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

In resurrecting 79 and expanding upon Stead’s vision, the Journal’s activist paradigm projected a sense of new energy and new possibilities in fin-de-siècle American journalism. Hearst’s principal rivals at the time—Pulitzer of the World, James Gordon Bennett Jr. of the Herald, Whitelaw Reid of the Tribune, and Charles A. Dana of the Sun—were older by at least fifteen years and their newspapers were all better established than the Journal. The notable exception was Adolph Ochs of the Times who was, like Hearst, a newcomer to New York City journalism.


In 1897, Hearst was 34 and in his second full year as the Journal’s publisher; Ochs was 39 and in his first full year at the Times, and he was cultivating a rival vision for American journalism. This was an emphatically counter-activist paradigm of authoritative, detached, news-based journalism that found expression in the motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”


The motto, which Ochs moved to the top left corner of the Times’ front page on February 10, 1897, has been a source of enduring comment and fascination over the decades. The Wall Street Journal has fittingly termed it the “leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media.”80 Interestingly, the leitmotif for American journalism was used first as an advertising and marketing device. Perhaps the earliest appearance of “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was in a small advertisement in Fourth Estate in mid-October 1896.81 The motto was displayed in advertising that month on a large electric sign in Madison Square. 82


The motto first appeared on the Times’ editorial page October 25, 1896, the day the newspaper announced it would pay $100 to the person who proposed in ten words or fewer “a phrase more expressive of the Times’s policy” than “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”83 The contest elicited thousands of suggestions. Among the entries sent to the Times on postcards were: “Full of meat, clean and neat,” and “Clean, crisp, bright, snappy; read it daily and be happy.”84 Others—such as “All the News Worth Telling” and “All the News That Decent People Want”—were decidedly and unimaginatively derivative.85


As the contest went on, the Times altered the stakes, saying it would not abandon its motto after all but would still pay $100 for the best suggestion.86 The Times tried to characterize the contest’s unmistakable self-promoting quality as really an exercise in high-mindedness: “In asking its readers to suggest a phrase that would aptly set forth its policy of publishing a clean and decent newspaper, the Times has set the people of this city to thinking upon the subject of newspaper decency in a more attentive and specific way than has been their custom.”87 A committee drawn from the Times staff narrowed the entries to the 150 best which were submitted to Richard Waterson Gilder, editor of The Century magazine. He selected the prize winner: “All the world’s news, but not a School of Scandal.”88


What the Times came to call its “covenant to print ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print,’”89 represented another option for the future of American journalism. As the motto was meant to suggest,90 the Times represented everything that Journal was not. It published no multicolumn headlines, no dramatic layouts, no color comics, no front page illustrations, no participatory journalism. The Times lacked the resources of the Journal and seldom competed in 1897 with the latter’s enterprise in expensive, far-flung newsgathering. But the Times did emerge that year as a moral counterweight to the excesses of yellow journalism, challenging more often than other New York City newspapers the wisdom, ethics, and even the legitimacy of the Journal’s ambitious forays into activism. In its frequent censure, however, the Times often seemed a predictable scold.



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79. A biographer of Stead wrote that “Government by Journalism” and “The Future of Journalism,” a subsequent article Stead wrote for Contemporary Review, “did not receive the widespread attention he probably thought [they] would and should.” See Raymond L. Schults, Crusader in Babylon: W.T. Stead and the Pall Mall Gazette (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972), 209.


80. Tunku Varadarajan, “Hooray for the Lowbrow Media,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2001.

81. See, “Advertising Medium,” Fourth Estate, Oct. 15, 1896, 9.

82. “For the Times Motto,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 1896.

83. “$100 for 10 Words,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 1896.

84. “For the Times Motto,” Oct. 26, 1896.

85. “The Motto Competition,” New York Times, Nov. 15, 1896

86. “To Award Motto Prize,”New York Times, Nov. 15, 1896.

87. “The Motto Competition,” Nov. 15, 1896.

88. “The Prize Motto Selected,” New York Times, Nov. 22, 1896. The other finalists were: “Always decent, never dull,” “The news of the day, not the rubbish,” and “A decent newspaper for decent people.”

89. “The New Spirit,” New York Times, Sept. 25, 1901.

90. The Times’ motto also has been characterized as “a war cry, the slogan under which the …Times fought for a footing against the formidable competition of the Herald, the World, and the Journal. What it meant, in essence, was that the Times was going to be as good a vehicle of news as any of those papers, and that it would be free from their indecency, eccentricity, distortion or sensationalism.” See Elmer Davis, History of the New York Times, 1851–1921 (New York: Greenwood, 1969 reprint of 1921 edition), 199–200.