On April 28, 1883, a Hungarian immigrant named Joseph Pulitzer paid $386,000 to purchase the New York World from robber baron Jay Gould. Not one to waste time, Pulitzer immediately shook up the moribund newspaper and turned it into the most powerful media operation in the United States, dominating the New York and American press for the next 15 years.
Pulitzer’s ascent to newspaper tycoon was improbable. Born in Hungary to a middle-class Jewish family, young Joszef yearned for adventure in America, and upon turning 17, sailed across the Atlantic to enlist in the Civil War for the Union Army. After spending the war with a mostly German platoon, he kicked around until he wound up in St. Louis, his home for the next two decades. Once settled in St. Louis, Pulitzer renounced his Austro-Hungarian citizenship and became an American, diving into Republican Party politics. Unfortunately, neither his professional nor political career ever really took off during his first decade in Missouri, which was still a Democratic stronghold. Eventually, however, he found success as a reporter, putting in enormous hours, and racking up enough connections and credibility to purchase the struggling St. Louis Dispatch in 1878. Over the next five years he turned the paper into a local powerhouse, and began to set his sights on a bigger media market. (Adolph Ochs, who transformed the New York Times, had similar origins, turning around the Chattanooga Times before coming here.)
In the early 1880s, the New York World was owned by Jay Gould, a railroad magnate who at his peak wealth was one of the richest people in world history. He had acquired the World as a throw-in for one of his business deals, and had little interest in holding onto the paper, which lost money and readers every year. That said, he didn’t become one of the richest people in human history by giving things away, and Pulitzer agonized over the asking price, which required leveraging everything he owned. Ultimately his wife convinced him that it was time to go all in.
With Pulitzer at the helm, the World went from a third-tier New York paper to the number one daily, increasing its circulation from 15,000 to one million, the first paper to do so. (By comparison, the NY Times’ daily circulation is approximately 680,000 today.) Highly political, Pulitzer made important connections early on, supporting the successful candidates of President Grover Cleveland and Mayor Abe Hewitt. Pulitzer’s impacts on the field of journalism included making politics accessible to large swaths of immigrant readers, the paper’s laser-like focus on political corruption, hiring legendary correspondent Nellie Bly, becoming the first daily to print in color, and of course, running the Yellow Kid comic strip about mischievous New York kids allegorically explaining contemporary social problems. The strip birthed the phrase, “yellow journalism,” which has come to be associated with cheap, sensational headlines. Those were part of Pulitzer’s arsenal, to be sure, but especially in the World‘s early years, it eschewed lurid headlines just for the sake of selling copy.
Eventually the World was overtaken by Williams Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, especially during and after the latter’s coverage of the Spanish-American war. Pulitzer relinquished control of the paper in 1907 and died a few years later. In 1917, the Pulitzer Prize was established from a trust in Pulitzer’s will, ensuring that the great publicist will forever be associated with top journalism.