moses annenberg and the newspaper business -- 7/20/20

Today's selection -- from The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment by Dan Rottenberg. J. David Stern ran the highly regarded newspaper The Philadelphia Record, but in 1936 was unexpectedly faced with the ruthless competitor Moses Annenberg:

"August [1936] brought the news that the Philadelphia Inquirer, the morning competitor to Stern's Record, had been sold by the Curtis estate to Moses L. Annenberg, a shrewd, aggressive, and immensely wealthy publisher whose previous record in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Miami suggested a man determined to eliminate his competitors by fair means or foul.

Moses Annenberg

"Annenberg and his older brother Max were East Prussian Jews whose parents had immigrated to Chicago in the 1880s, when Max and Moe were small boys. Both brothers had come of age during Chicago's bloody newsstand wars that ensued after William Randolph Hearst invaded the Windy City in 1900 to challenge the dominant Chicago Tribune. As circulation directors of Hearst's new morning and evening papers, the Annenberg brothers hired gangs of tough-fisted agents to intimidate dealers and newsboys into taking Hearst's papers and dropping the Tribune's. The combat escalated from fistfights, broken bones, and wrecked newsstands to a shooting war in which five or six men were killed.

"By the time the actual shooting had started, Moe Annenberg had left the Hearst organization in 1906, following a quarrel with Max. In their later years Moe and Max each claimed to have been a respectable businessman whose reputation was sullied by the public's confusion with his more violent brother. In any case, during their formative years the two Annenberg brothers had been paid obscenely large sums of money by Hearst to break the law and consort with known gangsters. When asked years later to explain how he had become a millionaire before he was thirty, Moses Annenberg had replied, 'It is the difference between the well-fed house dog and the hungry wolf. I had a large family and I had to hunt or starve. I learned how to hunt and I kept it up.'

"In the early 1920s, in partnership with a tough, beefy Chicago gambler named Jack Lynch, Moe had acquired two tip sheets for gamblers, the Daily Racing Form and the Morning Telegraph; then he had acquired the wire services that served bookmakers and horse parlors, so that he commanded a virtual monopoly on racetrack information. To maintain that monopoly in what was, after all, an illegal activity, Moe Annenberg was said to pay an annual retainer to Chicago's Capone mob. Whenever a rival racetrack tip sheet was started, it was said, someone broke into the printing plant and wrecked the machinery. Before his arrival in Philadelphia, Annenberg had used his Miami newspapers to launch a muckraking campaign against the city's mayor and police chief after they began raiding the bookie joints that paid Annenberg's wire services thousands every week.

"By the time he bought the Inquirer in 1936, Annenberg was said to be making between $6 million and $14 million a year, but his appetite seemed insatiable.  ...

"Annenberg was a man of tremendous energy and ingenuity who yearned for social acceptance; unlike Greenfield, he was a dour and awkward soul. The Inquirer was to be the vehicle by which Annenberg shed his rough-and-tumble reputation and cloaked himself with new respectability that he planned to bequeath to his only son, Walter.  But his old habits died hard.

"Five months earlier, the Inquirer had merged with its morning rival, the Public Ledger. Now Annenberg set out to eliminate his only remaining morning competitor: Stern's Record. Under Annenberg's ambitious plan, by removing Philadelphia's only Democratic voice he would stifle liberal ideology, destroy Pennsylvania's Democratic Party, and, in the process, ingratiate himself with what he perceived as Philadelphia's business establishment. The notion that Annenberg could spend his way to social acceptance in Philadelphia bore uneasy echoes of E. T. Stotesbury's similar attempt more than a decade earlier -- echoes of which Annenberg as a newcomer was obviously unaware. ...

"When Stern learned that Annenberg was coming to Philadelphia, he later confessed, I had a sinking feeling. This change of ownership threw a monkey wrench into my plans. The Curtis-Martin organization [at the Inquirer] was soft competition. My second team could deal with them. Now the opposing team was putting a Red Grange in the lineup. ...

"As was his practice, Annenberg assaulted the Record on multiple fronts simultaneously, combining lavish and creative circulation promotions with editorial attacks on Stern's friends and supporters. 'I can lose five dollars to Stern's one dollar,' he said, drawing on lessons he had learned from Hearst."



Dan Rottenberg


The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment


Temple University Press


Copyright 2014 by Dan Rottenberg


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