Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), Hungarian-born editor and publisher, was instrumental in developing yellow journalism in the United States.

Joseph Pulitzer's father was a well-to-do grain dealer. Joseph was born in Budapest in April 1847. Thin, weak-lunged, and with faulty vision, he was unable to have an army career in Europe. In 1864 he emigrated to America, enlisted in the Union cavalry, and became a mediocre soldier. The 6-foot 2-inch red-bearded youth was among the jobless at the end of the Civil War. In St. Louis, where a large German colony existed, Pulitzer worked as mule tender, waiter, roustabout, and hack driver. Finally, he gained a reporter's job on Carl Schurz's Westliche Post.

A short time after joining Schurz, Pulitzer was nominated for the state legislature by the Republicans. His candidacy was considered a joke because he was nominated in a Democratic district. Pulitzer, however, ran seriously and won. In the legislature he fought graft and corruption. In one wild dispute he shot an adversary in the leg. He escaped punishment with a fine which was paid by friends.

Newspaper Acquisitions

Industrious and ambitious, Pulitzer bought the St. Louis Post for about $3, 000 in 1872. Next, he bought a German paper which had an Associated Press membership and then sold it to the owner of the Globe at a $20, 000 profit. In 1878 Pulitzer purchased the decaying St. Louis Dispatch at a sheriff's sale for $2, 700. He combined it with the Post. Aided by his brilliant editor in chief, John A. Cockerill, Pulitzer launched crusades against lotteries, gambling, and tax dodging, mounted drives for cleaning and repairing the streets, and sought to make St. Louis more civic-minded. The Post-Dispatch became a success.

In 1883 Pulitzer, then 36, purchased the New York World for $346, 000 from unscrupulous financier Jay Gould, who was losing $40, 000 a year on the paper. Pulitzer made the down payment from Post-Dispatch profits and made all later payments out of profits from the World.

In the 1880s Pulitzer's eyes began to fail. He went blind in 1889. During his battle for supremacy with William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, Pulitzer had to rely on a battery of secretaries to be his eyes. In New York he pledged the World to "expose all fraud and sham, fight all public evils and abuses" and to "battle for the people with earnest sincerity." He concentrated on lively human-interest stories, scandal, and sensational material. Pulitzer's World was a strong supporter of the common man. It was anti-monopoly and frequently pro-union during strikes.

Pulitzer in the early part of his career opposed the large headline and art. Later, in a circulation contest between Hearst and Pulitzer in the 1890s, the two giants went to ever larger headline type and fantastic "x-marks-the-spot" art and indulged in questionable practices until Pulitzer lost stomach for such dubious work and cut back. Pulitzer defended sensationalism, however, saying that people had to know about crime in order to combat it. He once told a critic, "I want to talk to a nation, not a select committee."

Pulitzer died aboard his yacht in the harbor at Charleston, S.C., on Oct. 29, 1911. In his will he provided $2 million for the establishment of a school of journalism at Columbia University. Also, by the terms of his will, the prizes bearing his name were established in 1915.

Further Reading on Joseph Pulitzer

Biographies of Pulitzer include Don C. Seitz, Joseph Pulitzer: His Life and Letters (1924); James W. Barrett, Joseph Pulitzer and His World (1941); and Iris Noble, Joseph Pulitzer: Front Page Pioneer (1947). A particularly interesting book written by one of Pulitzer's secretaries is Alleyne Ireland, An Adventure with a Genius (1914; rev. ed. 1937). Julian S. Rammelkamp, Pulitzer's Post-Dispatch (1967), focuses on Pulitzer's early career, and George Juergens, Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World (1966), deals with the middle and late years and contains an excellent analysis of the appeal of the New York World.