Below is a transcript of this complete podcast episode:
About once a week, there’s a guy who out stands out in front of my local supermarket with a stack of newspapers that he tries to literally give away, and can’t.
The newspaper in question is the San Francisco Chronicle. I checked.
The guy’s been doing it for years, which is, I guess, a sign of the newspaper business’s tenacious fighting spirit. These papers might be headquartered right here in the heart of Silicon Valley, which happens to be ground zero of the tech revolution that made newspapers like them obsolete, but they’re still out there, hustling for readers, just like it’s another circulation war between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.
The newspaper business was always a tenacious industry. Everyone from the tycoons who published the papers to the boys who fanned out across the city and energetically hocked them to passersby was tenacious. So were the reporters who hustled for scoops, and the editors who raced to get the copy in before deadline, and the press operators who worked ‘round the clock to get their paper out faster than the competition.
The daily paper was a product of the First Information Age (we did a recent episode about it) when wire services like Associated Press would use the telegraph like a fax machine to transmit news and information from around the world to the news desks, which would ready the stories for print and send them out to their readers once, twice, three times a day, maybe more.
It was an information age, and, until radio and movie reels came along, newspapers (as well as magazines) were the only way to get the information to the people.
If you’re listening to this podcast, I’m going to assume that you’re old enough to be familiar with newspapers. Up until the mid to late ‘90s, they were still the preferred way to get the written word to the people. People still had relationships with their newspaper, the same way you have a relationship with the podcast you listen to everyday, or the morning radio jock. People had rituals involving their newspaper, just like you might have a ritual with checking your favorite websites or emails, scrolling through your smartphone.
The paper you read also said something about the kind of person you were–like the brand you smoked, or the car you drove, or the team you cheered for.
In short, the newspaper was a big part of everyday life, perhaps the biggest part, outside of work and family.
But boy, has that ever changed in the last decade or two…
I was at a different supermarket a couple of years ago. It was a Safeway, one of those fancy Safeways with a salad bar and fruit bar, a Starbucks, and a newspaper display with a stack of Sunday New York Times right next to the express checkout lane. And the woman in line in front of me decided to get one of those Sunday papers, so she took one off the stack and put it with the rest of her purchases on the moving belt.
The cashier looked young. About 18. And you could tell that she was new at the job by the way she had to search around for the barcodes on items the way a nurse has to search for a vein sometimes to draw blood. When she got to the newspaper, she looked at it blankly and said, “Oh, do you want me to put those in the bag, too?”
“Um, yeah. Actually I’m buying that,” the customer said.
The cashier froze. Another employee had to come over and flip the Sunday paper onto its other side to show her where the bar code was. The teenaged cashier scanned it the way you would handle a dead mouse if you were afraid of mice.
And then, using just the tips of her fingers to make the least contact possible, she did a curious thing. She skimmed past the front page to expose the B section of the newspaper, looking for the bar code that she no doubt expected to be there for scanning. And presumably she was going to do that for each and every section of the newspaper, one by one; keep in mind this was the Sunday New York Times, which has a lot of sections. No wonder she had seemed so daunted by the whole thing.
The cashier had initially asked, “Do you want me to put those in the bag, too?” She didn’t see it as a newspaper. She saw it as a bundle of…what exactly? The stuff that goes in a recycling bin? The stuff that homeless people sleep on? Not the stuff somebody spends money on at the fancy Safeway, that’s for sure.
If you had never contemplated a newspaper before, why would you assume that all these loose sections were considered one paper just because they were folded in together? If you got 8 packages of rolled pizza dough and folded them up together on the checkout counter, you’d still get charged for 8 packages of pizza dough, right?
Little vignettes like these do a much better job than any movie could of demonstrating the widening generation gap between Digital Natives, like the cashier, and relics from the 20th Century like this podcaster. You just can’t write stuff like this. It’s unscripted, and it’s perfect.
Well, today, we’re going to step back in time, away from that Safeway, away from that guy at the Berkeley Bowl trying to give papers away, back to a time when newspapers weren’t just everything, they were the only thing, and the people who ran these newspapers became kingmakers and could effectively control public opinion…On this episode of, the TV Room.
“…death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”
You may or may not recognize that voice right away, but it belongs to one Patricia Campbell Hearst.
For some people, that name says it all right there, because they remember the context as if it were yesterday. For others, like the cashier at Safeway, the name doesn’t even register…but the story of Patricia Hearst is a podcast for another time.
