The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper

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Disappointed, Reid returned to the Tribune, but his heart really wasn’t in it. Joseph Pulitzer was well on the way to revolutionizing New York journalism, but the man now considered “the dean of the press in New York” seemed to have lost interest in the dirty little wars of newspapers. He was away much of the time, lecturing at Yale, travelling to Europe, vacationing in the Adirondacks, or resting at the western estates of his father-in-law. A supporter of McKinley, of course, he was named in 1898 to the commission that met in Paris to draft the peace treaty with Spain, and in 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt sent Reid as his representative at the coronation of Edward VII. Four years later, T.R. named him to the post for which he had long been considered, ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. John Hay, by now Secretary of State, said that signing Reid’s commission was “the crowning act of friendship and close association of forty years.”

While Reid was climbing to the apex of his diplomatic career, the Tribune was beginning to plunge toward its nadir. Reid, too good a newsman not to have seen it coming, spoke as early as 1879 of the opportunity awaiting the publisher of a paper that would be “as disreputable and vile as 150,000 readers would be willing to buy.” In 1883, Pulitzer seized the opportunity by buying the World, and four years later, William Randolph Hearst came along to buy control of the Journal. These press lords jumped onto—indeed, Hearst helped propel—the Spanish-American War bandwagon. The World and Journal paid $2.12 per word cable costs for news from Cuba, and their editors called for bigger and bigger sizes of railroad type to display it, but the Tribune, for the most part, relied on the Associated Press and featured local stories. At least part of the problem was that Reid, in his absences from the paper, had placed in charge men of long service who were, as Harry W. Baehr, Jr., points out in his The New York Tribune Since the Civil War, “not the type to alter fixed modes of thought and action on the paper.”

Indeed, Reid’s regents had all they could do to convince Reid to adopt two-column headlines, and to follow the trend toward Sunday magazines and daily sports pages. They could not, however, persuade him to meet the price competition of the yellow press. Both the World and the Journal were selling at one cent a copy. Only grudgingly had Reid cut the Tribune’s price from four to three cents; further he would not go. But in 1898 Adolph S. Ochs, who had purchased the critically weak New York Times two years before, put his paper before his pride. He took the Times down to a penny to challenge the World and the Journal, and he made a success of it. The Times tripled its circulation and soared past the Tribune. For eleven more years, while Reid railed at the “penny press” and clung to the concept of a newspaper edited “for the gentry,” the Tribune sold for three cents and lost about a million dollars each year. When the editor finally yielded, in 1909, he was too late. Horace Greeley’s Tribune, “the bible of the West” had become known as “the little old lady of Park Row.”

Whitelaw Reid died at his post in England in 1912 and was succeeded in control of the Tribune by his son Ogden, a Yale Law School graduate who had been trained successively as reporter, city editor, and managing editor. Ogden Reid needed money to build, and he got it from his mother—several million dollars in advances. These and earlier family loans to the paper were covered by notes that would play a major role in the death of the paper, but for the present they gave young Reid a chance to breathe. The by-lines and the forthcoming display of the work of men such as Heywood Broun, W.O. McGeehan, Franklin Pierce Adams, and Grantland Rice soon indicated the new direction the Tribune’s third master was taking. If it couldn’t match its competitors in covering the news, the Tribune would take the alternative course: it would write its way to success.

Yet of all the Tribune writers—many of whom became well known, and some even famous—few promoted the fortunes of the paper so well as a thirteen-year-old Brooklyn girl. If the New York Sun is remembered as the paper Virginia wrote to about Santa Claus, then the Tribune deserves a place in history for the 1916 letter of Marjorie Sterrett:

“To the Editor of the New York Tribune, Dear Sir:—

I read in your paper every morning a lot about preparedness. My Grandpa and my great Grandpa were soldiers. If I was a boy I would be a soldier, too, but I am not, so I want to do what I can to help. Mama gives me a dime every week for helping her. I am sending you this week’s dime to help build a battleship for Uncle Sam. I know a lot of other kids who would give their errand money if you would start a fund. I am thirteen years old, and go to Public School No. 9, Brooklyn.

Very truly yours, Marjorie Sterrett