Hearst-Pulitzer Circulation War

The rival newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer competed for readership by printing sensational news stories pitched at the lowest common denominator, thus inaugurating the modern conception of journalism for a mass audience.

Summary of Event

The pattern of modern journalism was established by Joseph Pulitzer. Born in Hungary in 1847, Pulitzer arrived in the United States in 1864 to fight with the Union Army. After the Civil War (1861-1865), the penniless young immigrant settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where, by virtue of his intelligence and hard work, he soon became not only a successful reporter but also a lawyer and crusading politician. Pulitzer served in the Missouri legislature and worked as a reporter on the St. Louis Post
St. Louis, Missouri[Saint Louis, Missouri];newspapers and the Westliche Post, a leading midwestern German newspaper. In 1876, he purchased the Post and the St. Louis Dispatch, consolidating them into the Post-Dispatch. This venture was such a success that the young publisher turned his attention to the world of New York journalism. In 1883, he purchased the New York World from the financier Jay Gould Gould, Jay , and in 1887 Pulitzer established the Evening World. Journalism;newspaper circulation war
Hearst, William Randolph
Pulitzer, Joseph
New York Journal
New York World
New York City;newspapers
Yellow journalism
Journalism;yellow press
[kw]Hearst-Pulitzer Circulation War (1895-1898)
[kw]Pulitzer Circulation War, Hearst- (1895-1898)
[kw]Circulation War, Hearst-Pulitzer (1895-1898)
[kw]War, Hearst-Pulitzer Circulation (1895-1898)
Journalism;newspaper circulation war
Hearst, William Randolph
Pulitzer, Joseph
New York Journal
New York World
New York City;newspapers
Yellow journalism
Journalism;yellow press
[g]United States;1895-1898: Hearst-Pulitzer Circulation War[5990]
[c]Journalism;1895-1898: Hearst-Pulitzer Circulation War[5990]
[c]Business and labor;1895-1898: Hearst-Pulitzer Circulation War[5990]
[c]Crime and scandals;1895-1898: Hearst-Pulitzer Circulation War[5990]
Goddard, Morrill
Remington, Frederic
Davis, Richard Harding
Decker, Karl
Weyler y Nicolau, Valeriano
Lôme, Enrique Dupuy de

It was with the World that Pulitzer set the pattern for the so-called new journalism. Interesting news stories written in a simple, easily comprehended style were presented in a sensational manner to appeal to the widest possible reading audience. The World led crusades, such as collecting funds to build the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty Statue of Liberty;pedestal base , as well as exposés of the white slave traffic, the Louisiana lottery, the ill treatment of immigrants at Ellis Island Ellis Island , and the questionable activities of many large industrial concerns. Stunts also were part of the new journalism. The World, for example, sponsored a trip around the world by journalist Nellie Bly Bly, Nellie , who outdid Jules Verne’s Verne, Jules fictitious Phileas Fogg of Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (1873; Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873) by arriving back in New York after slightly more than seventy-two days. Newspaper illustrations appeared in the World, as did high-quality editorials. Pulitzer also conducted imaginative promotional campaigns to increase circulation.

In 1887, the twenty-four-year-old William Randolph Hearst assumed control of the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco;newspapers succeeding his wealthy father. Copying Pulitzer’s methods, Hearst soon transformed the newspaper into a model of journalistic sensationalism. Like Pulitzer, Hearst was confident that he could become successful in New York City. In 1895, after receiving $7.5 million from the sale of his father’s mining stock, Hearst bought the New York Morning Journal. The Hearst-Pulitzer circulation war had begun.

Front page of the New York World two days after the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor.

(Library of Congress)

Hiring brilliant journalists at any cost, Hearst soon staffed the Journal with the nation’s brightest talent. The Journal carried so many illustrations and so emphasized scandal, crimes, and disaster that its circulation rose dramatically, causing Pulitzer to reduce the price of his morning paper to one cent. In the midst of the 1896 presidential election, Hearst established the Evening Journal to compete with Pulitzer’s Evening World; by the end of 1897, the Journal, by continuing to stress sex-and-crime sensationalism, surpassed the World in circulation. Competition between Hearst and Pulitzer eventually focused on their Sunday editions, with Hearst finally buying away from the World all of its Sunday staff. The chief of Hearst’s Sunday edition, Morrill Goddard Goddard, Morrill , pioneered in Sunday sensationalism by developing a panoply of crime, sports, pseudo-scientific articles, “lonely hearts” columns, and above all, a colored supplement of comics Comic strips, newspaper
Journalism;comic strips known as the American Humorist. It was the most popular of these comic characters, the “Yellow Kid,” that led to the name “yellow press” to identify the Hearst-Pulitzer brand of sensational journalism.

