Bring back yellow journalism.

Bring back yellow journalism.

Bring back yellow journalism.

Media criticism.
March 30 2009 7:32 PM

Bring Back Yellow Journalism

At its best, it was terrific. At its worst, it wasn't that bad.

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In reply to the inquiries of his editors and managers, the new proprietor gave directions, which may be codified as follows:

No red ink.
No pictures.
No double column heads.
No freak typography.
No free advertisements.
No free circulation.
No free notices to advertisers.
No reading matter advertisements with-out marks.
No medical advertisements.
No advertisements on first page.
No free passes from railroads.
No free theatre tickets.
No collectors of advertising bills.
No Bryanism.
No coupon schemes.
No guessing contests.
No prizefighting details.
No advertisements that a self-respecting man would not read to his family.
No concessions from the advertising rate card.
No personal journalism.
No pessimism.
No friends to favor.
No enemies to punish.
No drinking by employes.
No speculation by employes .
No private scandal.
No word contests.
No prize puzzles.
No advertisements 
***Of immoral books,
***Of fortune tellers, 
***Of secret diseases,
***Of guaranteed cures,
***Of clairvoyants,
***Of palmists,
***Of massage.
No advertisements
***Of offers of large salaries,
***Of large guaranteed dividends,
***Of offers of something for nothing.

Prizefighting details? Personal journalism? Word contests? Ads on the front page? I shudder! Pictures? Double-column heads? Red ink? Freak typography? Medical ads and ads for immoral books? How the mighty Times has fallen afoul of the Ochs code! Surely when the Times' Nicholas D. Kristof bought sex slaves out of bondage, the ghost of Ochs must have wept. By 1890s standards, today's Times is as yellow as a lemon.

Campbell's revisionist view doesn't downplay the activist nature of the yellow journals, which would set up soup kitchens, send relief to victims of hurricanes, file lawsuits to get government contracts overturned, and, in the Journal's case, once organized a Havana jailbreak. To Campbell's 21st-century eyes, such partisan efforts—which Hearst called "the journalism of action"—got a second wind in the "civic" and "public" journalism experiments of the 1990s, in which newspaper editors met with citizens and attempted to solve or address communities' "problems." The difference, Campbell notes, is that the yellow journalists imposed solutions from above while the civic journalists strove to percolate agendas from the ground up.


The purest forms of civic journalism and Hearst-ian journalism of action have always given me palpations of distrust because I'm never sure how far either camp has skewed coverage to fit a predetermined agenda. And yet, paging through Campbell's two books, I found myself yearning for the sort of vital newspapers that were common in the Hearst-Pulitzer heyday.

"The yellow press possessed an effervescence, a visceral and essential appeal that newspapers 100 years later seem desperate to recapture," Campbell writes in Yellow Journalism. Have the hell-bent professionalization of journalism and the erection of a complex ethical code for its practitioners sapped from newspapers their life force? Can yellow journalism be reinvented—tamed and respiced, perhaps—in a way that preserves its best elements, subtracts the worst, and still glows? Is there a place in the newspaper world for saffron journalism?


Yellow Journalism demolishes the myth that Hearst sent Frederic Remington a cable stating, "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war."* That said, you furnish the e-mails to, and I'll furnish the Twitters. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Correction, June 9, 2011: This article originally misspelled Frederic Remington's first name.