Today, we’re going to be talking largely about her grandfather, a guy named William Randolph Hearst, and the chapter of history he helped create.
This episode of the TV Room is going to run longer than our episodes usually do, and it still won’t be nearly enough to adequately tell the story of William Randolph Hearst or of his first great adversary, Joseph Pulitzer, let alone the story of modern journalism that the two of them did so much to create in their ongoing battle for dominance of the New York newspaper market.
This is a podcast that honors the Age of Television, and the best way to honor something is to appreciate where it came from. Well, television came from radio, and radio came from print media–newspapers and magazines.
Now, this is true for all different kinds of TV programming, but it’s especially true for the news department. The founding fathers of television news, people like Edward Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and William Paley, all started out in radio. And radio journalism took its cues from the culture of early 20th Century print journalism and from something called ‘the code of objective journalism,’ a code that the ‘ratings war’ of the 1890s between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst did so much to foster.
What I’d like to do is take a quick survey, a snapshot of this moment in time, to see just what kind of name recognition the names Pulitzer and Hearst get today.
You’ve got to think it’s pretty high. Everybody’s heard of the Pulitzer Prize. Its name recognition is right right up there with the Oscars, except that, unlike the Oscar, not everyone can tell you what a Pulitzer Prize is for.
Far less known is the name of Joseph Pulitzer himself, although it is his name behind the Pulitzer Prize.
The Hearst name gets its fair share of recognition, too. For people of a certain age, the Patty Hearst ordeal was the crime of the century. For students of American history, William Randolph Hearst is a name that comes up again and again….for students of American cinema as well.
To tell the story of Pulitzer and Hearst, let’s once again set the table by going back and revisiting our old friend the 19th Century, a century whose essence we began to crack open and peer into on the last episode.
* * *
With the Civil War finally over, the American West fully open for colonization or settlement, and the defeated American South ready to be Reconstructed by northern business interests, the 1870s and ‘80s were a boom period to say the least.
And all that 19th Century technology we’ve been talking about came into play. A new world was being built, and thanks to machines that ran 24-hours a day, it was being built on a scale that had never been seen before.
Needless to say, great fortunes were being amassed and a new class of tycoon was being minted in this era. And needless to say, the power wielded by these tycoons, and the corruption that greased the wheels, were both out of control.
This period is known to history as the Gilded Age. And the period that followed the Gilded Age, leading right up to the 1920s, is called the Progressive Era.
This roughly half-century of Gilded Age and Progressive Era might be the timespan that the average American knows the least about. But, it contains a treasure trove of the most interesting and relevant chapters of American history for the modern age, and especially now as we tread further into the unknown of this Information Age.
Usually the history that we hear the most about is the history that involves world wars or cold wars. The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era weren’t about that. Instead, they were about expansionism, economic and territorial, and how far it could be taken.
After the blood-soaked existential crisis of the Civil War, the late 1860s marked the first time in its 80-year history that the United States didn’t have to preoccupy itself with the fight between industrialists (Northerners), and agrarians (Southerners).
The industrialists had won outright.
And with their victory, the US was finally able to put its energies towards endeavors like conquering the West, forcing the last free Indians onto reservations, settling all the territory seized from Mexico, and eventually expanding overseas and taking over Spain’s colonies like Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, and picking up other possessions along the way like the Hawaiian Islands. You know: Progress!
All the technology that was unleashed by the steam engine and the mastery of electricity (see our last episode), and no more fighting to get in the way of its application. America was free to expand, to fill its container from sea to shining sea, to settle freshly conquered land using the latest breakthroughs in 19th Century technology plus lots of eager immigrants, while mature societies like the ones in Europe, that had already expanded to fill their containers ages ago, struggled to enter this new era under the constraints of their creaky old monarchies and empires. America had had its definitive war in the 1860s. Europe would have its defining wars, two of them, over the first half of the 20th Century.
So, for the US as a whole, the decades after 1865, after the Union defeated the Confederacy, belonged to the captains of industry, the figures who by whatever means necessary, floated to the top of their various industries just as these industries began to carve a new world order into the wet cement of America. You had railroad tycoons, mining tycoons, oil tycoons, shipping tycoons, meatpacking tycoons, manufacturing tycoons, banking tycoons,….and information tycoons.
Yup. Information tycoons. In episode six we described the late 19th Century as the first Information Age. We detailed how the transmission of electronic dots and dashes in Morse Code over the telegraph wire is what made high-speed data sharing possible.
If the telegraph was the information superhighway, then the newspaper was a webpage, a homepage. It was a homepage that could be refreshed throughout the day with a morning edition, an afternoon edition, an evening edition. And there were several daily papers out there vying to be your homepage.
There was nothing like radio or film, or even skywriting at this time. In this information age, newspapers were information. The front page was like a portal that could be refreshed throughout the day with each new edition, morning, afternoon, evening. And they had other goodies beyond the front page: cartoons, weather maps, box scores, theater reviews, classified ads for jobs, for apartments, for real estate, personals, …Pretty much everything.
The presses were designed to convert the dots and dashes of Morse Code into text as quickly as possible, and paperboys were used to distribute the papers out to the people as quickly as possible.
About that “Gilded Age…” The term comes from the title of a Mark Twain book written in 1873, where it’s used to describe a festering mass of corruption and social problems covered up by a thin veneer of gold. This Twain-ism perfectly captured the sense of wrongness undergirding all the conspicuous new fortunes that were being created by industrialization.
The prevailing philosophy of the Gilded Age was something called “laissez faire,” which basically meant ‘let it be’, and referred to the doctrine that humankind was best served by letting the tycoons who were running this vigorous new economy continue to run it without government interference. The business of America was to make more business, and the best way to do that was to let the businessmen do what was in their best interests. The government was there to deliver the mail and guard the coasts, and that was pretty much it.
Did you ever play the board game, Monopoly? Well, that board game was invented as a direct response to these Gilded Age conditions. In the game of Monopoly, any player could buy a property (let’s say your typical family buying their own home), but it took a certain amount of luck, foresight, and ambition to acquire three properties in a row and get a monopoly.
When you owned single property, you weren’t especially empowered. But when you had a monopoly, you could start making big money with your properties by gouging the people who had no choice but to pay your rates every time they passed through. You could build houses, and more houses, and ultimately a hotel. And the average citizen, even a single-family homeowner, would be at the mercy of your monopoly holdings every time he ventured out into the world.
The working stiff collects his $200 paycheck at the beginning of the month, and by the time he makes it around the board again, the monopolists have usually gotten all his money. The little guy doesn’t have a chance.
Monopoly was meant to teach a lesson. The game was actually created by an anti-monopolist crusader named Lizzie Phillips in 1903 for the express purpose of demonstrating the negative aspects of concentrating land in private monopolies, while playing up the idea, popular at the time, that the economic value derived from land should belong to the public.
This was an example of a Progressive Era idea, and although this particular idea didn’t quite take off, many other ideas of the Progressive Era did. For one thing, monopolies and trusts were broken up. For another thing, a federal income tax was established.
Lizzie Phillips’ game would of course go onto great success, but not for Lizzie Phillips herself. The game she created in 1903 was called the Landlord’s Game, for obvious reasons. But after having her idea stolen by a prominent friend, who happened to be Clarence Darrow, and copied by many others over the decades, it wasn’t until the Parker Bros. put out their version of Monopoly in 1935 that the game as we know it came to be, and became an immediate sensation.
By then though, in the middle of the Great Depression, the educational aspects of the game were all but gone, and it was just a chance for some mindless escapism.
But back in the 1880s, all these developments were a long way off. It was still the Gilded Age; it was still laissez faire; and it was still very much a monopolist’s world.
Yes, the economy was growing fast, and the rising tide lifted all boats, but the guy who made money on that was the guy who had the monopoly on boats.
Monopolists didn’t just control the nation’s wealth in the Industrial Age; they also accumulated alarming amounts of power in doing so, which was compounded even further when these tycoons formed trusts amongst themselves to more or less game the entire system, to run the entire Monopoly board as it were, which they were able to do with impunity.
Any number of these 1880s and 1890s monopolists would have been more powerful than the sitting U.S, President at the time.
You certainly recognize the names of these titans, names like Andrew Carnegie, J.D. Rockefeller, and JP Morgan, much more than you recognize the names of Benjamin Harrison and Chester Arthur, who were actual US presidents during those decades, and who, if their portraits weren’t hanging in the presidential gallery, would be lost to history almost entirely. That’s a good indicator of where the balance of power lay in the Gilded Age.
So, you get the picture. Monopoly power, combined with all the new technology, and little to no oversight, was a formidable thing. And for the little guy there was no such thing as social security or a safety net in the 19th Century. Politics was run the same way business was. Corruption was rampant, and scenes of everyday poverty in American cities then were a lot more graphic than anything we’re confronted with now.
