The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper

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The eighth-floor city room, with its map-covered walls, was described by an anonymous historian in the centennial edition of the Herald Tribune in 1941:

“There was a perpendicular viaduct for communication with the counting, editorial and composing rooms, with speaking tubes, copy boxes and bells. A water pail and a tin jar of ice water sat in a corner of the room. Paste pots and ink stands were scattered about, bits of blotting paper and rusty steel pens were on the floor. A dozen reporters sat at small green desks, some writing, some reading—several smoking briarwood pipes. Thatcher, the weather man, sat in a corner deciding it would rain within forty hours. Thatcher also ran a telescope business on the side (see the moon for a dime) in front of St. Paul’s Church. Unoccupied reporters grumbled at the hours, which were usually noon to midnight, six days a week. …”

Well, if the reporters grumbled at the hours—which were standard—at least they had a powerful consolation. Next to the basement pressroom Reid had set up an employee tavern. A beer saloon was housed in the Great Moral Organ, and Horace Greeley not dead three years!

The saloon wasn’t the only thing that would have upset Greeley. Two years and two pay cuts after they came to work in the “Tall Tower,” eighty-nine members of the printers’ union Greeley had helped found went out on strike. The cause, in addition to the twenty per cent cut in wages, was Reid’s determination to eliminate from the contract the requirement that all matter set for the paper outside the shop be reproduced by Tribune printers. Ironically, this provision was also to be one of the sticking points in the labor disputes which, eighty-nine years later, led to the death of the Herald Tribune; but, for the present at least, Reid’s financial returns were excellent. The Tribune brought in nonunion printers, weathered the financial panic that began in 1873, and by 1877 was even able to report an $85,000 profit.

Journalistically, too, the paper’s reputation was improving, despite such unfortunate lapses as declaring Democrat Samuel Tilden the winner in the hotly contested presidential election of 1876. The Tribune more than made up for this, however, in 1878, when after months of work it deciphered and printed the “cipher dispatches,” coded telegrams that showed that Tilden’s campaign managers had been negotiating for the purchase of electoral votes in the South and West. The exposure—and proof—of this attempt to buy a presidential election is generally considered the best story of the Tribune’s 125-year career. And the paper’s reputation for excellent writing was growing too. Work came in from, among others, Twain, Bret Harte, Walt Whitman, the noted English novelist Charles Reade, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and novelist Rebecca Harding Davis—mother of Richard Harding Davis, who was to be the journalist of the next generation, and of Charles Belmont Davis, who was to become the Tribune’s drama editor. In 1875 John Hay, no longer with the paper, recommended Henry James, who, he reported, “considers The Tribune the only paper where business could be combined with literary ambition.” Nineteen of James’s letters from Paris were published, but, as the novelist himself soon found, he was “too finical a writer” for newspapers, and he wrote no more for them.

The Tribune was also helped by Reid’s decision to resume publication of the Sunday paper that Greeley had attempted in 1861 and then abandoned under pressure from the New York Sabbath Committee. Now, however, as Reid pointed out, “with the single exception of some of the clergy,” all the defenders of the Sabbath “who were exhorting me to continue setting a noble example were gratifying their own craving to know what was going on by reading some Sunday paper.” The sixteen-page Sunday Tribune first appeared on December 6, 1879, with departmental features that included Home Interests, Music, Studio and Gallery, Book Reviews, Knitting, Science for the People, and Religious Intelligence. It was, at least, a gentler Sunday paper than the Herald or the Times.

Circulation, which stabilized at about 50,000 daily, 100,000 weekly, and 50,000 to 75,000 on Sunday, attracted enough advertising to enable Reid to double the Tribune Association capitalization and to pay off all but a small portion of the mortgage on the new building. In 1882, Reid ordered the addition of a twenty-story, steel-framed rear wing, thus doubling the building’s rentable space. In his new and expensive ventures, the editor was aided by a new source of capital. He had married Miss Elizabeth Mills, the daughter of financier Darius Ogden Mills, in 1881, and Mills had picked up the Tribune shares owned by Jay Gould and given them to his son-in-law. Of the 200 shares, Reid now had 143, and was secure enough to dabble in philanthropy in his own right. The Tribune had taken over from the Evening Post the Fresh Air Fund, a charity devoted to providing rural summer vacations for slum children, and by 1888 more than ten thousand youngsters had benefited.