1897 American journalism’s exceptional year

By W. Joseph Campbell

Journalism History 29, (4) Winter 2004


Karl Decker
On the agenda when the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association convened its annual meeting in New York City in February 1897 were questions such as: “Should a newspaper furnish members of the editorial staff with stationery supplies, especially lead pencils?” Do typewriters “lower the literary grade of work done by reporters?” And: “What is the rule in regard to paying car fare for reporters on the local staff of newspapers?”1


While certainly offering a glimpse into late nineteenth century journalism, the topics2 were inadvertently deceptive: They contained no hint that the year 1897 was unfolding as an important moment of transition in American journalism. They offered scant allusion to the convergence of events and forces that would make 1897 journalism’s exceptional year.


Eighteen ninety-seven was the year of publication of the most famous editorial3 in American journalism, the New York Sun’s timeless “Is There a Santa Claus?”4 It was the year when “yellow journalism” first appeared in print, a sneering pejorative that was swiftly diffused in the American press. Eighteen ninety-seven brought a breakthroughin the use of half-tone photographs in main sections of large-circulation newspapers,5 a development that recast the appearance of daily American newspapers. It was the year of “jail-breaking journalism,”6 when William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal organized the rescue of a female political prisoner in Havana during Cuba’s insurrection against Spanish rule.


Eighteen ninety-seven was the year, some scholars say, of the first modern reference to “public relations”—in the Yearbook of Railway Literature.7 It was the year when cinema was emergent8 and when a motion picture camera was first taken to war.9 It was the year of origin of the Katzenjammer Kids, now America’s longest-running newspaper comic.10


It was, more significantly, the year in which a choice would crystallize between rival and incompatible visions or paradigms for the future of American journalism—a choice between the self-activated, participatory ethos of Hearst’s yellow journalism, and the detached, sober antithesis of that genre, as represented by the New York Times and its lofty commitment to “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Resolution of this clash of paradigms would take years and result ultimately in rejection of Hearst-style activism. But in 1897, the choice was clearly laid down.


That those developments11 all were rooted in 1897 suggests more than coincidence: They signal the critical nature of the year as a remarkable if little-recognized transitory moment in American journalism. If tentatively perhaps, journalists in 1897 sensed that significant transformation was afoot. “Be the causes what they may,” the Journalist trade publication noted “that the methods of journalism are at present changing. Whether they have yet reached the limit of that change … is a question no man can answer.”12 New practices and new devices certainly were being brought to newsrooms. The “signed article,” for example, was recognized as “more and more common,” representing “another departure in modern journalism.”13


The Fourth Estate noted a “rapid introduction of the typewriter into newspaper offices” and declared: “Though it is unfortunately true that many of the best reporters fail to save enough to begin a bank account, yet there is no reason why any man earning a decent salary should not possess a typewriter.”14 The extensive investment and capitalization requiredof large-city dailies—from typewriters to linotypes and high-speed presses capable of printing in color—prompted Lincoln Steffens to write: “The magnitude of the financial operations of the newspaper is turning journalism upside down.”15


This articledirects attention to the remarkable succession of events and developments during that crowded year—particularly those in New York City surrounding the emergent clash of paradigms of the Journal and the Times—and argues that 1897 merits recognition as a pivotal moment in the trajectory of American journalism. In presenting that case, the article pursues a methodological frame—the single-year study—that has been little tested in journalism history, a field that leading scholars have criticized for its “restrictions on methodological approaches”16 and resistance to “new and better ways to study [journalism’s] past.”17


Merits of year studies


While the critiques of journalism history have not specifically identified single-year studies as representative of methodological freshness, such approaches have proven revealing in other contexts; Scott Heller has described them as “a manageable way to narrow the scope, deal in specifics, yet still work with a beginning, middle, and end.”18 Because they offer detailed, sharply focused assessments, year studies can clarify trends, issues, and developments that otherwise may be obscured in the sweep of historiography. For example, the contemporaneous if passing interest in Hearst’s activist journalism is seldom recognized by historians. But a detailed examination of 1897 reveals that the activist paradigm won admirers, even among Hearst’s rivals and foes, and was seen as a promising agent in confronting official corruption and monopolitistic excess.


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1. “Bulletin 408A,” American Newspaper Publishers’ Association, New York: Jan. 18, 1897, 9.
2. This is not to say that the Publishers’ Association concerned itself solely with trivial issues at its meeting in 1897. The agenda included questions of incorporating the association and exploring ways of ascertaining claims of newspaper circulation. Other agenda items were: “What benefits if any come from the publishing of special editions, like ‘Christmas Number,’ ‘Fourth of July Number,’ ‘Bicycle Number,’ etc.?” “What is the present status in reference to colored supplements, books, pictures, music, art and fashion supplements, and all other circulation schemes?” See “Bulletin 408A,” American Newspaper Publishers’ Association.