It’s into this world, that an immigrant from Europe named Joseph Pulitzer began working first as a waiter serving the wealthy and influential clientele in St. Louis, then as a newspaper reporter covering the wealthy and influential clientele in St. Louis, then as a newspaper publisher in that city, before finally going big league and buying a money-losing paper in New York City called the World, and turning it into the largest newspaper in the country.
Newspaper barons like Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst, whom we’ll meet in a moment, didn’t control traditional resources like oil and steel, They controlled something less tangible, but more important: Information.
What if you could have a monopoly on truth, on facts, on public opinion? Well, for the leading newspaper publishers, like Hearst and like Pulitzer, this was largely the case.
Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World in 1883. His great innovation was to reinvent the front page from something dry and boring like a church recital program, into a canvas or a billboard, something splashy that would catch the eyes of passersby and draw them into a story.
Before Pulitzer, front pages had been packed tight with lots of small print and headlines that were scarcely bigger than the text below.
Under Pulitzer, headlines could take up the entire top half of the front page, screaming at readers to get their attention.
Pulitzer also emphasized a different kind of story, the kind that played to people’s emotions, slice of life dispatches that spoke to the trials and tribulations of everyday people instead of the dry political and business news that newspapers had traditionally covered and targeted to the wealthier classes. Pulitzer’s paper had a strong appeal to the workingman, and to immigrants, which 1880s New York was full of.
Pulitzer was a gifted journalist, as well as a pitchman. He knew how to find a story, tell a story, and sell a story. By 1884 he dominated the New York newspaper business and as a result, had become quite a powerful city figure in his own right.
Despite being a newcomer to New York, he managed to win himself a seat in the US Congress representing the Empire State. But even more significantly, he may have been the difference in the 1884 Presidential election.
You may recall a few episodes ago on this podcast, when we talked about some of the closer elections in US history. Well, until the year 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore by a margin of 500 votes in Florida, the closest election in US history had been the election of 1884.
That election boiled down to New York state, which went to Grover Cleveland by a margin of 1,047 votes out of 1.2 million cast. Cleveland was a Democrat, and his victory marked the first time since 1856, before the Civil War, that a Democrat had been elected to the White House, ending the longest winning streak by one party, six straight elections, in US history.
New York had gone Republican in the previous election in 1880, and it was believed that Pulitzer’s strong affiliation with the Democratic Party and his strong personal support for Grover Cleveland is what put Cleveland over the top in 1884.
Meanwhile, up at Harvard, William Randolph Hearst was putting the finishing touches on an unremarkable student career, being known mostly for his frat house shenanigans and the pranks he played on unsuspecting professors.
Hearst was the son of a West Coast mining magnate who struck it rich in the California Gold Rush.
Young William Randolph Hearst had a flamboyant personality and wanted desperately to escape the dominant shadow of his father, who in addition to being one of the wealthiest self made men west of the Mississippi, was about to become a United States Senator.
The younger Hearst looked around for the easiest and fastest way that he could make a name for himself. He saw it in the figure of Joseph Pulitzer.
In Hearst’s eyes, Pulitzer was able to become one of the most powerful men in New York City, which was probably more powerful than being the President at that time, by buying up a flagging newspaper, revamping it with a splashy makeover, and aggressively marketing it to the public. Not only could you make a fortune and become powerful that way, but you could also become a celebrity in your own right and even a trendsetter.
As Hearst saw it, Joseph Pulitzer was able to become a kingmaker because of his newspapers. But Hearst wanted to be king.
And he didn’t even have to go out and buy a newspaper to get started. His father already owned one in San Francisco, a little daily paper called the Examiner, which Hearst convinced his father to give him as a ‘graduation present’.
After college, Hearst went back to San Francisco, fired the Examiner’s editor, boastfully christened his new Examiner “the monarch of the dailies,” and set out to become the West Coast version of Joseph Pulitzer.
But Hearst was different than Pulitzer in some critical ways.
For one thing, money was no object for Hearst. He had his family fortune to fall back on, so his pockets were deeper than anyone’s, including Pulitzer’s. He could destroy his competition by luring away their most talented employees and offering to pay them more. Or he could lower the price of his paper, and force his competition to either match the price and lose revenue, or keep the same price and lose readership to Hearst.
Pulitzer had used these methods himself, but on a lesser scale. Hearst was willing to lose a lot more money in order to control a bigger market share
Another big difference is that before Pulitzer became the publisher of sensational journalism, he had actually been a working journalist himself, and a pretty good one.
