- 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
It was ten on Saturday evening, April 23, 1966, when M. C. (Inky) Blackman, a short, gray-haired rewrite man, put a ticktacktoe mark at the bottom of a news story, stood up, grunted good night, and without further ceremony left the fifth floor of the building at 230 West Forty-first Street, New York City. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the endmark on Blackman’s piece also wrote finis to a great newspaper that had once been America’s greatest newspaper. After 125 years and 43,483 daily issues, the New York Tribune —since 1924 the New York Herald Tribune —was lapsing into a labor paralysis from which it would never recover. The paper’s final publisher, John Hay Whitney, whose golden touch had awed the oil and chemical industries, had struggled vainly for eight years with the Herald Tribune —and had lost an estimated twenty million dollars. The Herald Tribune never resumed publication. On August 15, 114 days after its last edition, it was pronounced dead. Its Sunday paper and certain elements of its format were merged into the ill-omened World Journal Tribune, which itself lingered for less than eight months before following its three parent papers into oblivion. But of all the thirteen papers, morning and afternoon, liberal and conservative, whose legacies were merged in that unfortunate salvage attempt, there was none whose accomplishments or influence could rival Horace Greeley’s “Try-bune,” once known in a simpler time as “the bible of the West.”
The New York Tribune sprang into existence on April 10, 1841, on $2,000 capital—$1,000 of it borrowed. Its editor was an inconsistent and volatile New England printer, already growing bald at thirty, who had graduated to the publication of what were primarily Whig political papers and pamphlets, as well as a magazine with literary pretensions, the New Yorker (no relation, of course, to the urbane magazine of today).
The paper he founded at 30 Ann Street, a ramshackle two-story building near the base of Manhattan, was in competition politically with four Whig papers already in existence, the Courier and Enquirer, the American, the Express, and the Commercial Advertiser—but there would be a difference. The established Whig papers sold at six cents per day, or ten dollars to yearly subscribers; Greeley would peg the Tribune’s price to compete with the two brawling brothers of the “penny press,” the Sun, established by Benjamin Day in 1833, and the Herald, first published by James Gordon Bennett in 1835. In the Tribune, however, Greeley promised in a prepublication prospectus:
“The immoral and degrading police reports, advertisements and other matter which have been allowed to disgrace the columns of our leading penny papers will be carefully excluded from this, and no exertion will be spared to render it worthy of the hearty approval of the virtuous and refined, and a welcome visitant at the family fireside.”
A paper for the “virtuous and refined” at a price that appealed to the American laborer was a contradictory undertaking, but then Horace Greeley is undoubtedly the most contradictory figure to spring—in two directions at once—into American journalism and American history. He supported, and then denounced—and on occasion, supported and denounced again—propositions and personages from aldermen to Presidents. The first Tribune editorial Greeley wrote was in praise of John Tyler; yet seven months later the editor announced two presidential post-office nominations by listing them under the heading “Appointments by Judas Iscariot.” Equally contradictory, perhaps, was Greeley’s attitude toward the hard-working American workingman he claimed to represent. A founder and the first president of the New York Printers’ Union (later Typographical Union Number Six), he paid Tribune printers thirty-two cents for each 1,000 ems set in type when other papers were paying twenty-three; in 1844, the editor led the battle for a higher city-wide scale for printers, and won. The victory was celebrated by the firing of a cannon in front of the Tribune office. On the other hand, Greeley thundered his denunciation of the other side of the unionization coin, the right to strike. In its earlier days particularly, the Tribune generally ignored the existence of strikes—and even distorted what little news its editor allowed to be printed about them. "I don’t want to encourage these lawless proceedings,” Greeley explained. Yet, although he frequently quarrelled with his printers—once even hiring strikebreakers—Greeley remained, generally, on good terms with them. In 1862, just a year after they had refused to accept a ten per cent pay cut announced by the editor, Tribune printers chipped in to purchase Greeley a $400 gold watch.
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.”
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.”
And, apparently, it had. Thumbing his nose at the Herald and the Sun, Greeley raised the daily Tribune’s price to two cents and, reassured of its success, proceeded with plans to move it from the small Ann Street building to a new location at the junction of Nassau and Spruce streets and Park Row, across from City Hall, a site and structure owned by McElrath’s father-in-law, Thompson Price. The Tribune remained at this location—although not in that particular building —for nearly seventy-nine years. A fire in 1845 forced Greeley to return the Tribune to Ann Street to share the plant facilities of the World (it is one of the wonders of nineteenth-century journalism that papers brawling and feuding in their columns would, in emergencies, make every effort to assist each other), but the Tribune soon returned to its new site in a squat, five-story building that was purchased from Price in 1858 for $163,000. This building, as a Tribune brochure later boasted, possessed stairs “worn with the feet of men whom the future historian of this country will place among the most venerable figures in the most critical period of the American Republic.”
The brochure (printed expressly for the centennial celebration of the nation’s independence, held in Philadelphia) was not far wrong. From the new building Greeley waged his incessant campaigns: for reform and retrenchment in government; against alcohol, tobacco, and slaveholding; in favor of Associationism, (a modified form of Socialism propounded by the Frenchman Charles Fourier and his American disciple, Albert Brisbane, who proposed dividing society into “phalanxes” or joint stock companies); in favor of Transcendentalism (with exceptions); and in favor of high tariff protection (without exceptions).
To aid him in these campaigns, Greeley set out to build a staff that he could trust the paper to during what would prove to be frequent absences. Raymond, who was making $1,000 a year as assistant in the departments of literary criticism, fine arts, and general intelligence, soon defected and went over to feud with Greeley as managing editor of the Courier and Enquirer. (A few years later, in 1851, he started a paper of his own and called it the New York Times.) At the Tribune he was eventually succeeded by Charles A. Dana, who was to make something of a name for himself in journalism, too. It was Dana who took the initiative in building up the Tribune staff, hiring and assigning correspondents, including a man in London named Karl Marx, who wrote dispatches to the Tribune at one pound apiece for more than ten years. The author of the Communist Manifesto, the Tribune noted editorially, “has indeed opinions of his own, with some of which we are far from agreeing, but those who do not read his letters neglect one of the most instructive sources of information on the great questions of European politics.” (See “When Karl Marx Worked for Horace Greeley” in the April, 1957, AMERICAN HERITAGE.)
