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The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper
Horace Greeley founded the “Trib”— and the union that eventually helped kill it. But in 125 years it knew many a shining hour.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
The good fortunes of the editor did not, however, extend to politics. In 1880, the Tribune had worked for the election of James A. Garfield, but only six months later an assassin’s bullet promoted the paper’s old target, Chester A. Arthur, to the Presidency. The Tribune’s choice in 1884 was Maine’s James G. Blaine, who had considerable opposition among liberal Republicans. In the end, however, two of Blaine’s friends cost him the election. One was a spokesman for a clerical delegation, who hailed the Republican as America’s defender against “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” and thereby delivered the Roman Catholic vote to Grover Cleveland. Blaine’s other friend and handicap was the New York Tribune.
The year before, while Reid was vacationing in Ohio, the strikebreakers he had hired in 1877 went over in a body to Typographical Union Number Six, which thereupon sought the discharge of the Tribune’s foreman, William P. Thompson, who was accused, among other things, of being an unreconstructed Rebel and of beating his wife. Reid returned from his vacation and hired more strikebreakers, and Typographical Union Number Six organized a boycott against “the most pronounced opponent of the working man in America, the New York Tribune.“The resulting furor, as historian James G. Smart wrote in the Nation, was “so protracted and filled with such hatred that the rancor caused by it would take a long time in dying. Perhaps it never died.”
“Boycott the Tribune and James G. Blaine” was the message of the printers’ newspaper, the Boycotter, to the union’s 3,500 members and 75,000 supporters. Blaine lost New York state by only 1,200 votes, and the Presidency by the margin of New York state’s electoral votes.
The election of Grover Cleveland was not the only important result of the feud between the Tribune and its printers. It shares that distinction with the revolution caused in the industry when, in late 1885, Reid gave the freedom of his composing room to a Baltimore inventor named Ottmar Mergenthaler. Early in the morning of July 3, 1886, the Tribune’s nonunion printers were called to assemble around a heavy, squat piece of machinery on the ninth floor composing room. As Mergenthaler explained his project, Whitelaw Reid fingered the keys of the as yet unnamed device, and within seconds a small lead slug fell into a slot. Legend has it that Reid, at that moment, named the Linotype.
Automated typesetting, at three times the speed of hand printing, materially aided the Tribune’s fortunes; there was—for the moment—no union to protest its adoption, as a later union would protest later technological advances, with results painful for the newspaper. The Linotype also aided the fortunes of Reid, who became the treasurer of the syndicate formed to underwrite it. As both the Tribune and his new enterprise prospered, the editor turned more and more toward public service.
In the election of 1888, Reid supported Benjamin Harrison and as a result was considered the likely choice for ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. The Tribune’s stand in favor of Irish home rule militated against that, however, and the editor was persuaded by his old friend Blaine, now Secretary of State, to accept the second-ranking diplomatic job, the ambassadorship to France. He was abroad three years—returning briefly in 1891 for the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the Tribune at the Metropolitan Opera House. The featured speaker on that occasion was, of all people, Charles Dana, who mused that “the world has changed. … It is wonderful how little personal controversy there is in our great newspapers.”
Reid’s absence from the turbulence of domestic politics helped to heal a number of other wounds, and on his return for the Republican convention of 1892 he found himself a principal candidate for the Vice Presidency under Harrison. There was, however, enough opposition to persuade the Ambassador to stop in New York and make peace with Typographical Union Number Six. Reid went to the convention in Milwaukee with a signed statement from the printers that “the Tribune is now a strict union office.” He was nominated for Vice President by acclamation, but the ticket of Harrison and Reid went down to defeat by 363,612 votes before the comeback of Grover Cleveland.