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


At the close of 1897, the Journal undeniably was America’s ascendant newspaper. It had repeatedly demonstrated the effectiveness and appeal of its muscular agency by injecting itself conspicuously in civic matters and even in foreign affairs. It had shown that it could bring speedy resolution to untidy matters, as the East River murder mystery, the Cisneros jailing, and the New Year’s Eve celebration of an amalgamated New York City all demonstrated. Moreover, the Journal had received plaudits from its keenest rivals, including Pulitzer and the New York Sun. Other observers attached no small hope to the Journal’s eagerness to take on corrupt and powerful political and economic interests.


Such recognition signals that the Journal’s activist paradigm had inspired more than faint or passing interest among journalists and civic reformers by the close of 1897.159 The “journalism of action” was by no means an idle notion. Others had taken favorable note of its successes and the Journal declared the “journalism that does things has come to stay.”160 It further vowed: “We expect to see great results flow from this work. The immediate results [in 1897] are important in themselves, but the ultimate effects will be greater yet.”161


But the promise of the “journalism of action”—that a newspaper could and should “render any public service within its power”162— faltered and ultimately failed to become a defining standard for American journalism. Several explanations offer themselves. For one, activist journalism was expensive and few newspapers could or would match Hearst’s lavish spending.163 Not even Hearst’s reservoir of financial support was limitless.164 Moreover, activist journalism was not always or routinely applicable. The Journal’s successes in 1897 demonstrated that the “journalism of action” was most effective when confronting official indifference, incompetence, or corruption. But such conditions emerged episodically, and exploring them often proved better suited to long-form magazine articles, to which journalists could devote extended periods in researching and writing. The muckraking movement of the early twentieth century demonstrated as much.


Additionally, the Journal’s overheated coverage in 1898 of the destruction of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor and the run-up to Spanish-American War tainted activist journalism. Rather than searching and bold, Hearst’s journalism seemed intemperate and extreme. The Journal’s pre-war exaggerations—especially its unequivocal yet thinly sourced accusations of Spanish complicity in the Maine disaster—allowed the Times to sneer: “The grotesque inventions of the yellow journalist’s fancy must still produce tumultuous excitement among stable boys and scullery women, but they now interest intelligent people only by their weird deformity.”165 The notion took hold that the Journal had brought about an unnecessary war166—an enduring though mistaken interpretation that tended nonetheless to discredit the “journalism of action.”


Perhaps most significantly, “the journalism of action” effectively became a platform for Hearst’s political ambitions during the years after the Spanish-American War. The Journal‘s campaigns against private ownership of municipal utilities and corrupt officials took on politicized dimension as Hearst became a figure in national politics.167 By 1900, editorials appeared in the Journal signed by “W.R. Hearst, President of the National Association of Democratic Clubs.”168 Perhaps the politicizing of the “journalism of action” was inevitable, given Hearst’s ambitions. But it did little to enhance the paradigm’s appeal.


Although the “journalism of action” was unable to consolidate the promise of its impressive successes in 1897, the appeal of activism has never entirely passed from American journalism. That impulse resurfaced most recently in the “civic” (or “public”) journalism movement of the 1990s, which envisioned the news media as a problem-solving force, especially in rejuvenating participatory democracy in the United States.169


If the Journal’s activist paradigm became clouded and suspect in the years after 1897,the Times’ climb to preeminence in American journalism soon accelerated. Ochs’ decision in October 1898 to trim the Times’ price to one cent from three cents—a desperate move evidently intended to prevent the disclosure that its circulation figures were inflated170—helped ensure the newspaper’s emergence in New York’s crowded newspaper market. The price cut further differentiated the Times from its rivals, a process that had begun with its frequent critiques of the Journal’s activism in 1897. The Times’ self-described “covenant” of offering “All the News That’s Fit to Print”—its enduring riposte to activist yellow journalism—also helped establish the counter-activist standard for American journalism.


This article, in directing attention to the exceptional and pivotal moments in American journalism during 1897, has shown that the year’s exceptionality warrants keener recognition by scholars. The article also signals the merits of single-year studies as a methodological frame for considering decisive periods in American journalism.




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159. For example, the Augusta Chronicle in Georgia described the Journal as a pioneer in progressive journalism. Its radical departures cause criticisms, but the Journal goes on conquering and to conquer. The Journal reprinted the commentary on its editorial page. See A Pioneer in Progressive Journalism, New York Journal, July 21, 1897.

160. “The Journalism of Action,” Oct. 5, 1897.

161. “The Journal’s Settled Policy,” New York Journal, Dec. 3, 1897.

162. “The Journalism of Action,” Oct. 5, 1897.

163. This point also is made by Ted Curtis Smythe in The Gilded Age Press, 1865–1900 ( Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2003), 192.

164. For references to Hearst’s financial resources during his first years in New York City journalism, see Nasaw, The Chief, 98, 146.

165. “Spanish Alliances,” New York Times, March 1, 1898.

166. For an early statement of this enduring but misleading argument, see Brooke Fisher, “The Newspaper Industry,” Atlantic Monthly 89 (June 1902): 751.

167. Hearst became head of the National Association of Democratic Clubs in 1900, won a seat in Congress in 1902, and unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1904.

168. See, for example, “The Paramount Issue,” New York Journal, Nov. 2, 1900.

169. For a discussion of the parallels between “civic” journalism and Hearst’s “journalism of action,” see Campbell, Yellow Journalism, 180–83. See also, Thomas C. Leonard, “Making Readers into Citizens—The Old-Fashioned Way,” in Theodore L. Glasser, ed., The Idea of Public Journalism (New York: Guilford Press, 1999), 85–90.

170. See Tifft and Jones, The Trust, 54–5.