Some historians have claimed that, had it not been for the Hearst-Pulitzer circulation war, there would have been no Spanish-American War Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War (1898)];and newspapers[Newspapers] . Although this is a questionable assertion, it is undeniably true that between 1895 and 1898 the Journal and the World conducted the most emotional campaign of jingoism in the history of U.S. journalism—a campaign that undoubtedly stimulated the fervor of countless people in the United States for war with Spain. Pictures, headlines, and news stories in these newspapers indicted the Spanish for perpetrating atrocities in Cuba. Concentration camps, the mutilation of women and children, and the gruesome activities of the Spanish commander, General Valeriano Weyler Weyler y Nicolau, Valeriano y Nicolau (nicknamed “the Butcher” by the papers), were daily fare in the Journal and the World.

Initially, the World’s correspondents were superior in uncovering or fabricating atrocity stories, but as the competition increased, Hearst dispatched more talent to Cuba. Perhaps the best known of his correspondents were writer Richard Harding Davis Davis, Richard Harding and illustrator Frederic Remington, Remington, Frederic whom Hearst sent to Cuba on his yacht Vamoose. Remington is reported to have sent Hearst a telegram that read, “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. Wish to return. Remington.” To this, Hearst sent the prompt reply, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war. Hearst.”

Another of Hearst’s reporters, Karl Decker Decker, Karl , rescued Evangelica Cisneros Cisneros, Evangelica , niece of Salvador Cisneros Cisneros, Salvador , the president of the rebel government, from a prison, smuggled her out of Cuba, and took her to New York and Washington, D.C., where she received a tumultuous welcome, including a meeting with President William McKinley McKinley, William
[p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];and Cuba[Cuba] . The Journal also printed the “de Lôme letter,” in which Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, Lôme, Enrique Dupuy de the Spanish minister to the United States, called President McKinley a “would-be politician.” Perhaps the height of the circulation war occurred after the U.S. battleship Maine
Maine, USS exploded and sank in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. No guilty party was ever discovered. However, the Journal immediately blamed the Spanish, proclaiming in banner headlines: “Destruction of the Warship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy.” The World also exploited the sinking to inflame the nation’s passion for war, and other newspapers joined in the outcry.


As the circulations of both the World and the Journal passed one million, it was evident that other newspapers, such as the Chicago
Tribune, Chicago
Times-Herald, Boston
Herald, and San Francisco Chronicle, also had begun to appreciate the benefits of the new journalism. More to the point, they had no choice but to emulate the tactics of Pulitzer and Hearst unless they wished to be driven out of business by competitors with fewer scruples. The tactics and methods of the Hearst-Pulitzer circulation war spread throughout the country, and they have continued to be staples of U.S. journalism ever since.

Further Reading

  • Brian, Denis. Pulitzer: A Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001. The only comprehensive biography since Swanberg. Relies heavily upon information contained in earlier works.
  • Littlefield, Roy. William Randolph Hearst: His Role in American Progressivism. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1980. One of the Hearst newspapers’ greatest claims was that they served as a spokesperson for the common American. The extent to which this was true, and Hearst’s use and misuse of that role, is the crux of Littlefield’s study.
  • Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism: A History, 1690-1960. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. The single most valuable survey to date of U.S. newspapers throughout most of the nation’s history. Especially pertinent when it comes to the Hearst-Pulitzer struggle for readership. Contains excellent reproductions of actual pages, which give a true feel for what journalism looked like during the period of the circulation wars.
  • Robinson, Judith. The Hearsts: An American Dynasty. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991. Although unique in many ways, William Randolph Hearst had a background and left a legacy. This volume places the Hearst family in the context of American life.
  • Swanberg, W. A. Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961. Although it has been updated by specialized studies in some areas, this work remains the place to start for an understanding of Hearst and his career.
  • ________. Pulitzer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967. Presents the basic, indispensable information about Hearst’s great rival and one of the major figures in U.S. journalism. Shows the personal nature of the circulation struggle during the period of yellow journalism.
  • Turner, Hy B. When Giants Ruled: The Story of Park Row, New York’s Great Newspaper Street. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999. This history of the New York City newspaper business during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries includes information about Pulitzer and the other publishers of the era. Chronicles the newspaper circulation wars and the contributions of reporters, illustrators, and cartoonists.

Birth of the Penny Press

Modern New York Times Is Founded

Rise of Yellow Journalism

Spanish-American War

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Hearst, William Randolph
Pulitzer, Joseph
New York Journal
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