The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper

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Squabbles with his printers, and $400 gold watches for that matter, were a long time away, however, on what the editor later described as the “cold, clammy morning” when he first published his “new Morning Journal of Politics, Literature and General Intelligence.” On the back page of this hopeful first issue, the printers were directed to turn the rules to effect a black-bordered sign of mourning where Greeley described the city’s funeral honors for President Harrison, whose term of office had been cut short at one month by the pneumonia he contracted at his inauguration. For the first of his four pages, though, Greeley offered a powerful attraction: the text, in full, of a decision by the attorney general of New York declaring New York City Recorder Robert H. Morris guilty of “manifest usurpation of power. “On the two inside pages Greeley and his editorial staff of two, Henry J. Raymond and George M. Snow, denounced Recorder Morris at length, and railed at the sharp two-year increase of $67,000 in almshouse expenditures. There were also a few financial items, as well as a table of quotations on the money market and a stock table that listed all eighteen issues on the New York Stock Exchange. That first edition, printed on two flat-bed presses, comprised 5,000 papers, and Greeley, who had managed to enlist only 500 advance subscribers, considered himself fortunate to be able to give away the unsold copies.

A typical day’s coverage in the first year included articles dealing with a demonstration at Tammany Hall; a meeting of the Bible Society; a session of the committee investigating the affairs of Columbia College; a meeting to devise measures for improvement of the lot of the Negro population; a temperance parade; sessions of the board of aldermen, the commissioners of emigration, and the commissioners of taxes, as well as the proceedings of a trial for murder; the particulars of seven fires; a review of the opera; and thirteen other items, chiefly of marine and financial interest. There were no sports items, per se, in those first issues; it was not until the twenty-fourth issue that Greeley grudgingly gave space to the proceedings of a ball game. The result must have been gratifying, for a few weeks later sports invaded page one with a story about a “ball play game between Bulexe and the Choktaw Indians.” For the record, the Choktaws won and collected, in wagers, the possessions—including the clothing—of the defeated team.

Excepting possibly the scanty sports accounts, however, there seemed no item small or insignificant enough to escape the moralizing of the editor, including the reports of the frequent temperance meetings. “We trust that the convincing arguments for total abstinence will have a good effect,” Greeley would close such an account. “They ought to at least.” Not all of his comments made dull reading. Witness the full text of the column of Washington news printed in the Tribune on Christmas Day 1852: “Congress did nothing yesterday—to speak of.”

Whatever the reason—the politics, the coverage, or the writing—circulation did pick up, and this despite the nation’s first recorded circulation war. Owners of the Sun had instructed their newsboys to thrash any boys found selling the Tribune, but after six weeks Greeley nonetheless found himself able to sell 11,000 Tribunes on each of the six publishing days of the week. Advertising also increased, but at first profits failed to keep pace. In its initial week, the Tribune took in $92 but paid out $525. It continued to lose money at the rate of between $200 and $300 a week until, three months after the paper first came out, Greeley was able to persuade Thomas McElrath, an attorney with publishing experience, to invest $2,000 for a partnership.

The Tribune, Greeley had promised, would be dedicated among other things to furthering total abstinence from liquor (“Anti-Slavery, Anti-War, Anti-Rum, Anti-Tobacco, Anti-Seduction, Anti-Grogshops, Brothels, Gambling Houses”), but McElrath, and the hard facts of publishing life, soon managed to persuade Greeley to turn away from his noble intentions. Even more numerous than the liquor advertisements that romped through the columns of the paper were the advertisements for what appeared to be a myriad assortment of patent medicines. Worse, all the advertisements were not necessarily contained in the advertising columns. By the sixth month of its existence the Tribune’s news columns were marred by paid items, or obvious commercial plugs for advertisers. There was, for instance, the “news item” announcing: “L.N. Fowler, our Practical Phrenologist, delivers tonight the finishing lecture of his present courses, and from the subject we venture to say that it will be as interesting and useful as any of the preceding discourses. See advertisement.”