The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst (10 page)

BOOK: The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst
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But perhaps the best comparison for Hearst’s deal is Adolph Ochs’s contemporaneous purchase of the
New York Times.
In 1896, the
Times
was in receivership, with substantial monthly losses and daily sales of about 10,000 copies. Ochs, a penny-pincher and one of the shrewdest operators in the history of American publishing, invested $75,000 of borrowed money on condition that he would gain 51 percent of the newspaper’s stock if and when the paper had been profitable for three years. So Ochs bought half the stock and conditional control of the
Times
for $75,000 a year just months after Hearst bought 100 percent of the troubled
Journal
for $150,000. Ochs obtained a shaky but prestigious franchise; Hearst gained a humbler title with a larger audience. Ochs had to endure three years of sweat and uncertainty before taking firm command of his franchise; Hearst, with the advantage of more capital, took as a bonus to his purchase the
Morgen Journal,
a going concern with a circulation in excess of 40,000. Hearst got at least as good a deal as Ochs and each man bought the right paper for his purposes.
14
 
The
Morning Journal
was a good fit for Hearst not only for its price—which left him with funds to invest in its improvement—but also because of its heritage, which was both mass market and Democratic. There was nothing in its past to prevent its new owner from making it a popular progressive daily. “The reason I bought the
Journal,
” Hearst later told
Printer’s Ink,
“was because of its large circulation. It had very much more circulation than the other papers that were offered me. I thought it would be easier to change the reputation, and make that good, than to take a paper with a good reputation and little or no circulation, and build it up.”
15
 
Hearst rated the day he and McLean agreed to terms among the happiest of his life. He had been studying, plotting, aching for an opportunity in New York for at least six years. He had persisted through the competitive pressures of San Francisco, through loss and upheaval in his own family, and through the economic panic of 1893. Now his dream was finally in hand. Never one for big emotional displays, he reportedly danced a little jig and rushed down to Park Row to survey the field of play.
 
Park Row, at least the newspaper portion of it, was a brief street in lower Manhattan reaching northeast from Broadway and Ann to Nassau Street and Printing House Square with its statue of Benjamin Franklin, patron saint of American publishing. City Hall and its grassy park occupied the west side. Most of the important dailies in New York fought for air in a jumble of buildings on the east. The
Sun,
the
Mail and Express,
the
Commercial Advertiser,
the
Daily News,
the
World,
the
Morning Journal,
the
Times,
and the
Tribune
were all there, with the
Star
and the
Evening Post
just around the corner. There was a rationale behind this geographic squeeze. Park Row was convenient to City Hall and the U.S. courthouse, prime sources of metro news. It was also near the Post Office, where papers picked up “exchanges” of copy from around the country. Over the years, the street had sprouted taverns, oyster broils, billiard halls, and other amenities, making Park Row not only the journalistic nerve center of greater New York but its own bustling ink-soaked village, swarming at all hours with newspapermen, newsboys, petitioners, hawkers, delivery trucks, and horse-cab operators poised for rush assignments.
 
Of particular interest to Hearst on his visit that day would have been two mismatched buildings directly across from City Hall. The squat structure with a clear view of the park was home to the New York
Sun,
edited by Charles Anderson Dana. The
Sun
had been the most popular newspaper in America when Hearst had entered Harvard in 1882. Next door, casting its long shadow over the
Sun,
was the Pulitzer Building, headquarters of the New York
World,
the most popular newspaper in America by the time Hearst left college in 1886.
 
Park Row had seen its share of conflict in the nineteenth century, but nothing more venomous and momentous than what had transpired between Pulitzer and Dana in those few years. They were two proud, brilliant journalists who unfortunately shared the identical goal of publishing the most interesting and influential Democratic newspaper in New York. There could only be one winner and neither man was inclined to yield. Their great clash, ruinous to each in different ways, riveted Hearst while he was at school. It was a crucial part of his newspaper education, shaping his ideas, tastes, and ambitions. The letters he wrote to his father advocating changes to the
San Francisco Examiner
were strongly influenced by the so-called “new journalism” that Pulitzer was unleashing on Dana in New York. Hearst’s move eastward from San Francisco emulated Pulitzer’s 1883 journey from St. Louis to Manhattan. The strategic plan Hearst carried in his head as he stalked Park Row that day, the proud new owner of the
New York Journal,
was drawn directly from Pulitzer’s attack on Dana: he would employ similar approaches to content, political alliances, circulation, pricing, and promotions in his own campaign for newspaper supremacy. The most significant difference between his plan and Pulitzer’s was that Hearst’s target was not Dana. Hearst was aiming to supplant Pulitzer himself as the predominant publisher in America, and he intended to do so by beating the master at his own game.
 
 
 
IT IS DIFFICULT TO APPRECIATE the magnitude of what Hearst was attempting in New York—or the magnitude of what Pulitzer had earlier accomplished—without first taking the measure of Charles Anderson Dana, the original master, the most successful and admired editor on Park Row for two decades after the Civil War.
 
Dana, still working long hours despite his seventy-five years, may well have been at his desk the day Hearst closed the deal. His offices were at the top of a spiral staircase on the third floor of the weathered Sun Building. He was almost completely bald now, with a bushy white beard on his somber block of a face, but age seemed only to underscore his eminence. Whatever luster his paper had lost since the war with Pulitzer, his record of accomplishment was unassailable. In addition to three decades at the helm of the
Sun
and fifteen years as managing editor of Horace Greeley’s celebrated
New York Tribune,
Dana had published a life of Ulysses S. Grant and a spirited defense of the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. He had co-edited a sixteen-volume
American Cyclopaedia
that had sold three million copies. There probably wasn’t a sharper intellect in any newsroom in New York, nor anyone else with his depth and range of knowledge. He picked up languages as effortlessly as most people pick up viruses: Latin, Greek, German, French, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Italian, Icelandic, and a smattering of Old Norse. Some of the younger denizens of Park Row now thought him old-fashioned—he disdained advertising and viewed photography as a passing fancy—yet for many he remained an authority on journalistic taste and craftsmanship, the newspaperman’s newspaperman.
 
