example of the "information press." Beginning in 1851, the Times eschewed the base populism of the penny press and used a matter-of-fact style to report urban news, public-interest stories, and business activities. On the eve of the Civil War the Times became associated with the Republican Party and its antislavery position. Perhaps the paper's finest hour in its first half-century of operation occurred in the 1870s, when it helped expose the infamous New York municipal corruption ring headed by William Marcy "Boss" Tweed.

The challenge to the penny press and the information press posed by Pulitzer and Hearst gave rise to what became known as "yellow journalism." The term itself, which evokes notions of sensationalism and scandalmongering, derives from a cartoon character bent on exposing corruption, the Yellow Kid, drawn by Richard Outcault for Pulitzer's New York World. Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant, took over the paper in 1885. His numerous innovations included a populist, pro-labor and pro-union position; campaigns to expose municipal corruption and injustice; advocacy of an increased tax burden for the wealthy; investigative journalism that tackled everything from phony psychics to the dire conditions in a mental hospital; and publicity-seeking stunts to improve circulation, such as sending Nellie Bly on her legendary seventy-two-day trip around the world in 1888–1889.

Pulitzer also streamlined the prose style of his papers (he would acquire a chain of them) by avoiding colloquial and esoteric terms and shortening paragraphs and sentences. Headlines, barely discernible in the penny papers, now spanned columns. Visuals—diagrams, cartoons, along with the reproduction of photographs using the new halftone process—earned a prominent place. This helped make Pulitzer's papers appealing, especially to immigrants for whom English was a second language.

Hearst admired these innovations but believed they could and should be extended further. In 1895 he took over the New York Journal and began a battle for circulation supremacy with Pulitzer that has been described as fiercer than the Spanish-American War that both papers would cover three years later. Hearst's moneyed background allowed him to hire away part of Pulitzer's staff, including Outcault and his Yellow Kid.

Hearst's journalistic exposés were not always limited to stories relating to the public interest. Sensationalism was omnipresent. Lurid scandals that we associate today with tabloid journalism sometimes made the front page, accompanied by massive, attention-getting headlines. Hearst also had a reputation for newsmaking when mere reporting would not suffice. His most famous foray in this direction occurred when he drummed up sentiment for a reluctant U.S. government to declare war on Spain. Hearst's quip to artist Frederick Remington, who had cabled from Cuba that there was little fighting to report—"You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war"—is humorously dramatized in Orson Welles's 1941 film based on Hearst's life, Citizen Kane.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cluster compound to ConcupiscenceCommunication in The Americas and their Influence - Pre-european Communication, New World Civilizations, Colonial America, The Penny Press, Yellow Journalism