Pulitzer: A Lost World Where Words Mattered

In this world of Twittering and blogging, I have been dashing across the country telling stories about a lost world of journalism where the word reigned supreme and the medium was not the message; the message was. The receptive audience I have found may be a healthy sign that not all is so bleak.

I've been telling these tales on the well-trodden path of the author's tour for my new biography of "Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power." But what's been different from previous tours is that readers are noticeably responding to one particular tale and that is why my faith in the durability of the written word has been restored, at least a bit.

The story I tell is about when Joseph Pulitzer first came to New York in 1883 and bought a bankrupt newspaper called The World. Within a few years he would turn it into the most widely read newspaper in American history. (To match the reach, in comparative terms, of the million copy circulation of Pulitzer's World, today's New York Times would have to increase its paid readership by 300 percent.)

In struggling to explain what it was that this Hungarian Jewish immigrant did to meet such success and launch the era of mass communications, I work at bringing audiences back to an era when the printed word ruled supreme and 1,028 daily newspapers across the country vied for readers. Content was the means of competition

If a headline was the lure--and, boy, could they write headlines in those days--the copy was the hook. Pulitzer could craft--or teach his editors to craft--all the catchy headlines he wanted, but it was up to the reporters to win over readers. He admonished his staff to write in a buoyant, colloquial style consisting of simple nouns, bright verbs, and short, punchy sentences.

The "Pulitzer formula," if there was one, was a story written so simply that anyone could read it, and so colorfully that no one would forget it. "The question, 'Did you see that in the World?' " Pulitzer instructed his staff, "should be asked every day, and something should be designed to cause this."

The World's stories were animated not just by the facts the reporters dug up but also by the voices of the city they recorded. Pulitzer drove his staff to aggressively seek out interviews, a relatively new technique in journalism. Leading figures of the day, accustomed to a high wall of privacy, were affronted by what Pulitzer proudly called "the insolence and impertinence of the reporters for the World."

Not only did he have the temerity to dispatch his men to pester politicians, manufacturers, bankers, and society figures for answers to endless questions, he also instructed them to return with specific observations. Vagueness was a sin. A tall man stood six feet two inches. A beautiful woman had auburn hair, hazel eyes, and demure lips that occasionally turned upward in a coy smile.

Pulitzer had an uncanny ability to recognize news in what others ignored. He sent out reporters to mine the urban dramas his competitors consigned to their back pages. Typical, for instance, was the tale that ran on the World's front page, soon after Pulitzer took over, about the destitute and widowed Margaret Graham. Dockworkers had seen her walking on the edge of a pier in the East River with an infant in her arms and a small child clutching her skirt. "All at once the famished mother clasped the feeble little girl round her waist and, tottering to the brink of the wharf, hurled both her starving young into the river as it whirled by. She stood for a moment on the edge of the stream. The children were too weak and spent to struggle or to cry. Their little helpless heads dotted the brown tide for an instant, then they sank out of sight." Graham followed her children into the river, but she was saved by the onlookers and taken to jail to face murder charges.

Pulitzer pushed his writers to think like Charles Dickens, who wove fiction from sad tales of Victorian London, to create compelling entertainment from the drama of the modern city. In the Lower East Side's notorious bars, called "black and tans" for the blend of stout and lager they served, or at dinner in cramped tenements, men and women did not discuss society news, cultural events, or happenings in the investment houses. Rather, the talk was about the toddler who fell to his death from a rooftop, the brutal beating police officers meted out to an unfortunate waif, or the rising fares of streetcar trips to the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue and the mansions where so many working people toiled as servants.

The World drew in these readers, many of whom were immigrants struggling to master their first words of English. Writing about the events that mattered in their lives in a way they could understand, Pulitzer's World gave these New Yorkers a feeling of belonging and a sense of value.

In one stroke, Pulitzer simultaneously elevated the common man and took his spare change. The World was good and readers flocked.

Maybe this century old tale can serve as a reminder that in the end the word--whether on paper or on a screen--still matters.