The lost World of Joseph Pulitzer.

Media criticism.
Sept. 16 2005 2:55 PM

The Lost World of Joseph Pulitzer

A century ago, newspapers were bigger, bolder, and more beautiful. What happened?

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A big fat Sunday newspaper such as the World was the pre-radio era's home-entertainment center, and a family could peel off sections for its various constituencies: the women's pages for mom, sports pages for big brother, the front section for dad, the fashion pages for sister, the comics for the kids. Today's newspapers compress comics into cellblocks sometimes measuring as small as 1 inch by 4 inches. The World's comic "strips" routinely ran a full page, as this installment of the Plunk Family shows, and the pages were much larger than those found in the modern broadsheet. This gave comic artists the real estate to tell a story, to set up a punch line, to convey a sense of motion and the passage of time. The World was crafted to be unpacked, savored, and saved. It encouraged readers to "waste" time reading and rejected the notion that the newspaper experience should be a quickie that catapults you into a busy day.

The downsizing of graphic ambition continues apace today, as American publishers contemplate following their British cousins and converting their already slimmed broadsheets into tabloids. Just this week, the Guardian adopted the reduced "Berliner" format, a mere postage stamp compared with the aircraft carrier deck that was the World.

Book cover. Click image to expand.
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World layouts contain a carnival aspect, a promise of adventure that enlists the reader as a participant. I suspect that for many, the arrival of the Sunday World on the kitchen table was the high point of the day. Still, let's not swoon too long over the New York World just because she was beautiful. The ghastly reportorial standards of the period foul plenty of her pages.

But in the spirit of saying kind things about the dead, let me tell a story from two decades ago: When I was figuring out how to edit an alternative weekly in Washington, D.C., my senior editor, Jon Cohen, suggested that I visit the archives of the defunct Washington Star at the public library for inspiration.

It proved a terrific recommendation. The turn-of-the-century Star often spoke more loudly to us than what we read in the Washington Post each morning. It was our little secret that the long-dead Star helped chart our editorial course. Had we gotten our hands on a book as magnificent as The World on Sunday, I'm sure it would have inspired us to go back to the future graphically.

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Note to Slate Design Director Kathleen Kincaid: For our upcoming redesign, let's replicate the look and feel of the New York World. Compose your design quibbles and send them to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.