During the Tribune’s early years, Greeley was not the easiest man to work for, but Dana, who put in fifteen years—as city editor, foreign correspondent, and finally as managing editor—made a fine complement for his querulous employer. He also showed a remarkable capacity to take direction from the Senior Editor, who was anything but tolerant of the weaknesses of subordinates. (On one occasion, angered by an error in proofreading, Greeley directed a subordinate editor to “oblige me and go upstairs and choke that infernal fool for nine minutes.”) In addition to keeping a watchful eye on what appeared in the paper, Greeley insisted on having the final say on who worked for it—and on the salaries they were paid. Still, Greeley and Dana worked well together. As the latter’s biographer, James H. Wilson, noted:
“Nothing seems to have been too trivial, or too great, for that matter, for their consideration. Standing, as it were, like sentinels on a watch tower, they caught the first signs of every social or political disturbance, and took cognizance of every event which promised to affect the public interest. They were leaders, not followers, of public opinion …”
His mind eased, to some extent, over the editing of the Tribune, Greeley could now turn his attention to ridding himself of some of the more onerous tasks of publishing it, and, in 1849, he found his solution. Influenced somewhat by his Associationist leanings, he turned the paper into a joint-stock venture, issuing 100 shares of stock, each valued at $1,000. But apparently the teachings of Associationism had not found favor among the members of the Tribune staff, for only six employees came forward at the first offering with the courage—and the $1,000—to invest in the Tribune. Of the other 94 shares, 10 were reserved for Dana, 31 1/2 for Greeley, and 52 1/2 for McElrath. Greeley, who was assured by the Tribune Association bylaws of an annual salary of $2,500, had thus surrendered nominal control of the paper, but until the last days of his life, even at times when he himself possessed only six shares, he never lost the decisive voice.
The formation of the association gave Greeley some of the freedom he was straining for, and so, he soon found, did the invention of the magnetic telegraph in 1845. With the subsequent linking of cables between the major cities, the pace of news in the papers picked up. The Herald was the first paper to capitalize on the telegraph in New York, but the Tribune quickly followed—not, however, without some misgivings on the part of its editor, who wrote in 1851: “In old days when there was no Telegraph and no Railroad between this city and New Haven, we used to arrange our expresses from that state so as to have the returns from two thirds of the towns in our office within ten hours from the close of the polls, and so tell how the state had gone in our next morning paper, but never since we have had two or three telegraphic lines through that state have we been able to give a clear account of any election on the morning after its occurrence. …”
Though he grumbled about the newfangled device, it enabled Greeley to exercise a kind of remote control over the Tribune , and, at the same time, to embark on his life’s true work—lecturing, in and out of the paper, the American people. Now he could make long speaking tours and serve in the House of Representatives (where he was something less than a success, trying fruitlessly, as New York’s Senator William H. Seward observed, “to reform Congress all at once”). He was also free to play a leading role in the formation of the Republican Party and, eventually, to prepare the free states for the break that would widen into civil war.
During the intervals when he did find himself at Park Row, however, Greeley enjoyed nothing more than the professional brawls that enlivened the journalism of his day. Not immune himself to libel problems (James Fenimore Cooper had won a $200 verdict against the Tribune in its first year), he took a particular delight in publicizing the libel difficulties of his rival, Bennett, whom he termed in print “the low-mouthed, blatant, witless, brutal proprietor of that sewer sheet.” And even the gentlest of questions directed toward the Greeley theories was enough to bring down the wrath of the Tribune’s editor. Nettled when William Cullen Bryant, the poet-editor of the Evening Post, intimated that he had once been mild in his opposition to slavery, Greeley replied in the Tribune: “You lie, villain! Willfully, wickedly, basely lie! ” And if he couldn’t find a pretext for a quarrel, Greeley invented one. His way of celebrating the installation of a new font of type at the Tribune in 1846 was to editorialize, “If there be one thing that we dislike above all others, it is a flimsy, chocolate colored, half illegible, pitchforked-together apology for a newspaper—like the Express, for example.”
In this climate the Tribune flourished or declined—primarily the former—in relation to the popular reception of its editor. When Greeley backed prohibition and tax-supported public schools, the paper’s circulation in liberal and Roman Catholic homes fell off markedly. As friction over the slavery question increased, however, circulation began rising again, until, at the outbreak of the war, Tribunes were being sent to nearly 300,000 subscribers of the daily, weekly, and semiweekly editions. The Weekly, as the Tribune liked to point out at this juncture, “is known … as the standard and favorite paper of common people; found in more village stores and offices, mechanics’ workshops and farmers’ homes than any other paper in the country.” In contrast, the semiweekly, published Wednesday and Saturday, “circulates almost entirely among the educated and professional classes at points more or less remote from New York where local daily papers are depended upon for the telegraphic news.” As if this were not enough, the Tribune also was publishing a special edition for European readers (issued on the departure of each mail steamer for Liverpool) and, finally, a post-Gold Rush edition for “California, Oregon and the Sandwich Islands” (published on the departure of each mail steamer for Aspinwell, the transshipment point on the Isthmus of Panama). Greeley could truly boast that his papers were seen each week by more than a million Americans.
And as the paper’s influence and circulation grew, so did the influence and authority of its editor. Greeley’s lectures, particularly in the West, were extremely popular, and his words, as embodied in Tribune editorials, were considered the final authority on almost every subject.1
In the slaveholding states, of course, Greeley’s abolitionist dogma was anathema. Sam Houston called the editor a man “whose hair is white, whose skin is white, whose eyes are white, whose clothes are white, and whose liver is, in my opinion, of the same color.” Nevertheless, the Tribune was carefully studied in the South—if for no other reason than that its editorials were believed to represent the true voice of the North. Not that its editor was ever consistent on the question of how far opposition to slavery should be carried. First the Tribune categorically opposed its extension to the territories, then accepted the Missouri Compromise, then reverted to its original opposition. When southerners began talking about secession, Greeley appeared amenable. The right of secession, the Tribune said, “may be a revolutionary one. … It exists nevertheless.” But then Greeley hedged that right with impossible conditions, and eventually he concluded that secession was “treason.”
