Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power

While daily newspapers (as well as magazines, local television, and radio news operations) lose audience members, a new biography about a seeming media dinosaur could point to a recipe for survival. The dinosaur in question is Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911).

Arriving in the United States at age 16 from Hungary, the German-speaking Pulitzer fought for the Union army in the Civil War, then settled in St. Louis wondering how he would earn money for food and shelter. Newspapering became his path, starting as a low-paid reporter, and ending as an owner.

Today, Pulitzer is mistakenly stereotyped as a founder of sensationalistic journalism, especially at the New York World, which he purchased during 1883. Yes, sometimes Pulitzer trafficked in sensationalism. Mostly, though, what Pulitzer learned on the way to the top is that media owners need to appreciate the value of streetwise reporting, factual accuracy, and compelling writing.  

At the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and at the New York World, Pulitzer encouraged reporters, feature writers, and opinion-page editorialists to speak truth to power, using facts as weapons. As biographer James McGrath Morris shows in his newly published book, “Pulitzer was convinced that accuracy built circulation, credibility and editorial power. Words could paint brides as blushing, murderers as heinous, politicians as venal, but the facts had to be right.”

The news is more than the accumulation of facts strung together. Good writing matters. While they talk about writing “stories,” most of the time journalists disseminate boringly constructed articles or reports. A compelling story has a beginning, middle, and end, tension and resolution. Morris explains that Pulitzer recognized effective storytelling. “He pushed his writers to think like [Charles] Dickens, who wove fiction from the sad tales of urban Victorian London, to create compelling entertainment from the drama of the modern city. To the upper classes, it was sensationalism. To the lower and working classes, it was their life.”

To compete successfully in the crowded St. Louis and New York City mass media markets, Pulitzer understood that he had to attract readers from other newspapers, plus find those who traditionally shunned newspapers.

“In the Lower East Side’s notorious bars…or at dinner in their cramped tenements, men and women did not discuss society news, cultural events or happenings in the investment houses,” Morris relates. “Rather, the talk was about the baby who fell to his death from a roof top, the brutal beating that police officers dispensed to an unfortunate waif, or the rising cost of streetcar fares to the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue and the mansions needing servants. The clear, simple prose of the World drew in these readers, many of whom were immigrants struggling to master their first words of English. Writing about the events in their lives in a way they could understand, Pulitzer’s World gave these New Yorkers a sense of belonging and a sense of value. In one stroke, he simultaneously elevated the common man and took his spare change to fuel the World‘s profits.”

As an investigative reporter for 40 years, I’ve done my best to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable — accurately and in compelling prose. Most of the newspapers and magazines paying me to strive for those goals are extant, and profitable. Pulitzer died a wealthy man because he understood the formula so many media owners today fail to comprehend.