Unlike Hearst, he knew what it was like to start at or near the bottom, to be an immigrant in a new land who spoke little English and had no connections.
When Pulitzer first came over from Europe, he worked a series of odd jobs for low pay. In St. Louis, he and some other guys each paid a slick-talking promoter five dollars in return for the promise of good jobs on a Louisiana banana plantation.
They boarded a steamboat, which took them 30 miles downriver and promptly booted them off. They realized they’d been had.
When Pulitzer made it back to St. Louis, he wrote up an account of the story and was pleased to see it accepted for publication in a local German language newspaper.
That was Pulitzer’s first published story. And over the course of his career, he never lost the sense of who he was, and what it was like to be the little guy, easily taken advantage of by larger forces.
Now, we should remember that when Pulitzer bought the New York World in 1883 he did fill the paper with pictures, games, and contests to make it more entertaining, as he had done with his previous paper in St. Louis, and he emphasized stories about true crime, with lurid, screaming headlines that played to people’s prurient interests.
But despite the gimmickry, Pulitzer never lost track of his sincere belief that newspapers were public institutions with a duty to improve society, and most of his papers’ resources went towards that goal. Indeed, just one year after setting up shop in New York, Pulitzer’s endorsement helped the Democrats take the state in the presidential election, against an entrenched Republican Party that was seen as irredeemably corrupted at the time, but nearly impossible to defeat. And Pulitzer himself won a seat in Congress–A seat that he ended up resigning from halfway through his term in order to focus on running his newspapers.
Pulitzer never let go of his belief that newspapers had a duty to be the agents of reform in the era of laissez faire government.
To that end, he hired reporters whose writing could engage people emotionally, and these reporters often became celebrities in their own right. A good example of this was Nellie Bly.
Nellie Bly was the pen name of a reporter originally from Pittsburgh, PA named Elizabeth Cochran, who first broke into journalism by penning a fiery rebuttal letter to a misogynistic article in a local paper.
The editor was so impressed with the tone of the letter that he asked to meet the writer in person. He was equally impressed with Cochran in person, and offered her a job writing for his paper, which she accepted, adopting the pen name, Nellie Bly.
You can imagine that, outside of school teaching, there was really no profession considered socially acceptable for women at the time, which is the reason female journalists had to use pen names. And their writing was generally relegated to the social columns. But Bly didn’t want to write about luncheons. She wanted to write exposes, exposes about things like the grim conditions facing female factory workers.
Frustrated by the restrictions placed on her by her newspaper, Nellie Bly took the initiative, at age 21, to travel alone, unescorted, to Mexico where she remained for a year and a half as a special correspondent reporting on the lives and customs of the Mexican people for her readers back home.
In one report, she criticized the Mexican government over the imprisonment of a local journalist; when the authorities found out, they threatened to arrest her, so she fled the country.
Still barely 23 years old, Bly headed to New York City to ply her trade as a journalist…and went for four months knocking on doors and getting no work. Finally she talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer and pitched him the idea that she would fake insanity to get herself involuntarily committed to New York City’s notorious Woman’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, where she would then write about life on the inside.
It would be called Ten Days In a Madhouse, and would run in ten parts.
And Bly didn’t write about it drily.
She wrote about what went on behind the walls of the notorious insane asylum in vivid detail; every article would be accompanied by graphic drawings of the things she described inside. So, you can imagine that these pieces would be real page-turners for the audiences of the 1880s.
Bly’s expose was printed and reprinted across the nation, which led to a wave of public outcry that started a national conversation.
How was this young woman able to fool the doctors into declaring her insane? How could a leading city like New York allow the people in its care to be treated so terribly?
New York City was shamed into finally taking action.
This was Joseph Pulitzer’s brand of investigative journalism.
Now remember, there was no film or radio, so newspaper columnists were the documentarians of the time, and they became the celebrities of the time. The idea of tenacious little Nellie Bly going in and taking on the jowly tycoons and political bosses during peak Gilded Age, while everyone else in power simply shrugged their shoulders and said “laissez faire; nothing I can do about it,” had enormous appeal.
This, really, was the epitome of Pulitzer’s vision, of making the daily paper into something people wanted to read, and something that could break through the gilded ceiling to speak truth to the powers that be–in city hall, and in Washington DC.
* * *
Now, let’s take a moment here to fast-forward to modern times, which is to say the 1960s, and something called New Journalism, a phrase coined by the writer, Tom Wolfe.
New Journalism was one of the many social changes that swept across society in the Sixties; it’s most closely associated with names like Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe himself.