Leaders in the North found him equally hard to pin down. Instrumental in the nomination of Lincoln (turning his back on his former colleague in Congress, Seward, Greeley held fast with Edward Bates, a conservative, and this helped open the door for the Rail Splitter), the editor soon began chevying the new President. Asked once why he did not reply to a distorted Tribune story, Lincoln told an aide, “Yes, all the newspapers will publish my comment on it, and so will Greeley. The next day he will take a line and comment on it, and he will keep it up in that way, and at the end of three weeks I will be convicted out of my own mouth of all the things which he charges against me. No man, whether he be private citizen or President of the United States, can successfully carry on a controversy with a great newspaper and escape destruction unless he owns a newspaper equally great with a circulation in the same neighborhood.”
So the Tribune ranted on unchecked, expressing Greeley’s abomination of slavery, running morbid accounts of Negroes burned at the stake, of the hanging and torture of slaves, and dubious reports of the activities of a possibly fictional slave trader in New Orleans. The battle was waged even in local items:
As secession approached, the Tribune appeared to be resigned to the possibility of war, and even to welcome it. “Let this intolerable suspense and uncertainty cease,” it proclaimed on April 2, 1861. “The country, with scarcely a show of dissent, cries out—if we are to fight, so be it.” And, on April 15, 1861, it trumpeted, “Fort Sumter is lost, but freedom is saved.” The Tribune started in the war with a hawkish scowl, castigating Union generals, and the President too, for not marching across the Potomac and sweeping through the South. When the Confederate congress announced its intention to convene in Richmond, the daily Tribune ran above its editorial column, in standing italic type, the legend “Forward to Richmond! Forward to Richmond! The Rebel Congress must not be allowed to meet there on the 20th of July. By that date, the place must be held by the National Army.” At least partly as a result of such pressure from the Tribune, and other papers as well, the Union armies did advance, and were brutally mauled on July 21 at Bull Run.
The reaction in the North was strong, and much of it was aimed at the Tribune. The man who was responsible for the headline found himself in a vulnerable position: on March 27, 1862, Dana was notified by the Tribune Association that Greeley had requested his resignation.
The next managing editor was Sydney Howard Gay, a man much more amenable to discipline than his predecessor. His term of office lasted only through the war, however; in 1866 he retired for reasons of health. But it was during Gay’s administration that the Tribune did much of its best journalistic work. The paper’s editorial page may have been subject to attack for its blatant misreading of facts (at first it called Bull Run a Union victory), but the news reporting remained straight—and it remained good. Correspondent Albert D. Richardson managed to give Tribune readers the first uncensored, detailed account of Sumter’s fall. Captured later in the war by the Rebels, he escaped from the Confederate penetentiary at Salisbury, North Carolina, and made his way to Knoxville, Tennessee, from where he wired the Tribune, “Out of the jaws of death. Out of the mouth of hell,” and went back on the job. Probably the Tribune’s outstanding journalistic exploit of the war, however, was George W. Smalley’s dispatch on the Battle of Antietam, which was intercepted by Union censors to provide President Lincoln with his first news of the battle. Smalley, rushing back to New York, still arrived in time to give the Tribune the first battle accounts.
Through its news pages, and particularly through the work of the twenty-odd correspondents Greeley assigned to the war, the Tribune was able to win back the prestige that its unwise editorials had cost it, and eventually President Lincoln was forced to take it into account. When Greeley, in a famous editorial, “The Prayer for 20 Million,” urged upon the President the emancipation of all slaves in the freed territories, Lincoln put aside his scruples about making a reply to Greeley. A paragraph from his letter to the Tribune is generally cited as the true position of the Great Emancipator on the question of the Union and slavery:
“My primary object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is NOT either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing ANY slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing ALL the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others slaves, I would also do that.”
The Tribune did not emerge from the war either physically or fiscally unscathed. The hostilities, as the Tribune complained, occasioned “a sudden and rapid increase in the cost of our paper and other materials.” The newsstand price leaped, in two jumps, to four cents, but still the Tribune lost money. Physically, however, the Great Moral Organ’s staff and office remained strong enough to withstand attacks by murderous rioters who roared through New York City after the passage of the draft laws in July, 1863. The mob, which set fire to the Negro orphanage on Fifth Avenue above Forty-third Street and murdered dozens of Negroes of all ages, made two attacks on the Tribune itself, gaining entrance during one and setting several small fires. With the aid of a platoon of policemen, however, the rioters were driven from the office before any serious damage was done. During a lull in the furious four days, a correspondent from the Cincinnati Gazette, Whitelaw Reid, who was to become Greeley’s final adjutant and his eventual successor, visited the Tribune and described the scene:
“Muskets were provided for every employee. The floor of the editorial room was littered with hand grenades, and extra bayonets were lying about on the desks like some new pattern of mammoth pen holders. Arrangements for pouring a volume of scalding steam into the lungs of anybody attempting to force an entrance had been perfected. In the midst of all the warlike preparations, Mr. Greeley, coat off and apparently just risen from preparing a leader, was listening to the statements of his reporters as to the progress of the mob, and making suggestions for perfecting the defenses of the office.”
The steam, however, was not needed. The Tribune managed to weather the war without further physical damage—although its reputation was again tarnished when Greeley, eager for peace and a negotiated settlement, became caught up in spurious Confederate maneuvers intended to weaken Northern determination for a victory.
Understandably, the Tribune greeted Appomattox with the largest type in its history and eight subheads:
The Rebellion Ended!
General Lee Desirous of ‘Peace’
Manly and Patriotic Letter from
The Rebel Leader Must Lay Down
He Capitulates on General Grant’s
The Officers to be Paroled
and Sent Home”
Like the rest of America, the Tribune was shocked and demoralized by the assassination of President Lincoln four days later. The lead news story, on the aftermath of the war, had already been locked into place. There was barely time to turn the rules and compose the headlines that told the then incomplete story:
The President Shot!
Secretary Seward Attacked”
President Lincoln was dead and the nation leaderless. The next seven years would find the Tribune valiantly attempting—in the face of a good deal of competition—to fill the void. Greeley, predictably, offered his support to President Johnson at first, but by May of 1866, also predictably, he had turned upon the new administration. When it was suggested that the Tribune’s opposition might be mollified by the appointment of its editor as Postmaster General, President Johnson demurred that Greeley ran “to goodness of heart so much as to produce infirmity of mind.”
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.
Inside the paper, the columns were becoming more exciting, too. William Winter, considered America’s greatest authority on acting, was beginning to upset theatregoers and performers with his drama reviews. On one occasion Winter wrote that a pair playing Romeo and Juliet “resembled nothing so much as a pair of amorous grasshoppers pursuing their stridulous loves in the hollow of a cabbage leaf.” And not all the romances in the Tribune were the subjects of theatre reviews. “We are happy to announce,” the paper trumpeted in 1871, “we have commenced the publication of a local romance calculated to shake society to its center. It contains, indeed, more truth than fiction, for the mind of man has not yet conceived such horrors and atrocities as surround the hapless working girls of our great city. This great story is entitled Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl; or, Death at the Wheel. …”
In city news the Tribune had much to choose from, although here it—and the rest of the town as well—had to follow in the tracks of the New York Times. Raymond had died in 1869, but his successor, George Jones, who had known Horace Greeley when the latter was a printer’s devil on the East Poultney, Vermont, Northern Spectator, had taken out in full cry after the Democratic political boss, William Marcy Tweed. The Times got him, too, after a disgruntled Tammany adjutant, former Sheriff James O’Brien, turned over to it the records that eventually sent Tweed to the Tombs. The Tribune, quibbling jealously that the Times appeared to have obtained the evidence “in some surreptitious way,” could only applaud the disclosures against its traditional enemy, the Democratic machine. The Great Moral Organ did, however, undertake an exposé of its own, centering its fire on another target of corruption, the customshouse; in November of 1871 it won a victory of sorts when Thomas Murphy, the port collector, resigned. Murphy’s successor was, however, no more acceptable to Greeley and the Tribune. His name, incidentally, was Chester A. Arthur.
Greeley had other troubles with his city staff. Despite all his teaching—and his example—not all his subordinates were hewing to the path of morality. In 1869, he had been forced to ask for the resignation of Amos J. Cummings, an excellent city editor (and the man credited with coining the man-bites-dog definition of news). Cummings, it was said, had persisted, despite several warnings, in swearing on the job. There was another, far more serious incident in the city room in 1869, when Albert Richardson, the Civil War correspondent who had made such a spectacular escape from Confederate prison, failed altogether to escape from an irate husband who traced him to Park Row and shot and mortally wounded him within the confines of the Tribune offices. Greeley defended the conduct of his man as best he could, whereupon Dana, now editor of the Sun, chuckled and sent a reporter over to the Tribune to ask his former boss if it was true that the Tribune was infested with supporters of free love. The Sun quoted Greeley’s answer: “By God, (bringing his venerable fist upon the desk) there is no such crowd, at least not around the Tribune office. The whole thing has been got up by the enemies of the Tribune.” Greeley wrote a letter to the Sun to express his dissatisfaction with the published interview. He had not, he insisted, used the name of the Supreme Being.
The editor was nearing sixty by this time. Dispirited by the deaths of seven of his nine children, his strength sapped from overwork—he had continued to traverse the lecture circuit, and had, in addition, published six volumes of history, letters, and essays between 1863 and 1871—Greeley had grown sallow and paunchy. He still retained the white fringe of beard as well as some of the white hair which had become his trademark, but recurring bouts of the malaria he had contracted on a visit to Nassau in 1870 left him visibly weakened. Yet Horace Greeley had one more hand to play. In 1872, the pioneer Republican ran for the Presidency—with the backing of the Democratic party.
This, of course, was the ultimate inconsistency, and Greeley was not without misgivings when he undertook his final battle against the political machine that had been running in well-oiled grooves during the first term of Ulysses S. Grant. In particular, he was worried about the effect his campaign would have on the Tribune, “of which so little is my own property that I dread to wreck it. …” Still, he went ahead. In May of 1872 the maverick Liberal Republican party nominated him for the Presidency; two months later the Democrats added their endorsement.
The campaign was, as Greeley must have known it would be, bitter and terrible. He resigned from the Tribune in May, and Reid took up the battle against the calumny that poured in from the regular-Republican papers. Greeley was linked, in editorial and cartoon, with free love, Boss Tweed, and the Ku Klux Klan. Possibly the unkindest cut came from the Times, which reported a Greeley meeting in Missouri at which a Confederate flag was hoisted “to create the necessary enthusiasm.” The Tribune fought back, uncovering fresh scandals with which to assail Grant—but the effort was foredoomed. Not all the Tribunes even got to those subscribers who remained loyal: there were charges that Republican postmasters were substituting the Times.
The agony of the campaign was cruelly intensified for Greeley by the terminal illness of his wife of thirty-five years. For the month before the election, he was held close to the deathbed of Molly Greeley, who died October 30, just five days before her husband was swept to ignominious defeat at the polls. Greeley carried only six states, and his total popular vote was disappointing, 2,834,079. Grant polled a plurality of more than three quarters of a million, a margin that stood as a record until 1900.
On November 7, 1872, Horace Greeley, weakened in health and spirit and impoverished in purse (he now owned only six shares of Tribune stock), attempted to pick up the threads. But it was no good. The editor was not himself, and before long, Reid was forced to step in and suppress an editorial in which Greeley attacked a previous—and lighthearted—editorial squib directed not at him but rather at the office seekers who had crowded around him. To have allowed Greeley to print his vicious and uncalled-for response, Reid said, “would have sent every editor out of the staff.” The younger man prevailed, the card was suppressed, and, within a few days, Greeley returned to his home at Chappaqua, in suburban Westchester County. He died at the house of a nearby physician two weeks later, on November 29, 1872.
They may all have fought against him at various points of his life, but his contemporaries put on quite a funeral for Horace Greeley. The dignitaries, politicians, journalists, and officeholders whom the old editor had, by turns, supported and denounced, attended almost in a body. President Grant was there, of course, along with his Vice President-elect, Henry Wilson, and the outgoing Vice President, Greeley’s old friend Schuyler Colfax. In the funeral procession, members of the Union League marched with members of Typographical Union Number Six, which says a lot about Horace Greeley.