For someone who was ending his career as one of the most conservative and cynical voices in the American press, Dana’s beginnings had been remarkably idealistic. In 1841, after leaving Harvard early for reasons of ill health and tight finances, he had joined the renowned Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, a model community of New England transcendentalists testing new ideas about cooperative living and intellectual growth. Dana worked in the fields, lectured in Greek and German, and sang in the choir. He also wrote for the farm’s publication, the
Dial,
which brought him into the literary circles of Hawthorne and Emerson. Dana might have enjoyed a long career in the community had a fire not ripped through the main lodge in 1846, smothering in smoke and ash the high ideals of the founders. Dana directed his talents toward New York and the newspaper business.
 
He joined Horace Greeley’s
Tribune
and rapidly rose through the ranks at a time when any association with that paper was said to confer “a patent of literary nobility.”
16
His dispatches from Europe during the revolutions of 1848 brought him distinction, and on his return home Greeley made him managing editor. He was the first journalist to hold that title in the United States. For the next thirteen years, with his politically ambitious master frequently out of the office, Dana was responsible for the daily contents of the
Tribune.
He published the Brontë sisters, Dickens, Hawthorne, and a long-running weekly column by an economist he had met in Europe named Karl Marx. Over time, Greeley and Dana developed a personal rivalry and eventually fell out over differences on the prosecution of the Civil War. After serving as assistant secretary of war in the Lincoln administration, Dana returned to newspapers and in 1868 found backing to purchase the New York
Sun.
 
Established by Benjamin Day in 1833, the
Sun
had an impressive pedigree of its own. It was America’s first successful penny newspaper and, as such, was a forerunner of the popular and inexpensive dailies later established by Pulitzer and Hearst. Day’s
Sun
broke into a newspaper universe dominated by small-circulation sheets published for political, commercial, and cultural elites. These were directly subsidized by partisan interests and available mostly by subscription (single copies sold for as much as six cents). Day, by contrast, courted middle-class artisans, entrepreneurs, and professionals with a more affordable paper suited to their tastes and relatively free of partisan influence. Stories about crime, scandal, sports, and entertainment received consideration in his pages alongside news of public policy, literature, and commerce. Day and his most successful imitator in the penny field—James Gordon Bennett of the
New York Herald
—sold their papers directly to readers in the street rather than through the mails by subscription. Their sales would rise and fall each day depending on the interest and immediacy of their news. This led to increased competition to be first off the press with a hot story: the penny sheets did not wait for news to come in through the mail; they sent reporters out in pursuit of it. Critics accused Day and Bennett of pandering to the rabble and coarsening public taste, the default response of elites to every stage in the popularization of print culture. But the many admirers of the penny publishers credited them with an honest attempt to inform, entertain, and lead vast reading audiences ignored by the established press—they wrought a democratic revolution in newspapering.
 
By the time Dana took control of the
Sun,
it was a marginally profitable two-penny paper selling a respectable 50,000 copies among the “mechanics and small merchants” of the city.
17
His first fifteen years were an unmitigated success. He published four crisp pages a day. He combined the quality and literary values of more expensive newspapers with the broad interests of less expensive dailies to produce an admirably distinctive publication. Beautifully written, with sparkling humor and sharp opinions, the
Sun
lit up an otherwise gloomy postbellum newspaper marketplace. In its pages, as one historian has noted, “life was not a mere procession of elections, legislatures, theatrical performances, murders and lectures. Life was everything—a new kind of apple, a crying child on the curb, a policeman’s epigram, the exact weight of a candidate for president, the latest style in whiskers, the origin of a new slang expression . . . everything was fish to the great net of Dana’s mind.”
18
 
Dana hired literary men and had an unusual number of college graduates on staff. He discovered more great talent than any editor of his time, including four of the century’s most celebrated reporters: Richard Harding Davis, Jacob Riis, David Graham Phillips, and Julian Ralph. Always be interesting, he lectured them, never be in a hurry. Dana wanted leisurely prose, long on description and anecdote, with the author’s personal viewpoint well above the surface. He told his stories chronologically, which meant the real news was often buried in the final paragraph. Despite the
Sun
’s high tone, Dana did not shy away from crime or vice. A good murder would be treated with a long narrative and diagrams of the action.
19
He famously considered “news” to mean everything that might interest a reader: “I have always felt that whatever the Divine Providence permitted to occur I was not too proud to report.”
20
The
Sun
’s editorials were terse, sometimes cynical, and devastatingly witty. Unenthusiastic about General Winfield Hancock, the Democratic nominee in 1880, Dana praised him as “a good man, weighing 250 pounds.”
21
 
By the early 1880s, Dana was enjoying a circulation of 140,000, the highest in New York and annual returns approaching 40 percent.
22
His financial success allowed him to maintain a fierce political independence, to hire and keep the best talent, and to offer comprehensive national and international reporting as well as topflight sports, arts, crime, and human-interest journalism. His success infuriated rival journalists who accused him of running a “washerwoman’s paper” full of “ribaldry, falsehood, indecency, levity, and dishonesty” and other tricks designed to produce sensations. He was said to be damaging the public sphere by pandering to the very masses their own dull sheets sought to edify. The lofty E.L. Godkin, editor of the
Nation,
called the
Sun
“nearly all that was evil in New York journalism.”
23
BOOK: The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst
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