1897 American journalism’s exceptional year Journalism History 29, (4) Winter 2004


Year studies, moreover, can offer insight into what may be considered familiar or even mundane topics. This article, for example, considers the emergence of the New York Times’ smug yet enduring motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” and notes that it first served as an advertising and marketing device before taking a permanent place on the newspaper’s front page in 1897.


Year studies can be intriguingly flexible and inclusive. As Michael North, the author of Reading 1922,19 has usefully observed: “In the telling of history … a year can be used as a date, as if it were punctual and precise, or as a period containing a great many other dates.”2o Such flexibility is apparent in the variety of recent single-year works examining the world on the cusp of modernity,21 the United States at a critical moments before its civil war,22 the nascent “American century,”23 and the post-World War I peace conference in Paris,24 among others.25


Year studies are not without their risks, the most pronounced of which is locating too much significance in a single year while ignoring the broader evolutionary context. Indeed, it would be erroneous to characterize the significant developments in American journalism in 1897 as products of sudden inspiration. Some certainly were. The New York Sun’s iconic Santa Claus editorial, according to an editor’s account, was written “in a short time.”26 But other pivotal moments in 1897 clearly were the outcome of extended periods of experimentation. A telling example was the breakthrough in half-tone technology—specifically, printing half-tones in the main section of newspapers published on high-speed presses. Such a process was believed impossible until the 1890s.27


The breakthrough came January 21, 1897, when the New York Tribune published a half-tone photograph of Thomas Platt, New York’s U.S. Senator-elect, on its front page.28 The Tribune’s portrait “startled New York” journalism, said the Fourth Estate,29 characterizing the development as “undoubtedly, a new step in the art of newspaper illustration.”30 The Tribune congratulated itself as “the first of all the metropolitan newspapers to make and print a satisfactory half-tone picture in its main sheet with its rapid, web perfecting presses, running at full speed, and using simply the regular everyday quality of printing paper.” The newspaper also asserted: “We do not say The Tribune’s half-tones cannot be improved. … But the mechanical difficulty, hitherto deemed insuperable, has been at last overcome.”31 Within six weeks, the Fourth Estate reported a “distinct passion for half-tones” had “developed … throughout the country.”32


Although the Tribune’s breakthrough was described by Wilson’s Photographic Magazine in 1900 as the start of a “wonderful revolution … in the illustration of great metropolitan daily papers,”33 half-tones had appeared for years in illustrated weekly publications and in weekly supplements and special sections of newspapers. Their appearance in daily newspapers resulted from the sustained efforts of Stephen H. Horgan, 34 the Tribune’s art manager,35and from the recognition that half-tones offered greater timeliness and better fidelity36 than artists’ sketches, and cost less, too.37


As the Tribune’s innovation in half-tone technology suggests, the construct of a year study can capture or freeze-frame key moments in the trajectory of long-term change. This is not to say no year other than 1897 could be considered as journalism’s exceptional year. Other candidates may include: 1798 and the promulgation of the Alien and Sedition Acts, under which ten journalists eventually were convicted;38 1833 and the emergence (disputed by scholars) of innovative techniques of the penny press;39 1972 and the Washington Post’s disclosures about the Watergate scandal, a constitutional crisis that led to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard M. Nixon,40 and 1998 and the succession of well-publicized cases of ethical lapses and professional misconduct that shook American journalism.41 While each of those years is significant, even extraordinary, in American journalism, none appears to offer the variety of salient, pivotal moments that distinguished 1897.


That year, in broad respects, was characterized by a sense of vigor and welcome change in American life. A deeply unpopular president, Grover Cleveland, left office in March 1897. His administration had presided over four years of ruinous economic decline, or what the New York Herald called “the Slough of Despondency.”42 Declining numbers of business failures and expanding farm exports signaled an economic recovery in 1897.43 “In contrast with the four preceding years,” the St. PaulPioneer Press declared in an extravagant year-end assessment, “1897 was as the genial spring which follows the long, cold, dead winter, and sets aflow the currents of a new life in stream and tree and plant.”44