The founder was gone, but the Tribune, to the surprise of many subscribers, still stood. Its shares were no longer worth the $10,000 they had commanded a few years before, but they did have value—particularly since a contest was looming for control. Whitelaw Reid was the heir apparent, of course, but Reid was, by his own estimation, “about the best hated man in New York.” Greeley’s campaign for the Presidency had cost the Tribune heavily among its Republican supporters, and Reid fell heir to that loss, as well as to the calumny that resulted when Dana at the Sun caught wind of the suppressed Greeley editorial. Reid, it was said, had broken the old man’s heart, and this materially affected the new editor’s standing among the members of the Tribune Association. But finally, with the help of Rhode Island’s Senator William Sprague and Jay Gould, the financier, Reid managed to raise $500,000. and on December 23, 1872, he announced his purchase of a clear majority of the stock: “The associates and disciples of Horace Greeley, sensible of their inability to fill his place, strengthened by his teachings, and encouraged by his example, take up the burden of his life. …”
Among the rejoicers was Tribune correspondent Mark Twain. “The Lord knows I grieved to see the old Tribune wavering and ready to tumble into the common slough of journalism,” he wrote Reid, “and God knows I am truly glad you saved it. I hope you will stand at its helm a hundred years.”
Reid had his paper now—as well as an annual deficit that ran as high as $96,000. The Weekly Tribune was down from 200,000 subscribers to 150,000; the daily was running about 45,000—about equal to the Herald, and well behind the Sun at 100,000 and the Times at 50,000. At least part of the problem, Reid felt, was prestige. The Tribune had long since outgrown the five-story building at Spruce and Nassau streets, and the editor determined to replace it on the same site with the finest newspaper plant in New York. On April 10, 1875, the Tribune ’s thirty-fourth anniversary, the paper was issued from its new one-million-dollar home. The nine-story building, with its 260-foot tower, was topped on the city’s skyline only by the spire of Trinity Church. From the rotary perfecting press in the basement, which could turn out 16,000 papers every hour, all the way to the top floor, where there were stands for one hundred compositors, the new plant bespoke its editor’s confidence.
The eighth-floor city room, with its map-covered walls, was described by an anonymous historian in the centennial edition of the Herald Tribune in 1941:
“There was a perpendicular viaduct for communication with the counting, editorial and composing rooms, with speaking tubes, copy boxes and bells. A water pail and a tin jar of ice water sat in a corner of the room. Paste pots and ink stands were scattered about, bits of blotting paper and rusty steel pens were on the floor. A dozen reporters sat at small green desks, some writing, some reading—several smoking briarwood pipes. Thatcher, the weather man, sat in a corner deciding it would rain within forty hours. Thatcher also ran a telescope business on the side (see the moon for a dime) in front of St. Paul’s Church. Unoccupied reporters grumbled at the hours, which were usually noon to midnight, six days a week. …”
Well, if the reporters grumbled at the hours—which were standard—at least they had a powerful consolation. Next to the basement pressroom Reid had set up an employee tavern. A beer saloon was housed in the Great Moral Organ, and Horace Greeley not dead three years!
The saloon wasn’t the only thing that would have upset Greeley. Two years and two pay cuts after they came to work in the “Tall Tower,” eighty-nine members of the printers’ union Greeley had helped found went out on strike. The cause, in addition to the twenty per cent cut in wages, was Reid’s determination to eliminate from the contract the requirement that all matter set for the paper outside the shop be reproduced by Tribune printers. Ironically, this provision was also to be one of the sticking points in the labor disputes which, eighty-nine years later, led to the death of the Herald Tribune; but, for the present at least, Reid’s financial returns were excellent. The Tribune brought in nonunion printers, weathered the financial panic that began in 1873, and by 1877 was even able to report an $85,000 profit.
Journalistically, too, the paper’s reputation was improving, despite such unfortunate lapses as declaring Democrat Samuel Tilden the winner in the hotly contested presidential election of 1876. The Tribune more than made up for this, however, in 1878, when after months of work it deciphered and printed the “cipher dispatches,” coded telegrams that showed that Tilden’s campaign managers had been negotiating for the purchase of electoral votes in the South and West. The exposure—and proof—of this attempt to buy a presidential election is generally considered the best story of the Tribune’s 125-year career. And the paper’s reputation for excellent writing was growing too. Work came in from, among others, Twain, Bret Harte, Walt Whitman, the noted English novelist Charles Reade, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and novelist Rebecca Harding Davis—mother of Richard Harding Davis, who was to be the journalist of the next generation, and of Charles Belmont Davis, who was to become the Tribune’s drama editor. In 1875 John Hay, no longer with the paper, recommended Henry James, who, he reported, “considers The Tribune the only paper where business could be combined with literary ambition.” Nineteen of James’s letters from Paris were published, but, as the novelist himself soon found, he was “too finical a writer” for newspapers, and he wrote no more for them.
The Tribune was also helped by Reid’s decision to resume publication of the Sunday paper that Greeley had attempted in 1861 and then abandoned under pressure from the New York Sabbath Committee. Now, however, as Reid pointed out, “with the single exception of some of the clergy,” all the defenders of the Sabbath “who were exhorting me to continue setting a noble example were gratifying their own craving to know what was going on by reading some Sunday paper.” The sixteen-page Sunday Tribune first appeared on December 6, 1879, with departmental features that included Home Interests, Music, Studio and Gallery, Book Reviews, Knitting, Science for the People, and Religious Intelligence. It was, at least, a gentler Sunday paper than the Herald or the Times.
Circulation, which stabilized at about 50,000 daily, 100,000 weekly, and 50,000 to 75,000 on Sunday, attracted enough advertising to enable Reid to double the Tribune Association capitalization and to pay off all but a small portion of the mortgage on the new building. In 1882, Reid ordered the addition of a twenty-story, steel-framed rear wing, thus doubling the building’s rentable space. In his new and expensive ventures, the editor was aided by a new source of capital. He had married Miss Elizabeth Mills, the daughter of financier Darius Ogden Mills, in 1881, and Mills had picked up the Tribune shares owned by Jay Gould and given them to his son-in-law. Of the 200 shares, Reid now had 143, and was secure enough to dabble in philanthropy in his own right. The Tribune had taken over from the Evening Post the Fresh Air Fund, a charity devoted to providing rural summer vacations for slum children, and by 1888 more than ten thousand youngsters had benefited.
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.
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
I am a true blue American and I want to see Uncle Sam prepared to lick all creation like John Paul Jones did.
P.S.—Please call the battleship America .”
