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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
Perhaps the President had a point, for it was in this period that Greeley made his bravest, and most unpopular, decision—and he made it in full knowledge of the calamitous consequences that would descend both upon himself and upon the Tribune. Since the end of the war, the editor had called for leniency for the South. “Universal Amnesty and Impartial Suffrage” was the Tribune’s editorial slogan, and Greeley proved he meant what he said when on May 13, 1867, he joined a number of others in signing the $100,000 bail bond that released Jefferson Davis from prison. The storm of abuse from vengeful elements in the North extended all the way to his club. Summoned to a special meeting of the Union League to explain his action, Greeley refused to appear. “Understand, once for all,” he said in an open letter published in the Tribune, “that I dare you and defy you. … So long as any man was seeking to overthrow our Government, he was my enemy; from the hour in which he laid down his arms, he was my formerly erring countryman. …” The Union League met without Greeley, and backed down. The editor retained his membership, and the New York Tribune rode out yet another storm of cancelled subscriptions.
In 1867 Greeley, not fully satisfied with his managing editor, John Russell Young, began making overtures to Whitelaw Reid, the Cincinnati correspondent who had impressed him with his coverage of the Civil War, and later of Washington. Earlier in the Tribune’s, history Greeley had complained that “of all horned cattle, a college graduate in a newspaper office is the worst,” but, having watched Reid’s work, the editor was willing to overlook the fact that he was a graduate of Miami University at Oxford, Ohio. He was also willing to hint of a possible succession to the helm of the Tribune, and, as a result, early in the fall of 1868 Whitelaw Reid, at age thirty-five, accepted the position of “first writing editor” of the Tribune. The next spring Young resigned, and Greeley posted a notice that read: “The office of managing editor is abolished, and Mr. Whitelaw Reid will see that Mr. Greeley’s orders are obeyed, and give instructions at any time in his absence to subordinates.”
Reid quickly justified Greeley’s expectations. He picked up the Tribune style at once, and readers were soon hard pressed to distinguish between his editorials and those of the master. And if Greeley was pleased with his new assistant, so was the staff. Although a hard man with a blue pencil, Reid had a policy of standing by his men when they were under attack: he also introduced at the Tribune a policy of expressing appreciation for staff members who had performed outstanding work. The expression often took the form of cash.
Greeley had thrown the paper wholeheartedly into the movement to impeach President Johnson, and Reid kept it in the forefront of that battle. He made a point of keeping ahead on other fronts as well. Smalley, the Civil War correspondent who had become the Tribune’s “foreign commissioner,” was directed to “place no limitation upon your expenditures” in keeping the Tribune ahead in the coverage of the Franco-Prussian War. Cable tolls after the battles of Sedan and Gravelotte amounted to as much as $4,000 per day, but the complete beats scored by Smalley and other Tribune correspondents did much to bring the paper’s circulation back out of the pit again.
Also contributing to the rejuvenation of the paper was the service done for the Tribune by the United States Senate, which in 1871 was shocked to find the text of a secret treaty it had been debating spread all over the front page of the Tribune. The question of how the editors got the text eventually overshadowed the Senate debate altogether. “If the government can’t keep its own secrets, we do not propose to undertake the contract,” the Tribune said editorially, but the Senate was not inclined to let it go at that. The two Tribune correspondents in Washington, H.J. Ramsdell and Zebulon White, were asked to disclose their sources, and when they refused, the Senate voted to have them arrested and confined to the “apartments of the Pacific Railroad Committee.” These, however, proved to be spacious and comfortable, and the two men, who received double pay during their arrest, found the ordeal far from unpleasant. White’s dispatches, datelined “The Senate Bastille, U. S. Capitol,” described in genial detail the furnishings of the well-appointed apartments, the meals brought for the prisoners from the Senate restaurant, and their conversations with a number of distinguished—and amused—visitors. After ten days, the reporters were, by vote of the Senate, released from their imprisonment.
There were other attractions for readers of the Tribune in these days. Reid dispatched his best friend, John Hay, who had been President Lincoln’s private secretary and was to become Secretary of State under President Theodore Roosevelt, to Chicago to cover the fire that broke out Sunday, October 8, 1871. The Tribune got a first bulletin into its Monday edition under the heading, “Postscript 4 A.M.,” and continued to front-page the fire dispatches until October 26.