- Historic Sites
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 money was beginning to come in, however—enough to allow the Tribune editor to invest some of his unaccustomed profits in the gathering of news; reporters and departments were added. The Tribune began paying more attention to finance, particularly real-estate transactions, which Greeley watched with a speculative eye, and to ship news. More important to the working-class readers he was seeking to attract, however, was the appearance of fiction—and poetry; the name of H. W. Longfellow was signed to a number of the early submissions. Greeley’s taste in fiction ran, at first, to serialized stories from Godey’s Lady's Book, but later he published chapters from Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge as they arrived from England. And despite Greeley’s promised ban, a column of “City Intelligence” was installed in the paper.
If the Tribune had, by the simple pressure of economic survival, been forced to catch up with the rest of the town on the routine facets of journalism, it did, on Greeley’s own initiative, spring ahead of them on the subject closest to his heart: politics. The paper astounded the pretelegraphic city one morning by printing the summary of a speech that Daniel Webster had made only the day before in Boston. To accomplish this unprecedented feat, Greeley had dispatched his chief assistant, Raymond, and a crew of Tribune compositors to establish what was, in essence, a water-borne composing room aboard the night boat to Boston. Raymond covered the speech and dashed back in time to catch the boat; during the night the printers hand-set the type as the reporter wrote the copy. The boat docked at 5 A.M., and the Tribune was on the street an hour later with the speech.
The principal method of obtaining news from other cities, before the formation of the Associated Press in 1848, was to lift it from papers that were mailed to New York in exchange for the local papers, and the pages of the early Tribune were sprinkled with such gleanings. Exchanges, however, were not sufficient for Greeley. Whenever possible, he wanted the Tribune to have its own men on the scene. This proved to be an expensive proposition, but correspondents were recruited in large cities here and abroad, including a Washington reporter whose identity is still screened by his pen name, Argus. At the same time, Greeley found a way to spread his expenses. Two of his previous publications, the Log Cabin (a relic of Harrison’s “log cabin and hard cider” campaign of 1840) and the New Yorker, were merged to form a weekly edition of the Tribune that would contain a collection of Greeley’s choicest daily fulminations, emphasizing particularly those with interest outside of New York. The Weekly Tribune would be mailed upstate and to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the West, where newspapers were thus far unable to fill the demands of readers for national or foreign news.
The first Weekly Tribune, published five months after the birth of its parent paper, was a mixed bag. President Tyler’s second veto message rubbed shoulders with “Eleanora,” a short story by Edgar Alien Poe; “the address of the Whig membership of the Congress of the United States”; an article on “the New Revenue Law”; a column of “Doings in Washington”; and editorials on “Cabinet Changes” and the “Law of River Navigation.” The success of the Weekly Tribune surprised even its ebullient editor. In twenty years’ time, it was to build to a circulation of 200,000, the highest in the United States.
In the meantime, the daily Tribune had its successes. Four months after its first issue Greeley was complaining that twelve of his twenty daily columns were being pre-empted by advertising, and, after six months, he responded by expanding the paper from five to six columns per page. At the end of the first year, with circulation standing at 10,000, he expressed his satisfaction in glowing terms:
“Through one year, we have labored with whatever capacity we possess and with untiring assiduity to issue and establish a paper which should recommend itself to the approval of the virtuous, the enlightened, the enquiring, and the patriotic. Whatever errors we have committed have not been those of indolence or indifference.
“We have labored with whatever success to inculcate and advocate truth in each department of Political and Moral obligation and to publish a cheap paper which should furnish early and lucidly the NEWS of the day, and be at once an aid to the man of business and a welcome visitor to the fireside of every virtuous family. The extent to which our paper has commended itself to the favor and support of the public has fully equalled our most sanguine expectations.”