Marjorie never got her battleship—the exigencies of the military situation just did not call for one at the time—but the Battleship America Fund did win both prestige and circulation for the Tribune. Nevertheless, the increasing receipts did not enable Reid to match, in the years following World War I, the solid economic foundations that Ochs and his heirs, the Sulzbergers, were building to support the news-gathering expenditures of the New York Times. And while the Times poured its profits back into development, the Reids were finding it a struggle merely to approximate their competitor’s daily news operations. Ogden Reid was not unwilling to invest a share of the Tribune’s profits; there were simply no profits to invest. In 1922 his brilliant wife, Helen Rogers Reid, who had taken over the business management of the paper, threw a banquet for its executives. “It’s been a glorious year,” she announced. “We only lost $150,000.”
During the twenties, the paper made great progress with department-store advertising, which Helen Reid, an ex-suffragette, went after aggressively. With this new momentum, money was borrowed to erect a plant on Fortieth Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues. And in 1924, five million dollars more went to purchase the competing New York Herald. Remembered primarily as the paper that had sent Stanley to find Livingstone, the Herald and its father-and-son publishers. James Gordon Bennett, Senior and Junior, had made a number of contributions to the newspaper business. The paper virtually discovered Wall Street, and it led in financial news. It was also the first paper to give serious coverage of crime news, and before falling into the hands of newspaper entrepreneur Frank Munsey in 1920, it was unexcelled in foreign coverage. Munsey soon came to the conclusion that his newest property and the Tribune were knocking each other out in competition for the same readers. “Do you buy us, or do we buy you?” he asked the Reids. “We buy you,” Whitelaw Reid’s widow replied. The Tribune, it was explained to the surprised Munsey, was a family obligation and, as such, not for sale. “I had no such obligation,” Munsey said later. “So I sold to them.” And while he was about it, he threw into the bargain the younger Bennett’s Paris Herald.
Three of Munsey’s assets were brought into the new Fortieth Street building: the name of the Herald; a young reporter, soon promoted to city editor, named Stanley Walker; and the bulk of the Herald’s circulation. Before the merger, the Herald had 175,000 and the Tribune 140,000 readers. The Herald Tribune came up with more than 275,000 which, while still less than the Times, provided the cushion that carried the paper up to World War II. Thus began what A. J. Liebling described in The New Yorker as the Silver Age of the Herald Tribune—"so called because of its gently elegiac quality and because a man on the paper could carry away his pay in quarters without making a bulge in his pants pocket.”
Unionized printers were making more than fifty dollars a week by now, but writers were willing to work for less than twenty under city-desk giants like Walker and a successor, L. L. Engelking. In 1959, Walker, in a reminiscent mood, listed in the Saturday Review some of the more notable Tribune writers: “Alva Johnston, Ed Angly, Joe Driscoll and Ishbel Ross … Joseph Alsop, Sanderson Vanderbilt, Tom Sugrue, Ben Robertson, St. Clair McKelway, Tom Waring, John O’Reilly, Homer Bigart, John Lardner, Jack Gould, James T. Flexner, Lincoln Barnett, Bruce Pinter, Maron Simon, Beverly Smith, Joseph Mitchell and Joel Sayre. … What a brilliant, gallant troop of journalistic cavalrymen!”
Some names are missing here, like Walter Millis and Irita Van Doren, but cavalrymen wasn’t a bad way of putting it. Most came to the Herald Tribune, lived in genteel poverty long enough to make their reputations, and rode off again to better-paying jobs on other papers and on magazines. Fortunately, the supply of ambitious apprentices was inexhaustible. “It was these eager, intelligent and unterrified youngsters,” Walker wrote, “who gave the paper its distinctive flavor, a flavor which made it readable to a literate Tammany boss, a college president, and the more brainy taxicab drivers.”
Most of the writing was excellent, but ironically the Herald Tribune story most often recalled by newspapermen is one from 1924 that turned out not to be true. For five days, before admitting it had been hoaxed, the paper headlined the reports of Sanford Jarrell, who stood Prohibition New York on its ear with bulletins about the activities, appointments, and patrons of a mysterious floating nightclub which, alas, turned out to exist nowhere but in his imagination.
The attraction of the Herald Tribune for writers continued to grow, and so did its camaraderie. Downstairs, behind what was coming to be known as the “newspaperman’s newspaper” (“I shivered when they called it that,” George Cornish, Reid’s longtime editor, recently recalled. “Newspapermen’s newspapers always seem to fold.”), was Jack Bleeck’s, the newspaperman’s saloon. It did a great business with the staff. (“Drink is the curse of the Tribune,” the epigram went, “and sex the bane of the Times.”)
While Ogden Reid was democratically rubbing elbows at Bleeck’s with columnist Lucius Beebe and the members of a fellowship later dubbed by John Lardner “the West Fortieth Street Browning Society,” the Herald Tribune was expanding into the lower floors of a twenty-two-story building constructed on a plot to the rear of the main building. But internally the depression of the early thirties brought financial difficulties for the management. Just before her death in 1931, Mrs. Whitelaw Reid made available more family credit, to the tune of $400,000, to help tide the paper over.
Debt hung over the Herald Tribune, and its main rival, the Times, had an unshakable hold on certain revenue-producing groups of readers—the “classified” readers (some 75,000); the obituary followers; and garment executives, whose activities the Times had covered for fifty years. During the late thirties and the war years, the Herald Tribune held its own in circulation and gained very slightly in its share of the total advertising in New York newspapers. The advance of Allied armies in Europe enabled the Reids to reopen the European edition of the Herald Tribune in Paris, in December, 1944. It proved immediately and unexpectedly profitable. Unlike the prewar paper, it looked almost the twin of its parent—the same eight-column pages, the same Bodoni heads, many of the same features.
The Paris edition, of course, was thin, and people who had enjoyed its handy readability would sometimes return to New York and suggest to the Reids that the parent paper would be better that way too, without all that clutter of advertising. Subscribers to the Paris edition actually paid more of the cost of their newspaper. Back in New York, perhaps in that spirit, Ogden Reid raised the price of the daily and Sunday editions on January 1, 1947, just three days before his unexpected death. If the Times went along, fine, he told his subordinates, and if it didn’t, “I think the paper is strong enough to stand it.” The evening papers also raised prices, but the Times matched only the Sunday increase, from ten to fifteen cents, and for nearly three years the flourishing daily Times undersold the daily Herald Tribune. This inevitably took some toll of readers. “Nobody in New York is going to pay a nickel for the Herald Tribune when they can get the Times for three cents,” the general manager of the Times, Julius Adler, is said to have remarked at a meeting of newspaper executives during that period. “That’s the way to put a competitor out of business.”
