How To Get Ahead in Tabloid Journalism
Murdoch's minions have nothing on the journalists of 1897.
Hearst and Pulitzer's men both immediately fell under suspicion of manufacturing the relics. "Woodside is undergoing a boom in the agricultural line," the New York Sun jeered of one crime scene. "They plant plaster casts with cabbage in them, blood-stained clothing, and bullet-perforated hats, and within a day or two they raise a crop of fakes. There is more money grubbing for plaster in Woodside than for gold in the Klondike nowadays."
Allegations emerged that someone—and only two good guesses were needed as to who—had paid a couple of local utility workers a dollar an hour to salt the neighborhood with bogus evidence. If so, it was a brilliantly unscrupulous investment. By the end of August, the case helped vault Hearst's Evening Journal to over half a million in circulation—nearly doubling since William Guldensuppe's disappearance. And the case showed his paper could take it upon itself to shove aside any government, local or national, that moved too slow to satisfy a pressroom deadline.
"It is epochal," Hearst announced. "It represents the final stage in the evolution of the modern newspaper. Action—that is the distinguishing mark of the new journalism. When the East River murder seemed an insoluble mystery to the police, the Journal organized a detective force of its own. A newspaper's duty is not confined to exhortation, but that when things are going wrong it should set them right if possible."
It was indeed a new epoch. Hearst's saturation coverage of sensational local crime—creating a suspenseful narrative out of endless news updates from every angle, whether there was anything substantive to cover or not—clearly anticipated the round-the-clock cycle of broadcast news. And while most newspaper histories cite the 1920s as the beginning of the tabloid, Hearst's paper was already becoming more squat and squarish years earlier. It grew coarser and more self-righteous, its front page headlines a klaxon call of massive type, sometimes in crude lettering 7 inches tall. In the Journal's early days, only the beginning of a war could summon up crude and gargantuan typesetting: Soon, all it took was "Woman Kills Man in Union Square." By the new century, every day was a conflict—every day a panic.
But what, then, of poor Guldensuppe's head? The diver had indeed brought up a white chunk of stone the size of a human head, the World patiently explained; but rather than the plaster-encrusted remains of William Guldensuppe, it had proven to be nothing more than clump of barnacles. "To reassure the gentlemen in charge of the Herald," a night reporter replied piously, "The World has not the head of Guldensuppe and would not keep it if it had."
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.
Historical images courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress.