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What Made The ‘World’ Great?
It exposed corruption. It hired drunks. Good writing was rewarded. No wonder every newspaperman wanted to work there.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
For three days in the fall of 1930 a bearded, former Norwegian seaman could be seen pacing back and forth at the front entrance of the Pulitzer Building on Park Row, New York City, home of the World , with a sandwich sign that read, “Hire Joe Liebling!”
Unfortunately for Joe Liebling, who had paid for the sandwich man, the World ’s city editor, Jim Barrett, generally used the back door on Williams Street, whether for lunch at Racky’s restaurant or a nip at DaIy’s, the staff speakeasy. Rarrett never saw the sign, but in the end Liebling did get to do pieces for the World ’s Sunday supplements and eventually went on to a distinguished career as A. J. Liebling, the New Yorker press critic, war correspondent, gourmand, and patron saint of U.S. reporters everywhere.
Liebling was just one of hundreds of newspapermen all over America who tried to get a job on the World .
Although the last decade has seen the death of such great newspapers as the Washington Star and the Philadelphia Bulletin , no closing ever evoked such grief from newspapermen and readers alike as the day in February of 1931 when the World suspended publication and was merged into the Scripps-Howard chain.
People sorrowed over the death of the World as over the passing of a devoted friend—a friend always sensitive to their needs and ready to intervene when rapacious elements threatened the public welfare. They admired the World ’s frequent crusades: against the Ku Klux Klan, against a peonage system in Florida, against the sugar trust or graft in building the Panama Canal. They saw the World bring justice and compensation to victims of radium poisoning in a New Jersey clock factory and protect thousands of homeowners from tax sharks. They cheered when the paper stood up to and thwarted a criminal libel action brought bv Teddv Roosevelt.
Joseph Pulitzer had set the character of the World as soon as he acquired the paper in 1883. He pledged that it would “always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing the news … never be afraid to attack wrong.”
To balance the gravity of its crusades, the paper offered entertainment in its “human interest” stories, in its op-ed columns, and in such ventures as sending Nellie Ely around the world in seventy-two days, clipping eight days from the time of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg.
What Mr. Pulitzer’s paper came to mean to its readers- 313,000 at the end— was poignantly expressed by one of its top reporters, Philip Pearl: “The World was read in Harlem, in Hell’s Kitchen, in the colleges, on the East Side, in Greenwich Village, and, especially, in all newspaper off ices. It appealed alike to the intelligent and the simple because it was imbued with a fundamental sympathy. It had a heart. It had courage. It was interested in events chiefly as they affected human beings. At times it grew maudlin over life’s little tragedies or great joys. But it could never treat them matter-of-factly.
“The World did not attempt to print all the news. For this it was branded as something less than a newspaper. Of course, it always gloried in being a good deal more than a newspaper. But, save in breathless spurts, it couldn’t approach the completeness, the mechanical precision and the impersonal proficiency of the Times . It lacked method and organization and direction.… [but] Out of the daily chaos there evolved a live, readable newspaper, usually well-written and wellbalanced.”
As much as the World was loved by its readers, it was feared by malefactors. As a boy reporter during the World ’s investigation of crooked judges in 1930, I was sent to interview a New York State supreme court justice on a totally unrelated matter. The moment I was announced, he beck-oned me into his chambers, pale and shaken.
“Look,” he said to me, “it’s true I got on the bench in a deal with the Republicans to create ten new judgeships, but I swear to you, I’ve never done one dishonest thing. I’ve worked hard. Please don’t wreck my career. Please don’t bring shame on my family.”
I assured him I wouldn’t. It was clear that at age twenty-two I had reached a peak of grandeur never to be surpassed in my later life: I was able to call myself “Davidson of the World .”