The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper

It was ten on Saturday evening, April 23, 1966, when M. C. (Inky) Blackman, a short, gray-haired rewrite man, put a ticktacktoe mark at the bottom of a news story, stood up, grunted good night, and without further ceremony left the fifth floor of the building at 230 West Forty-first Street, New York City. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the endmark on Blackman’s piece also wrote finis to a great newspaper that had once been America’s greatest newspaper. After 125 years and 43,483 daily issues, the New York Tribune —since 1924 the New York Herald Tribune —was lapsing into a labor paralysis from which it would never recover. The paper’s final publisher, John Hay Whitney, whose golden touch had awed the oil and chemical industries, had struggled vainly for eight years with the Herald Tribune —and had lost an estimated twenty million dollars. The Herald Tribune never resumed publication. On August 15, 114 days after its last edition, it was pronounced dead. Its Sunday paper and certain elements of its format were merged into the ill-omened World Journal Tribune, which itself lingered for less than eight months before following its three parent papers into oblivion. But of all the thirteen papers, morning and afternoon, liberal and conservative, whose legacies were merged in that unfortunate salvage attempt, there was none whose accomplishments or influence could rival Horace Greeley’s “Try-bune,” once known in a simpler time as “the bible of the West.”

The New York Tribune sprang into existence on April 10, 1841, on $2,000 capital—$1,000 of it borrowed. Its editor was an inconsistent and volatile New England printer, already growing bald at thirty, who had graduated to the publication of what were primarily Whig political papers and pamphlets, as well as a magazine with literary pretensions, the New Yorker (no relation, of course, to the urbane magazine of today).

The paper he founded at 30 Ann Street, a ramshackle two-story building near the base of Manhattan, was in competition politically with four Whig papers already in existence, the Courier and Enquirer, the American, the Express, and the Commercial Advertiser—but there would be a difference. The established Whig papers sold at six cents per day, or ten dollars to yearly subscribers; Greeley would peg the Tribune’s price to compete with the two brawling brothers of the “penny press,” the Sun, established by Benjamin Day in 1833, and the Herald, first published by James Gordon Bennett in 1835. In the Tribune, however, Greeley promised in a prepublication prospectus:

“The immoral and degrading police reports, advertisements and other matter which have been allowed to disgrace the columns of our leading penny papers will be carefully excluded from this, and no exertion will be spared to render it worthy of the hearty approval of the virtuous and refined, and a welcome visitant at the family fireside.”

A paper for the “virtuous and refined” at a price that appealed to the American laborer was a contradictory undertaking, but then Horace Greeley is undoubtedly the most contradictory figure to spring—in two directions at once—into American journalism and American history. He supported, and then denounced—and on occasion, supported and denounced again—propositions and personages from aldermen to Presidents. The first Tribune editorial Greeley wrote was in praise of John Tyler; yet seven months later the editor announced two presidential post-office nominations by listing them under the heading “Appointments by Judas Iscariot.” Equally contradictory, perhaps, was Greeley’s attitude toward the hard-working American workingman he claimed to represent. A founder and the first president of the New York Printers’ Union (later Typographical Union Number Six), he paid Tribune printers thirty-two cents for each 1,000 ems set in type when other papers were paying twenty-three; in 1844, the editor led the battle for a higher city-wide scale for printers, and won. The victory was celebrated by the firing of a cannon in front of the Tribune office. On the other hand, Greeley thundered his denunciation of the other side of the unionization coin, the right to strike. In its earlier days particularly, the Tribune generally ignored the existence of strikes—and even distorted what little news its editor allowed to be printed about them. "I don’t want to encourage these lawless proceedings,” Greeley explained. Yet, although he frequently quarrelled with his printers—once even hiring strikebreakers—Greeley remained, generally, on good terms with them. In 1862, just a year after they had refused to accept a ten per cent pay cut announced by the editor, Tribune printers chipped in to purchase Greeley a $400 gold watch.