YELLOW JOURNALISM. Encyclopedia of American Journalism

Yellow journalism is the term attached to the sensationalistic, graphically flamboyant journalism emerging in New
York at the end of the nineteenth century. It was coined by
the New York Press, which used it derisively in 1897 to label
the news coming from two of its fellow New York papers,
the World and the Journal. The term alluded to a comicstrip character dubbed “The Yellow Kid,” who symbolized
the frenzied competition between the two papers that pushed
them to such journalistic extremes. Although the World and
the Journal were the original “yellow journals,” their profitable approach to news was picked up by other newspapers in
New York and across the country in the 1890s.
The Father of New Journalism
Although older accounts of yellow journalism have placed
its genesis with the competition between publishers Joseph
Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, more recent treatments see it as simply the amplification of the “new journalism” that Pulitzer brought to New York City in 1883.
By the time he arrived, the ideals of an aggressive, independent journalism for the working class were mellowing
with the commercial success they had achieved in previous decades. New York publishers like Charles Dana and
Whitelaw Reid had wrested their pages away from the
influence of politicians and drawn a broad working-class
readership with frank, well-written news, and biting political commentary. By the early 1880s, however, the energetic
independence of that era was foundering.
Pulitzer hastened the end of that era by bringing his
model of journalism to the scene—one that had made his
St. Louis Post-Dispatch an enormous success. Like the
Post-Dispatch, Pulitzer’s World shunned the style of traditional newspapers. Instead, the Hungarian-born Pulitzer
vowed to carry more interesting news, targeted at the growing population of urban working- and middle-class Americans. Appealing to this growing market by charging only
two cents for the World, Pulitzer was also able to deliver
more readers to his advertisers. Although this commercial
business model had emerged decades earlier, Pulitzer took
it to a new level by building a newspaper that saw its readers
as consumers of entertainment, leisure, and retail goods.
A key to this approach was the creation of a dramatically different looking newspaper. Visually, the World’s
pages exploded with huge, alliterative headlines and illustrations—a marked departure from its counterparts, which
topped tidy columns of text with modestly sized titles.
Pulitzer even brought color to the newsprint with the yellow-skirted urchin in the comic strip “Hogan’s Alley” (later
retitled “The Yellow Kid”).
But the content of its pages also set the World apart
from the rest of New York’s newspapers. The World carried
bright, gossipy features, including fashion and leisure pieces
to reach women, as well as ample coverage of scandal, vice
and corruption. Pulitzer maintained that the World, like
the Post-Dispatch, was published for the underdog, which
meant the paper would not hesitate to uncover abuses of
power. Indeed, it would seek out these stories and promote
them as crusades on behalf of the World’s readership.
These crusades, reported in sensationalistic terms, comprised a mix of idealism and unabashed self-promotion.
They have remained some of the most colorful anecdotes
from this era. In 1887, for example, journalist Nellie Bly
(Elizabeth Cochran) feigned insanity in order to report on
the conditions at the infamous asylum on Blackwell Island.
Her piece, which detailed systemic abuses of the women
there, led to an investigation of the institution and a significant boost in funding for the state’s department of charities
and corrections. The World drew more readers through participatory crusades as well, such as its fundraising campaign
to purchase a base for the Statue of Liberty, which France
had recently given the United States. This created a sense
of pride and efficacy among the World’s immigrant readers,
many of whom found their names on the paper’s front page
for contributing hard-earned pennies to the cause.
Despite New York’s saturated newspaper market—the
city already had twenty-six English-language dailies when
Pulitzer first arrived—the World ultimately demonstrated
to the city’s other papers that they would have to incorporate at least some facets of Pulitzer’s new journalism into
their pages to achieve similar circulation success. Pulitzer’s
tactics ultimately earned him credit as the father of “new
journalism”—a less political, more sensationalistic, commercial, and entertaining form of journalism for the masses.
And, although the form did not earn its “yellow” label until
Pulitzer’s nemesis entered the picture, the latter was merely
an extension of Pulitzer’s original model.
“Out-Pulitzering” Pulitzer
The success of the New York World inspired William Randolph Hearst, son of U.S. Senator George Hearst, to replicate Pulitzer’s model with the San Francisco Examiner, turning
that newspaper around just as Pulitzer had done with the
Post-Dispatch and the World. Hearst had convinced his
father to let him run the Examiner after he was expelled
from Harvard. The paper had been neglected for years, having served its purpose as a vehicle for promoting the elder
Hearst’s political career. Now, using Pulitzer’s techniques,
Hearst revived it and quickly had it turning a profit. Then
he announced his next challenge: to “out-Pulitzer” Pulitzer
in the great New York City newspaper market.