For a good many years before the death of her husband, and as his health declined, Helen Reid had increasingly taken over the management of the newspaper. She supervised the advertising sales, ran the famous Forums, kept closely in touch with Irita Van Doren’s book section, and helped found and operate This Week, long the Herald Tribune’s magazine section. She had the contacts with public figures, she saw the Presidents, she was on the firing line all day. After watching Dorothy Thompson and her in action, Winston Churchill once observed to young Whitelaw, Helen’s eldest son, that perhaps all newspapers ought to be run by women.
After the war, Mrs. Reid turned the editorial side over to quiet, reserved Whitelaw. It was soon noticed that the Tribune under him was taking on and publishing a great many of his fellows from the class of 1936 at Yale—among them Stewart Alsop, who came in to work with his columnist brother, Joseph; John Crosby, a columnist on radio and television; and August Heckscher (today New York’s parks commissioner), chief editorial writer.
In the late forties, the Herald Tribune was still earning its way, but its financial difficulties were mounting. Costs rose until the annual increase, in the early 1950s, was a million dollars. The staff, overloaded with wartime returnees, was gradually pared by about ten per cent, but not without an outcry. The story goes that the paper’s famous sports editor, Stanley Woodward, who had been responsible for bringing the Herald Tribune Red Smith, its unrivalled sports columnist, was asked which two men his department could spare. “Red Smith and me,” Woodward said. In fact, Smith stayed, but Woodward left not long afterward. News coverage was cut back, at least in comparison with the vast news-gathering machinery of the Times. But paradoxically, even as its reputation in this department waned, its political power seemed to wax. As the Tribune’s endorsement had assuredly helped Wendell Willkie to the presidential nomination in 1940, eleven years later the paper launched Dwight Eisenhower to the Presidency with a two-column page-one editorial.
Now the paper was first in the White House, but far from that on New York newsstands. Whitelaw Reid tried to attract readers with various editorial devices—roving teams of writers to compensate in part for the reduced foreign bureaus, new columnists from Billy Rose to Art Buchwald. He brought in Walter Kerr as drama critic, Roscoe Drummond, and the cartoons of Bill Mauldin. An “early bird” edition was brought out at 7:30 P.M. , but it failed to win away very much business from the afternoon papers.
In the early days of young Whitelaw’s editorship, during the late forties, the Reids had more to worry them than costs and prices. The new management was liberal in its Republicanism and was sometimes known to readers of columnist Westbrook Pegler (and later to McCarthy supporters) as the “Uptown Daily Worker,” a rather astonishing view but one that sometimes hurt. Worse than that, a source of anxiety, damaging rumor, and great financial drain, was the debt incurred before the First World War—the moneys that the elder Reids had advanced to the paper. The old Tribune had given notes for this money, and on Mrs. Whitelaw Reid’s death the notes had been divided, with a face value of three million each, between her son Ogden and his sister Jean, the wife of Sir John Ward, a former royal equerry. While Ogden never attempted to collect on the notes and further indebtedness due him, and turned it all over to the Reid Foundation, Lady Ward’s lawyers began to press for payment when the first of her notes fell due, for $150,000, on April 15, 1948. It was paid. The next annual payment, for the same amount, could not be met in full, and was not entirely retired until 1952, by which time, of course, much more debt had accrued. A third of the $150,000 due for 1950 was paid off by 1954, and thereafter Lady Ward saw no more money.
In these circumstances, with a family debt that took precedence over payments on the Tribune’s mortgage, reorganization was clearly called for. Those who held the debts were in the driver’s seat, and they elected in 1955 to turn the paper over to young Whitelaw’s aggressive and dynamic younger brother, Odgen R. “Brown” Reid. Whitelaw, who had briefly replaced his mother as president, was elevated to the honorary position of chairman of the board. Helen Reid was in effect retired, and the noteholders got stock for what was owed them. As stock, it was, of course, subordinate to the mortgage, an arrangement that alone made possible the refinancing that kept Brown Reid in power for a few twilight years.
As editor, Brown Reid tinkered frequently with the Herald Tribune’s outward aspects. The sports section was printed on mint-green paper, and the paper’s traditional makeup was “brightened.” His most successful contribution was a revamping of the Sunday paper, which was slipping toward what was felt to be a point of no return: a circulation of less than half a million. Among the innovations was a small television program guide which, while never an advertising success in itself, did reverse the downward circulation trend. The Sunday paper went from 528,000 in 1954 to 576,000 in 1956.
The gentle Republican liberalism of the younger Whitelaw’s regime seemed to turn to the right in the McCarthy era, and in some other respects the new editor rouged up the “little old lady of Park Row” into a trollop. Crime and divorce stories began getting prominent play, and publicity pictures of starlets were splashed through the news sections.
Not all staff members were in accord. Two-time Pulitzer prize winner Homer Bigart, back from Korea, shook his head and went to the Times. Other resignations came from Washington Bureau Chief Walter Kerr (not the drama critic) and City Editor Fendall Yerxa. Unquestionably, the “new image” attracted readers, but to the Reids’ dismay every convert appeared to be matched by a defector from the ranks of the stolid, suburban, well-to-do readership of the “old” Herald Tribune.
None of Brown’s devices availed to hold back the rising costs or augment the diminishing revenues. Brown Reid faced a difficult decision—whether to gamble on another price rise or to seek support outside the family. In 1957, he chose the latter, turning to a man with whom Whitelaw and others in the management had already held preliminary discussions. This was John Hay Whitney, at the time President Eisenhower’s ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.
Whitney was eligible on three counts. He had the money; he was a strong supporter of the liberal wing of the Republican party; and, as important as these other reasons, he was the grandson of John Hay, who had been the elder Whitelaw Reid’s best friend, editorial writer, and, during Reid’s honeymoon in 1881, substitute editor of the Tribune. The Ambassador first lent the Reids $1.2 million secured by stock options, and a year later, on August 28, 1958, in exchange for an additional sum reported by Fortune as two million dollars, he exercised his options and became possessed of the assets, good will, and current obligations of the New York Herald Tribune.
Editorially, Whitney used his new property with courage and dexterity. In 1964, for the first time since Horace Greeley, the Tribune endorsed a Democratic presidential nominee; and even in its dying days the paper played a considerable role in making possible the nomination and election of a liberal Republican, John V. Lindsay, as mayor of New York City.
