Chapter 15




YELLOW JOURNALISM.


While several of the New York dailies were circulating from two to three hundred thousand copies, the News-Record--the best-written, the most complete, and, where the interests of the owners did not interfere, the most accurate--circulated less than one hundred thousand. The Sunday edition had a circulation of one hundred and fifty thousand where two other newspapers had almost half a million.

The theory of the News-Record staff was that their journal was too "respectable," too intelligent, to be widely read; that the "yellow journals" grovelled, "appealed to the mob," drew their vast crowds by the methods of the fakir and the freak. They professed pride in the News-Record's smaller circulation as proof of its freedom from vulgarity and debasement. They looked down upon the journalists of the popular newspapers and posed as the aristocracy of the profession.

Howard did not assent to these self-complacent excuses. He was democratic and modern, and the aristocratic pose appealed only to his sense of humour and his suspicions. He believed that the success of the "yellow journals" with the most intelligent, alert and progressive public in the world must be based upon solid reasons of desert, must be in spite of, not because of, their follies and exhibitions of bad taste. He resolved upon a radical departure, a revolution from the policy of satisfying petty vanity and tradition within the office to a policy of satisfying the demands of the public.

He gave Segur temporary charge of the editorial page, and, taking a desk in the news-room, centred his attention upon news and the news-staff. But he was careful not to agitate and antagonise those whose co÷peration was necessary to success. He made only one change in the management; he retired old Bowring on a pension and appointed to the city editorship one of the young reporters--Frank Cumnock.

He chose Cumnock for this position, in many respects the most important on the staff of a New York daily, because he wrote well, was a judge of good writing, had a minute knowledge of New York and its neighbourhood and, finally and chiefly, because he had a "news-sense," keener than that of any other man on the paper.

For instance, there was the murder of old Thayer, the rich miser in East Sixteenth Street. It was the sensation in all the newspapers for two weeks. Then they dropped it as an unsolvable mystery. Cumnock persuaded Mr. Bowring to let him keep on. After five days' work he heard of a deaf and dumb woman who sat every afternoon at a back window of her flat overlooking the back windows of Thayer's house. He had a trying struggle with her infirmity and stupidity, but finally was rewarded. On the afternoon of the murder, in its very hour (which the police had been able to discover), she had seen a man and woman in the bathroom of the Thayer house. Both were agitated and the man washed his hands again and again, carefully rinsing the bowl afterward. From her description Cumnock got upon the track of Thayer's niece and her husband, found the proof of their guilt, had them watched until the News-Record came out with the "beat," then turned them over to the police.

Also, Cumnock was keen at taking hints of good news-items concealed in obscure paragraphs. The Morris Prison scandal was an example of this. He found in the New England edition of The World a six-line item giving an astonishing death rate for the Morris Prison. He asked the City Editor to assign him to go there; and within a week the press of the entire country was discussing the News-Record's exposure of the barbarities of torture and starvation practised by Warden Johnson and his keepers.

"We are going to print the news, all the news and nothing but the news," Howard said to Cumnock. "They've put you here because, so they tell me, you know news no matter how thoroughly it is concealed or disguised. And I assure you that no one shall interfere with you. No favours to anybody; no use of the news-columns for revenge or exploitation. The only questions a news-item need raise in your mind are: Is it true? Is it interesting? Is it printable in a newspaper that will publish anything which a healthy-minded grown-person wishes to read?"

"Is that 'straight'?" asked Cumnock. "No favourites? No suppressions? No exploitations?"

"'Straight'--'dead straight'! And if I were you I'd make this particularly clear to the Wall Street and political men. If anybody"--with stress upon the anybody--"comes to you about this, send him to me."

Howard was uneasy about the managing editor, Mr. King. But he soon found that his fears were groundless. Mr. King was without petty vanity, and cordially and sincerely welcomed his control.

"We look too dull," King began when Howard asked him if he had any changes to suggest. "We need more and bigger headlines, and we need pictures."

"That is it!" Howard was delighted to find that King and he were in perfect accord. "But we must not have pictures unless we can have the best. Just at present we can't increase expenses by any great amount. What do you say to trying what we can do with all the news, larger headlines and plenty of leads?"

"I'm sure we can do better with our class of readers by livening up the appearance of our headlines than we could with second-rate pictures."

"I hope," Howard said earnestly, "that we won't have to use that phrase--'our class of readers'--much longer. Our paper should interest every man and woman able to read. It seems to me that a newspaper's audience should be like that of a good play--the orchestra chairs full and the last seat in the gallery taken. I suppose you know we're not an 'organ' any longer?"

"No, I didn't." Mr. King looked surprised. "Do you mean to say that we're free to print the news?"

