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Dirty-faced David & The Twin Goliaths
One of the country’ more bizzarre labor disputes pitted a crowed of outraged newsboys against two powerful opponents—Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolf Hearst
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
Joseph Pulitzer, nearly blind, suffering from bouts of depression, and so sensitive to sound he exploded when the silverware was rattled, managed his newspapers in absentia for the last twenty years of his life. Nearly every day he received memos from the New York World office providing him with the information he required: financial reports, circulation figures, summaries of lead stories and features, lists of headlines in the World and its rivals, office gossip, and evaluations of key personnel.
In July of 1899 a new subject appeared in the memos. Don Seitz, managing editor and Pulitzer’s chief informant, noted that the paper had “had some trouble to-day through the strike on the part of the newsboys.” A July 21 memo headed “On the Newsboys Strike” reported further that the strike would “probably be sporadic for some days” but assured Pulitzer that “we have the situation well in hand.” Twenty-four hours later the tone of the memos had changed: “The newsboys strike has grown into a menacing affair.… It is proving a serious problem. Practically all the boys in New York and adjacent towns have quit selling.” By the twenty-fourth, panic had set in. “The advertisers have abandoned the papers and the sale has been cut down fully 2/5.… It is really a very extraordinary demonstration.”
Indeed it was. The New York City newsies had formed their own union and gone out on strike against not only Pulitzer’s World but also William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal . A confederation of children was challenging the two most powerful publishers in the nation.
In 1899 the New York City newsies were in the enviable position of being virtually irreplaceable. Although there had always been newsboys selling papers in American cities, their numbers had been increased enormously by the boom in the circulation of evening papers—three evening papers sold for each morning one by 1900. As people began to live farther from their jobs and to ride home instead of walking, newsboys found that they could sell them afternoon papers to read on the trip.
Nor was the new generation of newsies like its earlier counterparts. As the superintendent of a “newsboys’ lodging house” explained to Jacob Riis in 1912, these children were not street waifs. They were eleven- to fifteen-year-old boys who went to school and then at four in the afternoon picked up their papers to sell during the rush hour. “The newsboy of today,” Riis was told, “is a commercial little chap who lives at home and sells papers after schoolhours.” He was also the newspapers’ major distributor.
The event that led to the newsies’ strike of 1899 was the wholesale price increase Hearst’s Journal and Pulitzer’s World had instituted the year before at the height of the Spanish-American War circulation boom. The publishers, especially Hearst and Pulitzer, had been spending far more money competing with one another in extra editions, splashy front pages, and eyewitness reports than they could recoup on advertising and sales. In hopes of reducing their losses to more manageable levels, they raised prices to the newsies from five to six cents for ten papers.
As long as the boys were making money hawking extra editions with horror stories on the front pages, they did not protest the price increase. They sold each paper for a penny, and though they got nothing back on the papers they could not sell, returns were low in wartime and did not cut into their profits very much. By the summer of 1899, however, as the news grew tamer and the headlines shrank, they began to feel the pinch of the penny increase. And by now it was apparent that the temporary increase would become a permanent one unless they did something about it.
It is difficult to say where or precisely how the strike began. The first reported actions took place in Long Island City, where the newsies discovered that the Journal deliveryman had been cheating them by giving a short count on their bundles of papers. On July 18 they took their revenge by tipping over his wagon, running off with his papers, and chasing him out of town. Flushed with success and in a fighting mood, the boys “ decided to make a stand against the World and [ Journal ] for 50 per hundred,” as Don Seitz reported to Pulitzer. They demanded a price rollback to the pre-war level and gave notice to their suppliers that they were no longer going to buy the Hearst or Pulitzer papers. The news of the Long Island City action traveled quickly into Manhattan, Seitz told Pulitzer, where “a young fellow named Morris Cohen, who sells about three hundred Worlds a day in City Hall Park got hold of the boys and got them to strike.”