Midsummer 1897 brought confirmation of fabulous-sounding gold strikes in the Klondike, in Canada’s sub-Artic Yukon Territory, setting off North America’s last great gold rush. A cycling craze, offering the allure of both speed and liberation,45 neared or reached a peak in 1897.46 Century runs—excursions of 100 miles—had become so popular as to be unremarkable, the Philadelphia Item declared.47 “The bicycle has coaxed us all out of doors,” the New York Herald observed. “This glorious exercise, followed by a glorious appetite three times a day and sound sleep at night is making us all over again.”48


The cycling craze would subside with the emergence of the automobile49 which in 1897 left indelible impressions. “The horseless carriage,” the New York Tribune declared at year’s end, “has apparently come to stay.”50 A year-end review in the Cincinnati Enquirer noted: “Horseless carriages have ceased to be the butt of the cartoonist’s pencil and the joke writer’s pen. In three great cities of the world— London, Paris and New York—motor carriages have become such a familiar sight as to be an object of curiosity to none but country visitors.”51 Presciently, the New York Tribune at the close of 1897 suggested the world was “probably on the threshold of more stirring scenes and more important changes than have occurred in the year now closing.”52 Within months, America had entered the world stage,53 projecting its military power in Asia and the Caribbean during a brief war that ejected Spain from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.


The exceptionality of 1897 was becoming evident by the time the Publishers’ Association met in New York. At the end of January 1897, just days after the Tribune printed its landmark half-tone, the New York Press published the evocative yet scathing sneer—“yellow journalism”—to impugn the aggressive and invariably self-promoting “new” journalism of Hearst’s Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. 54 The pejorative spread rapidly, and lives on as an epithet for journalistic misconduct of all kinds.


But rather than recoiling in embarrassment, the Journal took the insult as a compliment. It embraced yellow journalism and noted in 1898 that “the sun in heaven is yellow—the sun which is to this earth what the Journal is to American journalism.”55 Although that claim was typically self-congratulatory, the Journal had done much to merit such a characterization in 1897—a year of remarkable, if often controversial, exploits and successes.


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19. Michael North, Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
20. See Michael North, “Virtual Histories: The Year as Literary Period,” Modern Language Quarterly 62 (2001): 408.
21. John E. Wills, 1688: A Global History (New York: Norton, 2001).

22. Louis P. Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001) and Kenneth M. Stamp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

23. David Traxel, 1898: The Birth of the American Century (New York: Knopf, 1998). Traxel principally explores the political and military significance of 1898 and dwells little on the journalism of the time. He does not explore the exceptionality of 1897 in American journalism.

24. Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World ( New York: Random House, 2002).

25. An more narrow approach was taken in Jay Winik’s April 1865 : The Month that Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).

26. See Edward P. Mitchell, Memoirs of an Editor: Fifty Years of American Journalism (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1924), 112.

27. “The Development of Illustration,” Wilson’s Photographic Magazine 37 (May 1900): 232. See also, Michael L. Carlebach, American Photojournalism Comes of Age (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institutions Press, 1997), 28.

28. “Platt Elected Senator,” New York Tribune, Jan. 21, 1897.
29. “The Problem of the Hour,” Fourth Estate, Feb. 25, 1897, 6.