"Free as freedom. In our news columns we're neither Democrat nor Republican nor Mugwump nor Reform. We have no Wall Street or social connections. We are going to print a newspaper--all the news and nothing but the news."

Mr. King drummed on his desk softly with the tips of his outstretched fingers. "Hum--hum," he said. "This is news. Well--the circulation'll go up. And that's all I'm interested in."

Howard went about his plans quietly. He avoided every appearance of exerting authority, disturbed not a wheel in the great machine. He made his changes so subtly that those who received the suggestions often came to him a few days afterward, proposing as their own the very plans he had hinted. He was thus cautious partly because of his experience of the vanity of men, their sensitiveness to criticism, their instinctive opposition to improvement from without; partly from his knowledge of the hysteria which raged in the offices of the "yellow journals." He wished to avoid an epidemic of that hysteria--the mad rush for sensation and novelty; the strife of opposing ambitions; the plotting and counter-plotting of rival heads of departments; the chaos out of which the craziest ideas often emerged triumphant, making the pages of the paper look like a series of disordered dreams.

He was indifferent to the semblance of authority, to the shadows for which small men are forever struggling. What he wanted, all he wanted, was--results.

The first opposition came from the night editor, who for twenty-six years, his weekly "night off" and his two weeks' vacation in summer excepted, had "made up" the paper--that is to say, had defined, with the advice and consent of the managing editor, the position and order of the various news items. This night editor, Mr. Vroom, was a strenuous conservative. He believed that an editor's duty was done when he had intelligently arranged his paper so that the news was placed before the reader in the order of its importance. Big headlines, attempts at effect with varying sizes of large type and varying column-widths he held to be crowd-catching devices, vulgar and debasing. He had no sympathy with Howard's theory that the first object of a newspaper published in a democratic republic is to catch the crowd, to interest it, to compel it to read, and so to lead it to think.

"We're on the way to scuffling in the gutter with the 'yellow journals' for the pennies of the mob," he was saying sarcastically to Mr. King, one afternoon just as Howard joined them.

Howard laughed. "Not on the way to the gutter, Mr. Vroom. Actually in the gutter, actually scuffling."

"Well, I'm frank to say that I don't like it. A newspaper ought to appeal to the intelligent."

"To intelligence, yes; to the intelligent, no. At least in my opinion, that is the right theory. We want people to read us because we're intelligent enough to know how to please them, not because they're intelligent enough to overcome the difficulties we put in their way. But let's go out to dinner this evening and talk it over."

They dined together at Mouquin's every night for a week. At the end of that time Vroom, still sarcastic and grumbling, was a convert. And a great accession Howard found him. He had sound judgment as to the value of news-items--what demanded first page, the "show-window," because it would interest everybody; what was worth a line on an inside page because it would interest only a few thousands. He was the most skillful of the News-Record's many good writers of headlines, a master of that, for the newspaper, art of arts--condensed and interesting statement, alluring the glancing reader to read on. Also he had an eye for effects with type. "You make every page a picture," Howard said to him. "It is wonderful how you balance your headlines, emphasising the important news yet saving the minor items from obscurity. I should like to see the paper you would make if you had the right sort of illustrations to put in."

Vroom was amazed at himself. He who had opposed any "head" which broke the column rule was now so far degenerated into a "yellow journalist" that, when Howard spoke of illustrations, he actually longed to test his skill at distributing them effectively.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Two months of hard work, tedious, because necessarily so indirect, produced a newspaper which was "on the right lines," as Howard understood right lines. And he felt that the time had come to make the necessary radical changes in the editorial page.

The News-Record had long posed as independent because it supported now one political party and now the other, or divided its support. But this superficial independence was in reality subservience to the financial interests of the two principal owners. They made their newspaper assail Republican or Democratic corruption and misgovernment in city, state or nation, according as their personal interests lay. They used the editorial page and, to even better advantage, the news-columns, in revenging themselves for too heavy levies of blackmail upon their corrupt interests or in securing unjust legislation and privileges.

Obedient and cynical Mr. Malcolm had made the editorial page corrupt and brilliant--never so effective as when assailing a good cause. The great misfortune of good causes is that they attract so many fatal friends--the superciliously conscientious; the well-meaning but feeble-minded and blundering; the most offensive because least deceptive kinds of hypocrites. Mr. Malcolm, as acute as he was intellectually unscrupulous, well understood how to weaken or to ruin a just cause through these supporters. Sometimes he stood afar off, showering the poisoned arrows of raillery and satire. Again he was the plain-spoken friend of the cause and warned its honest supporters against these "fool friends" whom he pretended to regard as its leaders. Again he played the part of a blind enthusiast and praised folly as wisdom and urged it on to more damaging activities.

"We abhor humbug here," he used to say; and perhaps he did in a measure excuse himself to his conscience with the phrase. But in fact his editorial page was usually a succession of humbugs, of brilliant hypocrisies and cheats perpetrated under the guise of exposing humbug.

