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

Most New York City newspapers condemned the measure. The Times characterized the Ellsworth Bill as “an ill-contrived sort of trip-hammer for crushing a loathsome but rather puny reptile, which it might miss after all while smashing a lot of harmless if not useful things that might fall in its way.”107 The Journal, which justifiably claimed that it “made more extensive use of pictorial journalism than any other” newspaper, said its 500,000 daily circulation was evidence that readers preferred illustrations with their news and thus wanted no part of the Ellsworth Bill.108 Journalism trade publications assailed the measure as “a shield for unscrupulous politicians against deserved criticism”109 and an incontrovertible “abridgement of the power of the press.”110


But Dana’s Sun, which largely eschewed cartoons and other illustrations, favored the legislation as “a wholesome, enlightened, and proper measure,”111 and declared:


No one can now be summoned into public view without the certainty of having not merely his portrait flaunted to the rabble, but of having the same subjected to every conceivable distortion and deformity. No more outrageous assault upon the privacy of a citizen can be devised than is implied in these infamous publications. Their purpose and effect is to hold him up to ridicule by the most vulgar and offensive expedients; to prejudice him permanently in the eyes of the community at large, and to wound with undisguised brutality the sensibilities of his family. If there ever was an evil that called for whole restraint by law, it is surely this.112


While ill-considered and almost certainly unconstitutional, the Ellsworth Bill signaled an urgency in sorting out the ferment roiling American journalism in 1897—ferment that has not been adequately recognized or analyzed by scholars. Michael Schudson has perhaps come closest to identifying and assessing the forces that made the period so enduringly significant. But Schudson interpreted those forces narrowly, distilling them to a dichotomy of “journalism as information” and “journalism as entertainment.”113 The New York Times, he said, represented the former; the New York World, the latter. A class consciousness infused Schudson’s argument, in that the Times’ information orientation appealed to “wealthier people in New York”114 while the World’s storytelling approach appealed to “the working class reader.”115


While intriguing, Schudson’s analysis is rigid and, in the end, unpersuasive. The dichotomy of journalism as information versus journalism as entertainment is imprecise and not mutually exclusive. The World was known to devote considerable resources to reporting the news. Such commitment is suggested in the succession of assignments that Sylvester Scovel—perhaps the best-known foreign correspondent of the time—took on for the World in 1897. Scovel’s assignments traced the arc of the year’s most important international events, including the Cuban insurrection, the brief war between Greece and Turkey, and the rush to the Klondike gold fields.116


If anything, the World in late 1898 intentionally de-emphasized the sensational (or news-as-entertainment) components of its report.117 The Times, on the other hand, was not above frivolity in advertising itself. During his first months as publisher, Ochs promoted the Times “with every gimmick he could think of,” according to Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones, authors of a definitive study of Ochs and his heirs. 118 He conducted a variety of contests—including the appeal for a new motto—in an effort to boost daily circulation, 119 which probably was less than 20,000.120



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107. Untitled editorial comment, New York Times, April 7, 1897.

108. “Facts Are the Best Argument,” New York Journal, March 12, 1897.

109. See “The Ellsworth Bill,” The Journalist, 24 April 24, 1897, 6–7. The Journalist also stated (7): “It must be admitted that newspaper art has improved wonderfully within the past ten years, but it still would seem that portraits are published, not because they look like anybody, but because, in the minds of the editors, they ornament the papers.”

110. “The Ellsworth Bill,” Fourth Estate, March 18, 1897, 6.

111. Untitled editorial comment, New York Sun, April 9, 1897.

112. “A Bill to Suppress Outrage,” New York Sun, Feb. 27, 1897.

113. Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 1978): 88–120.

114. Ibid., 90–1.

115. Ibid., 90.

116. Scovel’s assignments in 1897 are recounted in Joyce Milton, The Yellow Kids: Foreign Correspondents in the Heyday of Yellow Journalism (New York: Harper and Row, 1989).

117. For a description of the World’s move to de-emphasize sensation in its report, see untitled notes of the World’s news staff meeting, Nov. 28, 1898, Joseph Pulitzer papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C.

118. Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones, The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times (Boston: Little, Brown, 1999), 45.

119. Ibid., 46.

120. The New York World in March 1897 estimated the Times’ circulation at 19,000. See “The Derelicts of Journalism,” New York World, March 28, 1897. Tifft and Jones wrote that the Times in July 1898 was printing 25,000 copies a day but selling fewer than 10,000 copies in Manhattan and a small number in nearby areas. See Tifft and Jones, The Trust, 53.