Hearst got his foot in that market when he managed to
buy the struggling New York Morning Journal in 1895.
He then set up shop in Pulitzer’s own building and began
pumping his formidable inheritance into the operation. But
the Journal’s circulation was so small that Pulitzer did not
take notice of his new rival until Hearst began using his war
chest to put together a new editorial staff in a startlingly
efficient manner—by stealing the staff away from Pulitzer.
One of the early raids began with Hearst’s attempt to
hire the World’s Sunday editor, Morrill Goddard. When
Goddard said he needed the rest of his staff, Hearst quickly
agreed and hired them all—including R.F. Outcault, the
illustrator of “The Yellow Kid” comic strip. Pulitzer persuaded them to come back for nearly twenty-four hours,
but ultimately lost the battle. The entire Sunday editorial
team joined the Journal for good. Hearst then began running “The Yellow Kid” in his paper, only to find that Pulitzer had hired another illustrator to continue the strip in the
It was this famous episode of one-upmanship that epitomized the driving force behind yellow journalism and, by
traditional accounts, earned the practice its label. But it was
the content and style of Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s papers that
earned yellow journalism its derision. Hearst’s plan to “outPulitzer” Pulitzer resulted in a circulation war that amplified the characteristics of new journalism and inspired
condemnation from the city’s conservative press.
Hearst did ultimately make good on his plan to outdo
Pulitzer. Headlines grew larger and more sensational,
and the Journal was criticized for covering trivial news
too often and covering important news irresponsibly with
sloppy reporting and brazen writing. Hearst’s crusades,
while flavored with some of the same reformist impulses as
Pulitzer’s, were also so self-congratulatory that this alone
may have been sufficient to raise the ire of other journalists
and publishers. But Hearst also spent enormous amounts of
money to get the news—to pay generous salaries to talented
writers and editors, and to get news coverage from overseas.
He also popularized the use of bylines and made reporters
like Stephen Crane and Richard Harding Davis into journalistic celebrities. And he did all this while the World, led
by an increasingly blind and fraught Pulitzer, battled vociferously to keep pace, engaging in the same practices while
simultaneously castigating the other for its foibles.
Yellow journalism’s heyday, and the roots of its decline,
traditionally corresponds with the Spanish-American War
of 1898. Earlier historians even credited, or blamed, the
war on the sensationalistic jingoism of the two yellow journals. Hearst’s Journal had been calling for U.S. support
for Cuban resistance to Spain’s colonialist rule long before
the United States declared war on Spain. Indeed, Hearst’s
telegraph to Journal artist Frederic Remington, replying to
the artist’s request to leave Havana because there was no
military action, is easily one of the most famous anecdotes
in the history of U.S. journalism. “You supply the pictures,”
Hearst told the young man, “and I’ll supply the war.” However, apart from the biographical account of this scene by
a journalist who was almost certainly not there to witness
it, there is no indication that the exchange took place. And
most historians—particularly after Joseph Campbell’s
meticulous 2001 book debunking the myths of yellow journalism—do not credit the sensationalistic journals with that
kind of policy power.
In any case, by the war’s end that same year, the excesses
of yellow journalism had reached a frenzied peak and the
public was beginning to weary of the screaming scare
headlines, scandal news and contradictory, unsubstantiated
reporting that marked the yellow journals’ war coverage.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the very brief
yellow journalism era was over. However, many of its characteristics stayed behind in more subtle variations as the
press became a modern professional institution.
Further Reading
Campbell, W. Joseph. Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths,
Defi ning the Legacies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.
Juergens, George. Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Kobre, Sidney. The Yellow Press and Gilded Age Journalism. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1964.
Lubow, Arthur. The Reporter Who Would Be King: A Biography
of Richard Harding Davis. New York: Scribner, 1992.
Milton, Joyce. The Yellow Kids: Foreign Correspondents in the
Heyday of Yellow Journalism. New York: Harper & Row,
Smythe, Ted Curtis. The Gilded Age Press, 1865–1900. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.
Stevens, John D. Sensationalism and the New York Press. New
York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Emily Erickson