Robert Yee -
The quarrel between the William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World broke out into a corporate war as the two sought to eliminate the competition. From the onset the Journal and the World developed antagonistic business strategies in order to gain readership. Both challenged the status quo of acceptable business practices and pioneered new ways of fighting competition, ultimately reshaping the nature of the media industry. Through price wars and yellow journalism strategies, the Journal and World transformed the very foundation of competitive practices.
Prior literature has highlighted the role of the two corporations in sparking the Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, which marked a notable rise of a previously heavily disenfranchised class. (Irony lies in the fact that those newspapers often covered the rise of underdogs in their Sunday articles). Other research on the topic has emphasized the media’s influence in an age of mass consumerism, insofar as they were able to rally Americans into engaging in the Spanish-American War. Yet neither realms of discourse expound upon the inherent practices that shaped both firms. Essentially, both the New York Journal and the New York World battled on a level that was unseen prior due to the augmentation of key antitrust legislation. The strategic contrivances that they developed heavily focused on predatory pricing and yellow journalism – flashy headlines with exaggerated and occasionally falsified events. It was through these events that the corporations were forced to make significant decisions that changed the competitive nature of the industry.
Neither corporation was a small player in the publishing industry. When it came to readership, the New York World was the “old money” of newspapers, proudly boasting circulation of some 250,000 individuals by 1886. Other newspaper agencies had short-lived attempts at increased popularity. The Californian, was a San Francisco-based literary newspaper of the 1860s, which boasted the work of Mark Twain as an editor before its collapse in 1868. The New-York Mirror, later the (New York) Evening Mirror, was notable for its publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” prior to its failure in 1898. It was not until the arrival of the New York Journal that the World faced a true competitor. Together, the firms were able to achieve the necessary influence and wherewithal to earn them national prestige. Their actions were able to sway the public opinion of the entire country due to their dominant influence over the masses.
Price wars were the attempt to cut prices by one party in order to increase market share and drive out competitors. In one instance, Hearst forced Pulitzer to cut his prices in half. Funded by his father’s fortune from prior silver mines investments, Hearst was able to afford small profit margins temporarily in an effort to drive out his main competitor. This predatory pricing technique dropped the Journal from two cents to one; in a way, Hearst was looking for circulation and popularity rather than a quick buck. By offering positions to cartoon artists R. F. Outcault, T.E. Powers, and Bill Nye, Hearst planned to steal much of the Pulitzer’s highly-praised Sunday staff. Joseph Pulitzer, who valued “bigger man” ethics felt no need to sink to Hearst’s level. Born into poverty, he knew much about hard work and good ethics. Yet Hearst came from money, and thus he could afford to taint Pulitzer’s image and risk small financial losses in order to drive Pulitzer’s margins down. As the Journal grew in readership, Pulitzer knew he had to change his tactics soon or his company would suffer. Threatened by the new entrant, he thus embroiled himself in virulent engagements in an attempt to undermine Hearst’s stronghold. To survive and retain everything he had worked for, Pulitzer was forced to counterattack. His World cut its price down to one cent as well.
In an unregulated business environment, large corporations often engaged in collusion or other now illegal activities associated with market manipulation. With the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and further corporate legislation, businesses could no longer rely on the tactics from they once easily profited. Cartels, monopolies, and trusts were deemed illegal if they posed a threat to consumer welfare. In the case of the two newspapers, rather than rely on collaboration, they fought each other in price wars for circulation and employees. The unprecedented nature of this conflict was due to the size in absolute terms of their ability to reach a truly national audience.
In addition to price wars, the newspapers changed the way major events were interpreted and released. Yellow journalism refers to the way in which they enticed readers through their flamboyant images and dramatization of political and social events. To an extent, the community of readers in New York were “too close-knit and too addicted to gossip, and [Hearst’s] exploits too deliciously scandalous, to be ignored.” To improve circulation, invalidated headlines would offer clients exaggerated, or even completely fictitious, headlines.
Notoriously both journals attempted to build up circulation by capitalizing on the Spanish-American war effort. Spanish-occupied Cuba was twisted into a brutally oppressed victim to the overbearing government on the other side of the ocean. In Havana, Hearst’s investigative journalists found little evidence of a well-organized Cuban resistance: “Everything is quite. There is no trouble here,” announced Frederic Remington, an illustrator of the Journal. Nonetheless, Hearst fabricated stories that could have happened, but not necessarily did: Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros, the daughter of a Cuban revolutionary, was at the centerpiece of the Journal, where from 1896-1898, she was depicted as an innocent 18-year old who was awaiting an unjust trial in Cuba. Hearst rallied the women of America to sign a petition and attempt to turn Miss Cisneros into a symbol of the revolution. Yellow journalism continued to facilitate the growth of the two corporate vessels.
Some claim that these headlines were not complete lies, but only unsupported claims. Others outright denounced both news entities for concocting inaccurate headlines for their own bottom line. In either case, the articles they wrote changed the way newspapers interacted with its clients. Swaying public opinion was subsequently possible, and even rallying the American citizens to war was well within reach. The rivalry also transformed the relationship among businesses, whose sole purpose was to gain clientele. With less emphasis on reporting the truth, the Journal and the World adopted aggressive tactics for manipulating the masses. Their managerial campaigns confirm a strong propensity to entertaining readers, who would pass on the name of their paper to others. These panem et circenses ploys were instrumental to their success.
It was through price wars and yellow journalism tactics that drove the two newspapers to craft a newfound sensationalist-saturated strategy that were unprecedented for its time. These practices affected the firm at an ethical level, by playing into the morals of Pulitzer, as well as the financial level, by raising readership to raise profits. Pulitzer relinquished his altruistic morals for the sake of his enterprise. Hearst used his wealth to take advantage of Pulitzer’s unstable regime. The pair fought for the right to print and capture the hearts and minds of the unwary customer.
The confrontation between the New York Journal and New York World focuses not simply on the rise of journalism as a lucrative business, but rather on the corporate decisions and business conflicts. Ahead of its time, the newspapers shaped how the media industry worked and how disputes arose. Decisions were made quickly, and actions were immediate to ensure market share was maintained. It should be noted that the Journal and World were not the first organizations to engage in a competition, but rather key enterprises that altered methods used in corporate feuds. It was in this era of the Gilded Age that businesses challenged one another for profit and market share. Due to their sheer size, it can be stated that the nature of the very confrontative foundation between enterprises was unprecedented.
Understanding the business practices of both William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer sheds light on the role of high-level corporate decisions and the financial implications. Upon Pulitzer’s death in 1911, the reigns of his investigative journalist empire did not die with him, but lived on with those who developed a new hunger for breaking news headlines. The World continued its run, publishing the first crossword puzzle and reaching one million in readership in the next several years. Meanwhile, Hearst and his followers continued to produce ostentatious headlines and flashy images for the masses, promoting the growth of his publishing monarchy. The reach of the New York Journal and New York World grew to dominate New York public opinion, only to be paralleled by another rival publication, one which denounced yellow journalism and expanded its influence, faster than its predecessors, to a global audience - the New York Times.