The term “yellow journalism” first emerged in the United States as a pejorative to characterize the news produced by publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in their competition for New York City readers during the late 1890s. Their success in achieving daily circulations surpassing one million helped spread their innovations, including sensationalism, to other newspapers. With Pulitzer and Hearst, the US news industry joined that of other industrialized democracies at the turn of the century, including Sweden, Germany, Canada, and England (with the Northcliffe revolution), in evolving from a limited “class” press to a “mass” medium. These mass newspapers adopted varying proportions of sensationalism, populism, and socialism to address the interests of new, urban, working-class, and immigrant readers. In response, the established upper-class journals fought back on matters of taste and politics, in part by disputing the legitimacy of the new journalism and castigating it as yellow.
During the late 1800s, two factors altered the economic strategies of US news publishers. First, the cost of paper stock continued a long-term fall from approximately 12 cents a pound in 1860 to 2 cents in 1900. Second, advertising revenues rose drastically, first from display ads for department stores and later from name brands. US census data reports that advertising constituted 44 percent of gross revenue for periodicals (including newspapers) in 1879, but reached 54.5 percent in 1899 and 65.5 percent in 1919. Falling costs and rising revenues allowed publishers to lower the price for each copy and simultaneously increase the quantity of material published in the daily paper, thus attracting the growing audiences that advertisers desired. The US news industry, following Pulitzer, began to focus on the marginal customer, who previously possessed neither the means nor the desire to purchase newspapers. A pursuit of readers led papers out of limited market niches into general competition.
Pulitzer bought the moribund New York World, with 15,000 readers, in 1883 and quickly experimented with new techniques to attract readers. He expanded headlines from one-column stacked decks to full-page banners, splashed illustrations and photos across page one, introduced comic strips, and added pages for women and sports, among other innovations. The World quickly surpassed the city’s circulation leader, the Sun, with 130,000 readers. By 1887, Pulitzer’s distribution hit 250,000 – the country’s largest – and at the peak of the 1898 Spanish–American War, Pulitzer and Hearst each amassed a circulation of 1.2 million. With the impetus from yellow journalism, newspapers had achieved almost universal readership. In 1880, the daily papers in New York City printed only four copies for every ten inhabitants, but by 1900 the rate had doubled, to eight copies for ten inhabitants.
The “yellow” label refers to how journalists handled news content. Pulitzer, and in his footsteps the competitive acolyte Hearst, emphasized reporting on crime and scandal and launched populist crusades against governmental corruption and corporate power. Sensational journalism in the World and the Journal violated the tastes and social understandings of the American upper and middle classes. In response, competitors from the genteel press condemned the focus on crime, scandal, and reform, saying that Hearst and Pulitzer were pandering to the tastes of the masses.
The New York Press coined the term “yellow journalism” in 1897 to denote the sensationalist coloring of the news. In fact, in western Europe “yellow” had long been a depreciating expression for cheap, popular, sensationalist fiction. In New York City, however, yellow had a more specific referent in one of the World’s and Journal’s most prominent features: comic strips and, in particular, Richard Outcault’s brightly colored Yellow Kid, a gap-toothed ragamuffin from the city slums. Conflicts over the correct conduct of journalism and proper public discourse produced a movement aimed at chastising the two New York publishing magnates. Elite papers joined with upper-class magazines, reforming social scientists, and political leaders in criticizing the yellow press and calling for the banning of sensational sheets from libraries and clubs.
The hunt for readers heightened Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s demand for news. The pursuit of scoops and scandalous stories, however, tied yellow papers to mainstream ones in a general turn from past traditions of interpretive, literary, and partisan reporting. The shift toward unadorned facts redefined and temporarily lowered the reporters’ place in the news organization, as well as their general social status in public life. The number of reporters multiplied, but they lost independent authority. They became increasingly subject to a hierarchy of rewrite men, copy editors, and editors. With the adoption of the telephone during the 1890s, reporters often called in the story to a rewrite man, who seized upon salient details and wove them into a snappy narrative. Reflecting their lack of workplace power, turn-of-the-century news workers endured long working hours, low pay, and uncertain tenure. These working conditions, along with low standards for journalism, reinforced the sensationalism of the news as reporters padded, altered, and even fabricated their stories to boost their pay.
The manipulation and, indeed, creation of news by yellow journalism reached its apogee in the 1898 Spanish–American War. Critics, led by such anti-imperialists as E. L. Godkin, blamed the yellow press for drumming up public opinion against Spanish colonial rule and pressuring US president William McKinley to enter the war, but historians later discounted the power of the yellow press. In any case, a corrupt circuit of information emerged. Starting in 1895, Cuban exiles in New York City provided the press with exaggerated or fabricated reports, detailing the attacks of Cuban rebels and reprisals of the Spanish government. The yellow journals seized on the information and twisted it to fit their own jingoistic, republican plots. Their stories described Cubans longing for freedom but subject to vicious Spanish masters. Once the war began, the yellow journals offered up patriotic tales of American heroism in the face of war. In Godkin’s 1898 analysis, an unholy collusion united the publishers’ desire for circulation, a public roused to nationalism, and the propaganda interests of the national government.
In the end, what vanquished yellow journalism were not the attacks of genteel critics but Pulitzer himself, deciding to end his race to the gutter with Hearst. In the early 1900s, Pulitzer pursued a veneer of respectability, engaging in such ventures as founding the Columbia University School of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prizes. Although centered on US history, yellow journalism was a precursor to sensationalism elsewhere in the media.
- Smythe, T. C. (2003). The gilded age press, 1865–1900. New York: Praeger.
- Swanberg, W. A. (1967). Pulitzer. New York: Scribner.