Yellow journalism left a nasty stain — and a few good ideas

By Aristophanes

At the turn of the 20th century, two of New York City’s most popular newspapers, The New York World and The New York Journal, went about newsgathering in a notoriously unique fashion.

By focusing on social coverage, such as violent crime and scandalous investigations of the rich and powerful, the two papers were able to feed the appetite of a rising demographic: America’s expanding middle class.

To capture the attention of the less affluent but increasingly well-educated, the papers were often accused of cheapening the journalistic profession with gimmicky tactics.

Screaming headlines raced across multiple columns of the World and the Journal, often accompanied by large, boisterous illustration in what normally would have been a visually restrained, relatively mundane medium. Under this new style, the newsgathering process expanded beyond its former confines of “objectivity” and religious adherence to “facts.”

These so-called yellow journals were continually criticized and derided by the competition, who successfully managed, eventually, to drive the once-commanding papers out of the limelight during the first decades of the 20th century. Their primary weapons were heartless critique and organized reading bans.

Nevertheless, the forward- and sideways-thinking World and Journal have left a mark on the modern news business in ways very few papers can claim. Despite its tainted perception and propagation of somewhat irresponsible practices, yellow journalism also introduced several positive evolutions that have managed to stick with the profession into the modern age. By adapting to the will of a new audience, yellow journals triumphed, establishing themselves as financially successful behemoths among the older, more conservative New York papers.

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Don’t call me ‘yellow’

The exact origin of the term “yellow journalism” is still debated among historians, but it no doubt arose as a form of contempt.

Critique of William Randolph Hearst’s Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s World commonly came from rival papers in New York, such as the Sun and the Press, echoing the Moral War waged by the six-penny papers against the emerging penny press in the middle of the 19th century. In addressing Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s papers, these critics commonly referred to them under the catchall of “new journalism,” a term that would become synonymous with the sound-alike of “nude journalism” and the later, more colorful moniker of “yellow journalism.”

Contemporary anti-yellow sentiment was no more evident than in the language of Ervin Wardman, editor of the Press in the late 1800s. In his book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, Joseph Campbell says a Wardman-authored, anti-Hearst editorial in January 1897 was likely the first published use of the yellow journalism name. Whether Wardman was first to conversationalize the term, however, is anyone’s guess.

The yellow modifier is a reference to R.F. Outcault’s yellow kid cartoons, which appeared first in the World. Outcault’s talent was later poached by Hearst at the Journal, which then began running its own yellow kid cartoons. The World, reluctant to lose yellow kid fans, began publishing unauthorized versions of the cartoons. Thus, at one point, two competing yellow kids were present in both papers simultaneously, providing an easy way to differentiate them from their contemporaries, if not each other.

According to Campbell, the yellow journals had six defining characteristics: They employed large headlines, included various topics on the front page, were heavily illustrated, often experimented with different layouts, frequently used anonymous sources in reporting and were incredibly self-congratulatory.

In his book The Yellow Journalism: The Press and America’s Emergence as a World Power, David Spencer notes yellow journalism’s ambivalent attitude toward objective, fact-based reporting, as well. In lieu of such material, the papers often preferred more story-driven pieces, maybe due, in part, to the preponderance of aspiring literary writers entering the field or their target audience of less affluent, under-educated readers.

Sidney Kobre would also highlight, as he does in The Yellow Press and Gilded Age Journalism, the genre’s emphasis on social, conflict-focused news over straight political reporting, as was the most prevalent form of content in the United States’ early partisan press. Both papers prioritized crime and war coverage, often employing foreign correspondents to report on conflicts from far away. Along these lines, both papers increased the traditional newsgathering budget of a large paper, allowing for more detailed, focused coverage along the lines of foreign stories, as previously mentioned, but also strong, anti-corruption investigative pieces domestically, as well.

For example, take Nely Bly’s piece “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” or articles written on the New York Ice Trust Scandal. Such stories would not have been encouraged — or even possible — under the editorial thumb of the pre-yellow press.

Thus, we see yellow journalism as a broad, loosely defined term combining the many general tendencies seen more prominently in the coverage of the Journal and the World than other papers of the era. While some of these characteristics, such as the papers’ self-congratulatory references and large headlines, seem unprofessional to modern examination, the yellow journals’ investigative and enterprising tendencies have survived as a key, highly respected subsection of the field to this very day.

This new type of journalism likely came about in response to the economic and social change preceding the popularity of the Journal and the World in the late 19th century.

Urbanization caused city populations to rise, while the proliferation of better education gradually increased the literacy rate. With a larger lower and middle class readership than ever before, it was only natural that some city newspaper tycoons would choose to take advantage of an extraordinary new business opportunity.

Because the yellow journals needed this large new market to properly function, they could not have survived before the urbanization boom of the late 19th century. As it happened, however, the papers not only survived, but flourished.

Other factors also played into the rise of the yellow press. Advances in technology, such as the lithograph, enabled the press to pursue its unique, attention-grabbing layout.

These new practices allowed printable pictures to be included alongside stories, increasing the engagement of the yellow press’ traditionally violent coverage of crime and social happenings. Sensationalistic stories were a perfect match for the visual medium, and thus gave an edge to papers who were already invested in the style.

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A colorful legacy

While a few practices popularized by the yellow press have retained their popularity to this day, actual yellow papers, such as the Journal and World, have not. This is likely due to the harsh critical and economic backlash from the papers’ main competitors in New York City.

Many of the editors of these competing papers published written critiques of what they saw as the yellow press’ bawdy practices. The backlash went even further, with many of the same critical editors calling for yellow press bans in public reading areas throughout the city. Due to this pressure, both the Journal and World were eventually banned from the Newark library.

Calls for boycotts hurt the yellow press even more, with the more conservative papers of the time positioning themselves as morally superior news distributors.

This cultural factor — the shaming campaign waged against the yellow press — was clearly effective when one considers the pervasiveness and longevity of the “yellow journalism” slur.

The yellow press was an incredibly influential force in many ways, both positively and negatively. Some characteristics popularized by the yellow journals, such as investigative reporting and foreign correspondence, are still in use by modern papers. This “new journalism” arose as a result of economic opportunity fostered by a country undergoing rapid social change at the end of the 19th century.

After much success, the Journal and World faced harsh backlash from competing papers during the beginning of the 20th century. A new Moral War was waged, ultimately resulting in the permanent sullying of the term “yellow journalism,” as well as the toppling of its adherents’ stranglehold on the news market of New York City.

Yellow journalism is remembered today as a loose amalgamation of intuitive newsgathering quirks, as well as the purveyor of outrageous reporting in particularly sensationalistic outlets. Nonetheless, it remains an important historical precursor to the current state of the journalistic profession, a key component in attempting to understand a pivotal era in the history of American journalism.

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