Just as Howard was ready to reverse Malcolm's editorial programme, New York was seized with one of its "periodic spasms of virtue." The city government was, as usual, in the hands of the two bosses who owned the two political machines. One was taking the responsibility and the larger share of the spoils; the other was maintaining him in power and getting the smaller but a satisfactory share. The alliance between the police and criminal vice had become so open and aggressive under this bi-boss patronage that the people were aroused and indignant. But as they had no capable leaders and no way of selecting leaders, there arose a self-constituted leadership of uptown Phariseeism and sentimentality, planning the "purification" of the city.

Every man of sense knowing human nature and the conditions of city life knew that this plan was foredoomed to ridiculous failure, and that the event would be a popular revulsion against "reform."

"Why not speak the truth about these vice-hunters?" Howard was discussing the situation with three of his editorial writers--Segur, Huntington and Montgomery.

"It's mighty dangerous," Montgomery objected. "You will be sticking knives into a sacred Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy."

"Yes, we'll have all the good people about our ears," said Segur. "We'll be denounced as a defender of depravity, a foe of purity. They'll thunder away at us from every pulpit. The other newspapers will take it up, especially those that expect to sell millions of papers containing accounts of the 'exposure' of the dives and dens."

"That's good. I hope we shall," said Howard cheerfully. "It will advertise us tremendously."

The three were better pleased than they would have admitted to themselves by the seeming certainty of Howard's impending undoing.

"No, gentlemen," Howard said, as they were about to go to their rooms for the day's work. "There's no danger in attacking any hypocrisy. Don't attack beliefs that are universal or nearly universal--at least not openly. But don't be afraid of a hypocrisy because it is universal. People know that they are hypocrites in respect of it. They may not have the courage publicly to applaud you. But they'll be privately delighted and will admire your courage. We'll try to be discreet and we'll be careful to be truthful. And we'll begin by making these gentlemen show themselves up."

The next morning the News-Record published a double-leaded editorial. It described the importance of improving political and social conditions in New York; it went on to note the distinguished names on the committee for the destruction of vice; it closed with the announcement that on the following day the News-Record would publish the views of these eminent reformers upon conditions and remedies.

The next day he printed the interviews--a collection of curiosities in utopianism, cant, ignorant fanaticism, provincialism, hypocrisy. These appeared strictly as news; for the cardinal principle of Howard's theory of a newspaper was that it had no right to intrude its own views into its news-columns. On the editorial page he riddled the interviews. By adroit quotations, by contrasting one with another, he showed, or rather made the so-called reformers themselves show, that where they were sincere they were in the main silly, and where they were plausible they were in the main insincere; that every man of them had his own pet scheme for the salvation of wicked New York; and that they could not possibly accomplish anything more valuable than leading the people on the familiar, aimless, demoralizing excursion through the slums.

On the following day he frankly laughed at them as a lot of impracticables who either did not know the patent facts of city life or refused to admit those facts. And he turned his attention to the real problem, a respectable administration for the city--a practical end which could easily be accomplished by practical action. From day to day he kept this up, publishing a splendid series of articles, humorous, witty, satirical, eloquent, bold, with a dominant strain of sincerity and plain common sense. As his associates had predicted, a storm gathered and burst in fury about the News-Record. It was denounced by "leading citizens," including many of the clergy. Its "esteemed" contemporaries published and endorsed and amplified the abuse. And its circulation went up at the rate of five thousand a day.

When the storm was at its height, when the whole town seemed to be agreeing with the angry reformers but was quietly laughing at their folly and hypocrisy, Howard threw his bomb. On a Saturday morning he gave half of his first page with big but severely impartial headlines to an analysis of the members of the vice committee--a broadside of facts often hinted but never before verified and published. First came those who owned property and sub-let it for vicious purposes, the property and purpose specified in detail; then those who were directors in corporations which had got corrupt privileges from the local boss, the privileges being carefully specified, and also the amounts of which they had robbed the city. Last came those who were directors in corporations which had bought from the State-boss injustices and licenses to rob, the specifications given in damning detail.

His leading editorial was entitled "Why We Don't Have Decent Government." It was powerful in its simplicity, its merciless raillery and irony; and only at the very end did it contain passion. There, in a few eloquent sentences he arraigned these professed reformers who were growing rich through the boss-system, who were trafficking with the bosses and were now engaged in wrecking the hopes of honesty and decency. On that day the News-Record's circulation went up thirty thousand. The town rang with its "exposure" and the attention of the whole country was arrested. It was one of the historic "beats" of New York journalism. The reputation of the News-Record for fearlessness and truth-telling and news-enterprise was established. At abound it had become the most conspicuous and one of the most powerful journals in New York.




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