30. “Half-tones for Perfecting Presses,” Fourth Estate, Jan. 28, 1897, 6. Other sources concur. Robert Taft, for one, wrote: “The year 1897 really marks the advent of half-tone illustration as a regular feature of American newspaper journalism.” Taft, Photography and the American Scene, 446.
31. “Half-tone pictures,” New York Tribune, March 31, 1897. An account in Fourth Estate said the Tribune had developed a way to embed the half-tone into the curved stereotype plates used on the newspaper’s press. See “Half-tones for Perfecting Presses,” Jan. 28, 1897, 6.
32. Untitled Editorial Comment, Fourth Estate, March 11, 1897, 7.
33. “The Development of Illustration,” May 1900, 232
34. See Harry W. Baehr Jr., The New York Tribune Since the Civil War (New York: Octagon 1972 reprint of 1936 edition), 235. See also: Taft, Photography and the American Scene, 446; “Twenty-Years Progress in Half-Tone Work,” Fourth Estate, May 30, 1903, 5; “Halftones 50 Years Old,” New York Times, March 4, 1930, and Lida Rose McCabe, The Beginnings of Halftone: From the Note Books of Stephen H. Horgan, “Dean of American Photoengravers,” (Chicago: Inland Printer, 1924). However, two newspapers in Minnesota claimed, in letters to Fourth Estate in 1897, that they had introduced half-tones in daily editions before the New York Tribune. See “Who Holds the Half-Tone Record on Fast Presses?” Fourth Estate, Feb. 11, 1897, 7. The trade journal appears to have made no attempt to investigate those claims.
35. Horgan reportedly was dismissed from the New York Herald in the early 1890s for insisting a way could be found to publish half-tones in the newspaper’s main section. See “Horgan, Inventor of Halftone, Dies,” New York Times, Aug. 31, 1941.
36. The New York Tribune described the half-tone as “a perfect reproduction of a photograph, and thus avoids the possible distortion of features or inaccurate conception of a given scene through the necessary haste of the daily newspaper artist.” See “Half-tone pictures,” March 31, 1897.
37. Carlebach, American Photojournalism Comes of Age, 29. See also, Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography From 18939 to the Present (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994), 252.
38. Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism, A History: 1690-1960, 3d ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 149. Although the Alien and Sedition Acts were allowed to lapse in 1801, journalists still faced the threat of criminal libel, the prosecution of which typically fell to the states. See Norman L. Rosenberg, “The Law of Political Libel and Freedom of the Press in Nineteenth Century America: An Interpretation,” American Journal of Legal History, 17 (1973): 337.
39. The notion that the penny press emerged in 1833 and reshaped American journalism has been disputed by historians, notably John Nerone in “The Mythology of the Penny Press,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 4 (1987): 376–404. Nerone wrote (377): “The penny press is properly understood as a mutation in one class or species of newspaper, rather than as a revolution in editorial policy and business strategy. The innovations associated with the penny press are functions of forces external to the papers themselves rather than the results of unique personal initiative.”
40. Some analysts have rejected the decidedly media-centric view that the Washington Post’s reporting brought down the Nixon administration. The roles of Congress and the federal courts in compelling testimony and the production of evidence were far more decisive to that outcome. See Edward J. Epstein, Between Fact and Fiction: The Problem of Journalism (New York: Vintage, 1975), 19–32.
41. The well-publicized ethical lapses that year included the dismissal of two columnists for the Boston Globe who cited fictitious characters in their work; the Cincinnati Enquirer's illegal intercept of corporate voicemail messages in its investigation of the Chiquita banana company, and the disavowed “Operation Tailwind” report by the CNN network, which charged U.S. military forces in 1970 had used deadly nerve gas against defectors in Laos. Nineteen-ninety-eight also was characterized by often-frenzied reporting about President Bill Clinton’s sex-and-lies scandal with a White House intern.

42. “A Happy New Year to the New City and Its People,” New York Herald, Jan. 1, 1898.
43. Ray Ginger, Age of Excess: The United States From 1877 to 1914 (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 196–8.
44. “1897 in St. Paul,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jan. 1, 1898.
44. Richard Harmond, “Progress and Flight: An Interpretation of the American Cycle Craze of the 1890s,” Journal of Social History 5 (Winter 1971–72): 236.
45. The cycling craze “reached its high point in 1896,” according Harmond, “Progress and Flight,” (Winter 1971–72): 250. However, newspaper reports in 1897 suggested the popularity of cycling only increased from the year before. See, for example, “The Growth of the Cycle,” Philadelphia Item, June 4, 1897.
46. “The Wheel Annihilates Distance,” Philadelphia Item, May 11, 1897.
47. “The Bicycle,” New York Herald, March 5, 1897. The Herald’s commentary was prescient in suggesting that “there is something better than the bicycle in the future; possibly a horseless carriage which will convert us all into globe trotters in companies of ten, or possibly a balloon or flying machine will enable us to loaf among the stars. We are grateful for what we have, but, like Oliver Twist, we should like a little more.”
48. Harmond, “Progress and Flight,” (Winter 1971–72): 251.
49. “The Year’s Scientific Progress,” New York Tribune, Dec. 31, 1897.
50. See “Retrospective: View of the Dying Year,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Dec. 26, 1897.
51. “The Year and the World,” New York Tribune, Dec. 31, 1897.
52. Traxel, 1898, 317.
53. For a discussion about the emergence and diffusion of the term “yellow journalism” in early 1897, see Campbell, Yellow Journalism, 25–49.
54. “A Large Observer of a Large Thing,” New York Journal , May 13, 1898.