What Whitney did not do, however, was fulfill the promise that his money would, as Joseph Kraft had predicted in Harper’s, “cast the long shadow of a circulation war over the country’s most competitive market.” Alas, it was not to be. Whitney chose the businesslike way. Even before selecting his first editor, Robert M. White, the forty-four-year-old editor and publisher of the Mexico, Missouri, Ledger, Whitney ordered a detailed management survey of the Herald Tribune. The recommendations that subsequently greeted White in New York involved nothing more than the same old editorial sleight of hand that the Reid family had been trying without success to pull off for nearly sixty years. Costs —particularly the cost of newsprint—would have to be cut. Condense the news and don’t cover as much of it, the analysts said. Rely more heavily on the wire services. Already the deficiencies in Herald Tribune reporting were all too apparent to the readers. Now, even on local stories, the staff was to “interpret” whatever came across the Associated Press and United Press International teletypes, reporting that is primarily geared to radio and television stations and small papers interested in skimming off the top of the news.
As editor, however, White made his reputation by ignoring not only the management recommendations but, unfortunately, many of the editorial news conferences as well. He tinkered a little with the makeup, but the improvement failed to provide the dramatic impact Whitney was seeking, and White’s departure was insured by the Herald Tribune’s reporting of the 1960 election. (The paper seems to have been a perennial bad guesser on national elections. In 1876 it had given the victory to Tilden over Hayes, and in 1916, when Charles Evans Hughes went to bed early thinking he had been elected, so did the Tribune. A young reporter named Robert Benchley learned that California had unexpectedly put Woodrow Wilson back into office, but when he called the city desk at 3 A.M., nobody answered.) In 1960, the Herald Tribune went to press early again, proclaiming a Kennedy victory of “Rooseveltian proportions.” The extremely close returns, accurately reported by the Times, resulted in embarrassment for Whitney. He came back from London, and White went back to Mexico, Missouri.
For his next editor, Whitney didn’t reach so far—only across town to hire away John Denson, the editor of Newsweek. Whitney wanted an impact, and Denson set out to give him one. First and foremost he fiddled with the headlines. No longer were these to be mere summaries of stories. Henceforth they would reflect the significance of the news. Dashes, colons, and question marks—lots of question marks—sprang into the headlines. The Bay of Pigs crisis in March, 1961, a month after his arrival, gave Denson a chance to show what he was up to. “DICTATOR CASTRO—THE BEGINNING OF THE END?” the Herald Tribune headed the first report. “SOVIETS WILL OPPOSE US ON CUBA—BUT HOW?” it asked next. Then: “ANTI-CASTRO RAIDERS IN TROUBLE?” And finally: “IT’S A GAME—WHO TAKES THE BLAME?”
Riddle-me-this was not the only game that Tribune copy editors began playing with the headlines, however. They were also fond of cryptograms. Too many readers, Denson seemed to feel, were scanning headlines and skipping stories. While he had a say in it, they would have to read the stories to find out what was going on. Some headlines became as obscure as the Tilden cipher dispatches. Such pretentious efforts as “PRESIDENT ON CENSORING: EXPLORATION & PROMISE” seemed to be promising an omniscience that the accompanying stories could not, unfortunately, live up to. Readers too soon realized that the body type made a liar out of the headlines. Many of the stories were merely warmed-over compilations of wire-service reports rewritten in the office with no more insight into background or true meaning of any event than was available, over the same wires, to any newspaper. And no amount of writing—to Denson’s credit, he recognized and encouraged good writing—could gloss over the fact that the Herald Tribune was still being beaten on local stories. The paper’s face might be changing, but one custom remained intact. At 10:15 each weekday evening, when the Times came up, Tribune rewritemen were sent scurrying to their typewriters for “recoveries.”
However effortless Denson’s free-form kind of newspaper may have seemed to the reader, it did require the editor to spend hours puttering over makeup, contriving headlines, revising them and changing type size or play. Often he would still be at work after deadline, a situation that sent the management analysts back to their slide rules. Late press runs, they warned Whitney, were costing him $85,000 a year, and reluctantly the publisher allowed Herald Tribune President Walter Thayer to issue Denson an ultimatum: either submit to the appointment of a “copy control editor” with the authority to put the paper in on time, or get out. Denson chose to get out, and the editorship of the Tribune devolved on a young man Denson himself had hired away from the Miami Daily News, James G. Bellows. Just after the change at the helm, in October, 1962, the paper’s momentum was cruelly slowed by the first of the series of labor shutdowns that eventually convinced the publisher that there was no future for the Herald Tribune. The major editorial development of the Bellows regime was destined to be the “Sunday Punch,” a highly promoted facelifting of the Sunday paper.
But whatever the Herald Tribune’s journalistic prospects may have been, the primary cause of its suspension remains the culmination of its lifelong Cain-Abel relationship with Horace Greeley’s other child, Typographical Union Number Six—and the other nine newspaper unions that descended from it. After the 114-day shutdown of 1962-63, the paper shut down again in September, 1964, to honor its gentleman’s agreement with the struck Times. Whitney kept faith with his fellow publishers for seven days and then, belatedly, he re-opened the doors of the Herald Tribune. The step came too late to save the paper—merger talks were well under way.
On March 21, 1966, Whitney, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., and Roy Howard announced the formation of the World Journal Tribune Corporation, which, they hoped, would publish the Herald Tribune in the morning, a combined World Journal in the evening, and a doubly combined World Journal Tribune on Sundays. Immediately, difficulties sprang up—the principal one involving manning requirements of the unions and the question of layoffs. When negotiations dragged on without resolution, it became apparent that yet another strike was destined to accompany the formation of the merged enterprise on April 25.
When the writers and editors of the Herald Tribune set to work on the last paper on Saturday, April 23, there was little indication that there would, somehow, be a tomorrow. Still, as it had for a century and a quarter, the work of the paper went on. Stories were written, edited, and set into type, and papers came off the presses, to be hawked about the city just as in the days of Horace Greeley. Shortly before 10 P.M., Inky Blackman finished the news story that was to be the Tribune’s, final word. True to Tribune tradition, it was well written. Fittingly, it was an obituary.
* * *
1 It is ironic in this context that the quotation most often attributed to him, “Go West, young man,” was not original with Greeley, but represented, rather, the advice of an Indiana editor, John Soule of the Terre Haute Express, and was always so attributed by Greeley.