Journalism at the Turn of the 20th Century

A newsboy selling papers for one cent during the early 20th century

Journalism at the Turn of the 20th Century

Today, news can be accessed at the touch of a button, and it’s sometimes difficult to imagine an age when the newspaper was king. But that’s exactly how it was in the late 19th century.  (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)

Several newspaper editions were usually published daily, and most communities, no matter the size, had multiple papers competing against each other. Editions were sold at newsstands and on corners by newsboys who, as the name implies, were children.

Society pages were filled with the latest news of the wealthy and famous, including colorful descriptions of their clothing and events.

By the turn of the 20th century, newspapers had begun to print photos and comic strips began appearing in color.

Yellow Journalism

Yellow journalism in The New York World
Yellow journalism in The New York World

As newspapers competed against each other, they sensationalized the news, exaggerating events and focusing on scandals. This tactic is called yellow journalism.

Modern yellow journalism is attributed to Joseph Pulitzer who used sensational headlines to sell copies of his New York City crime newspaper The World. By doing so, Pulitzer turned news into entertainment, and it paid off. The Sunday edition of The World passed the 250,000-copies-sold mark in 1889.

William Randolph Hearst purchased the New York Journal in 1895 and decided to take on Pulitzer. He hired many of Pulitzer’s employees, but Pulitzer hired a new editor. The two newspapers began their battle, writing ever more sensationalized headlines and embellished stories.

Eventually, the newspapers were no longer trusted as creditable sources and went back to reporting in a more objective matter.

Some historians say yellow journalism may have been responsible for the United States going to war with Spain in 1898 as newspaper reports of Cuban atrocities were greatly exaggerated.

Investigative Journalism

Nellie Bly, the mother of investigative journalism
Nellie Bly, the mother of investigative journalism

Whereas yellow journalism tainted the industry, the birth of investigative journalism showed the power the media has to change lives.

Referred to as muckraking in the early 1900s, a term coined by Teddy Roosevelt, investigative journalists spent a significant period of time researching one story. These journalists brought to the public’s attention such things as political corruption and the effects of poverty with the aim of bringing about social change.

McClure’s Magazine published an article in October 1902 that is considered the first article labeled as investigative journalism. However, articles that we would today consider investigative journalism appeared as early as the 1870s.

Some examples includes photojournalist Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Nellie Bly’s exposé on New York insane asylums.

Politically Biased Newspapers

A New York City political cartoon on Boss Tweed
A New York City political cartoon on Boss Tweed

Decades before MSNBC and FOX News, there were politically leaning newspapers, and almost all newspapers leaned one way or another.

These publications would side with one political party, reporting on news with a political slant, often stooping to name calling to prove their point.

By World War I, the public had another form of media – the newsreel – that it could rely on for current events. The heyday of the newspaper was over.

Soon newspapers also would compete against radio.

The WWI Trilogy by Melina Druga
The WWI Trilogy by Melina Druga: Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year

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Updated: 26 October 2020
Melina Druga
Latest posts by Melina Druga (see all)
Melina Druga is a multi-genre author with a lifelong love of history, books and the English language. She pens historical fiction, chick lit and nonfiction.

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