What made New Journalism “new” was that it took the stodgy journalistic conventions of the time and broke them wide open. It “liberated” journalism, in the parlance of the ‘60s.
At that time, journalists were expected to be “invisible,” which is to say they were supposed to report just the facts, in the most objective tone possible, to never write in the first person and make the story about them. When a journalist did have to use the first-person, he was supposed to say “this reporter” instead of the dreaded “I” word, to make sure he stayed invisible.
Well, as was the case with so many things in the Sixties, people decided to stop doing it the old way and to try something different.
The idea of New Journalism was to cut through the pretense and get to the nitty-gritty; to report on the “truth” of the matter, instead of just the facts.
The reporter became part of the story, sometimes the main character of the story, and wrote about what was happening in very descriptive first-person language. It was a way of appealing to readers as co-conspirators in on the caper, rather than just a passive audience there to be briefed.
The writers who could pull it off became celebrated for it in the Sixties.
The odds are you’ve heard of Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. And if you were around in the Sixties or Seventies, you would have seen them on the Tonight Show chatting with Johnny Carson as his lead guest, at the Playboy Mansion schmoozing with Hefner, or being interviewed like pop culture celebrities in Time and Newsweek.
Writers like Mailer, Capote, and Hunter S. Thompson, were bona fide celebrities in the Countercultural Sixties and Seventies. They were in the public eye so much that they became everyday personalities, even to people who didn’t read the newspapers and magazines they wrote in.
And that takes us back to Nellie Bly. Bly was an example of the New Journalism of her times. She wrote in the first-person, and she used informal language to bypass the constructs of polite society and speak directly to her readers, like they did in the 1960s.
Now, there’s a big difference between getting yourself committed to an insane asylum to expose abuse in the system like Nellie Bly did, and taking too much acid and trying to check into your hotel room in Vegas, like Hunter S Thompson did, but the way they used language and journalistic style to convey their respective stories is very similar.
Even in Nellie Bly’s time the line between investigative journalism and “stunt journalism” was blurry. Ten Days in a Madhouse changed the national conversation about institutional accountability, and may have helped steer the country towards a more Progressive, less laissez faire, agenda.
But Nellie Bly’s next caper didn’t expose any corruption or champion a noble cause.
Instead, once again working for Joseph Pulitzer, Bly undertook a widely publicized trip around the world in an attempt to do a real life version of Jules Verne’s best-selling adventure novel, Around the World in 80 Days, and to send reports of her progress back home. This would become the biggest story of Bly’s career. It had all the elements of good suspense. Would she be able to beat the fictional record of 80 days? How would an unaccompanied woman even manage out there in the world? Keep in mind this was a time when a woman being out in public unescorted by a husband, a male relative or some sort of chaperone was a rare and unusual thing.
And to top it all off, it became a real race around the world when one of Pulitzer’s competitors, a magazine you may have heard of called Cosmopolitan, got wind of Bly’s stunt and sent a female reporter of their own, named Elizabeth Bisland, to circumnavigate the globe in the opposite direction. The great race was on.
Who would be the big winner? Bly or Bisland?
Readers of Pulitzer’s Globe were invited to enter a contest to guess the exact time down to the second of Bly’s return arrival in New York. First prize was a free trip to Europe and some spending money.
…not quite cutting edge investigative journalism. But not exactly mindless entertainment either. The world at large was still a mysterious, mostly unexplored place in 1889, so the datelines from exotic locales would have been somewhat informative for newspaper readers. Bly described some of the notable encounters she had along the way, like spending time at an Indian leper colony, or meeting Jules Verne himself in France.
From a science angle, the steamships and transcontinental railroads Bly and Bisland used to race around the world would have been cutting edge technology at the time and made for interesting reading. And of course, the whole thing probably counted as a plus for the burgeoning women’s movement.
The two Nellie Bly pieces were, in a nutshell, the two bookends of Pulitzer’s brand of journalism. Entertaining, sensationalist, ratings-driven, gimmicky on the one hand, but committed to social reform and speaking truth to power on the other.
Today, we might describe Pulitzer’s style as infotainment, or tabloid journalism, which it was, but with an implicit mission statement of social responsibility, and some limits as to what was and wasn’t fit to print in order to sell more papers.
Well, that would all change in 1895 when William Randolph Heart bought the New York Journal with the intention of challenging Pulitzer directly for dominance of the New York market, and with that the era of Yellow Journalism was on.
This discussion will be continued, on the next episode of the TV Room.