delanceyplace.com 11/15/10 - the most important newspaper in the world
In today's excerpt - by 1890, 80 percent of New York City's population was either foreign-born or of foreign parentage. Joseph Pulitzer, an immigrant himself, bought and also-ran New York World newspaper and transformed it into the most widely read and influential paper in the world by using sensational headlines and short sentences to attract his audience:
"The paper abandoned its old, dull headlines. In place of BENCH SHOW OF DOGS: PRIZES AWARDED ON THE SECOND DAY OF THE MEETING IN MADISON SQUARE GARDEN on May 10 came SCREAMING FOR MERCY, HOW THE CRAVEN CORNETTI MOUNTED THE SCAFFOLD on May 12. Two weeks later the World's readers were greeted with BAPTIZED IN BLOOD, on top of a story, complete with a diagram, on how eleven people were crushed to death in a human stampede when panic broke out in a large crowd enjoying a Sunday stroll on the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge. In a city where half a dozen newspapers offered dull, similar fare to readers each morning, Pulitzer's dramatic headlines made the World stand out like a racehorse among draft horses.
"If the headline was the lure, the copy was the hook. Pulitzer could write all the catchy headlines he wanted, but it was up to the reporters to win over readers. He pushed his staff to give him simplicity and color. He admonished them to write in a buoyant, colloquial style comprising simple nouns, bright verbs, and short, punchy sentences. If there was a 'Pulitzer formula,' it was a story written so simply that anyone could read it and so colorfully that no one would forget it. The question 'Did you see that in the World?' Pulitzer instructed his staff, should be asked every day and something should be designed to cause this.
"Pulitzer had an uncanny ability to recognize news in what others ignored. He sent out his reporters to mine the urban dramas that other papers confined to their back pages. They returned with stories that could leave no reader unmoved. Typical, for instance, was the World's front-page tale, which ran soon after Pulitzer took over, of the destitute and widowed Margaret Graham. She had been seen by dockworkers as she walked on the edge of a pier in the East River with an infant in her arms and a two-year-old girl clutching her skirt. 'All at once the famished mother clasped the feeble little girl round her waist and, tottering to the brink of the wharf, hurled both her starving young into the river as it whirled by. She stood for a moment on the edge of the stream. The children were too weak and spent to struggle or to cry. Their little helpless heads dotted the brown tide for an instant, then they sank out of sight. The men who looked on stood spellbound.' Graham followed her children into the river but was saved by the onlookers and was taken to jail to face murder charges.
"For Pulitzer a news story was always a story. He pushed his writers to think like Dickens, who wove fiction from the sad tales of urban Victorian London, to create compelling entertainment from the drama of the modern city. To the upper classes, it was sensationalism. To the lower and working classes, it was their life. When they looked at the World, they found stories about their world.
"In the Lower East Side's notorious bars, known as black and tans, or at dinner in their cramped tenements, men and women did not discuss society news, cultural events, or happenings in the investment houses. Rather, the talk was about the baby who fell to his death from a roof-top, the brutal beating that police officers dispensed to an unfortunate waif, or the rising cost of streetcar fares to the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue and the mansions needing servants. The clear, simple prose of the World drew in these readers, many of whom were immigrants struggling to master their first words of English. Writing about the events that mattered in their lives in a way they could understand, Putitzer's World gave these New Yorkers a sense of belonging and a sense of value. In one stroke, he simultaneously elevated the common man and took his spare change to fuel the World's profits. ...
"Pulitzer found readers where other newspaper publishers saw a threat. Immigrants were pouring into New York at a rate never before seen. By the end of the decade, 80 percent of the city's population was either foreign-born or of foreign parentage. Only the World seemed to consider the stories of this human tide as deserving news coverage. The other papers wrote about it; the World wrote for it."
|James McGrath Morris
|Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power
|Copyright 2010 by James McGrath Morris