3. For such characterizations of the editorial see, for example, Geo Beach, “Shop Talk at Thirty: ’Yes, Virginia,’ 100 Years Later, Provides Enduring Reminder of Print’s Power,” Editor & Publisher, Dec. 20, 1997, 48.
4. “Is There a Santa Claus?,” New York Sun, Sept. 21, 1897. The editorial’s author, Francis P. Church, was identified as such at his death in April 1906. The Sun then said in an editorial: “At this time, when the sense of personal loss strong upon us, we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful and often republished article affirming the existence of Santa Claus.” Untitled editorial comment, New York Sun, April 12, 1906.
5. See, among others, Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839–1889 (New York: Dover Publications, 1964), 446.
6. So described by the Chicago Times-Herald. See “Jail-breaking Journalism,” Chicago Times-Herald, Oct. 12, 1897.
7. See Burton St. John III, “Public Relations as Community-building, Then and Now,” Public Relations Quarterly 43 (Spring 1998): 34. The reference to “public relations” appears in the preface of The Yearbook of Railway Literature (Chicago: Railway Age, 1897).
8. Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (New York Scribner’s, 1990), 109. Musser identifies cinema’s ”novelty year” as the period from late April 1896 to May 1897.
9. See Michael S. Sweeney, From the Front: The Story of War ( Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2003), 101.
10. The cartoon, drawn by Rudolph Dirks, first appeared in New York Journal in December 1897. It remains in syndication.
11. The year also is famous for an often-recounted anecdote that almost certainly is apocryphal—William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow, in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, to “furnish the war” with Spain. If such a message had been sent, it would have been in mid-January 1897, at the end of Remington’s brief assignment to Cuba to cover the insurrection against Spanish rule. For a detailed analysis about why the anecdote almost certainly is apocryphal, see W. Joseph Campbell, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies ( Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2001), 71–95.
12. “The New Journalism,” The Journalist, June 5, 1897, 51.
13. Melville E. Stone, “Newspapers in the United States: Their Functions, Interior Economy, and Management, “Self Culture 5 (June 1897): 305. Stone was then the general manager of the Associated Press.
14. “The Typewriter,” Fourth Estate, July 29, 1897, 6. The Fourth Estate account described the typewriter “as positively necessary” in most newsrooms and noted: “The rapid introduction of the typewriter into newspaper offices is largely due to the fact that it is of the most positive value in connection with the typesetting machine. The typewriter means practically perfect copy that can be readily distributed in small ‘takes.’” Similarly, the Journalist declared: “There is no modern invention except, perhaps, the bicycle, which has so evidently filled a long-felt want and taken its position in the economy of modern business life as the typewriter.” See “Bye-the-Bye,” The Journalist, May 29, 1897, 45.
15. J. Lincoln Steffens, “The Business of a Newspaper,” Scribner’s 22 (October 1897): 448. The Fourth Estate reported in July 1897 that the country’s “largest linotype battery” was that of the New York Herald, which had 52 machines; the World had 51 linotype machines and the Journal had 50. In all, Fourth Estate said, 4,150 linotype machines were in use at 600 locations in North America . See “The Linotype,” Fourth Estate, July 29, 1897, 2.
16. Margaret A. Blanchard, “The Ossification of Journalism History: A Challenge for the Twenty-first Century,” Journalism History 25 (Autumn 1999): 110. Blanchard also cited a “need to broaden our horizons as to what research approach will yield the most accurate pictures of our mediated world.”
17. Ibid., 111. Blanchard’s appeal renewed and extended a critique that dates at least to 1974 and James W. Carey’s “The Problem of Journalism History,” Journalism History 1 (Spring 1974): 3–5, 27. Carey said (3) that the “study of journalism history remains something of an embarrassment” and argued that scholars in the field “have defined our craft both too narrowly and too modestly and, therefore, constricted the range of problems we study and the claims we make for our knowledge.” For a somewhat more optimistic assessment, see Donald Lewis Shaw and Sylvia L. Zack, “Rethinking Journalism History: How Some Recent Studies Support One Approach,” Journalism History 14 (Winter 1987): 111–17. The authors concluded (116): “If our field once was an embarrassment to some, it no longer is.”
18. Scott Heller, “What a Difference a Year Makes,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 5, 2001, A17.