Changing the Look of the Front Page

Pulitzer's keen instincts told him that newspapers did not sell solely because of their reputations, their political affiliations or their actual content. He understood one of the key tenets of modern salesmanship: presentation is everything. He had the expertise and confidence to apply this to his newly-acquired paper, and the front pages of newspapers everywhere never looked the same again.

One simple but effective change instituted by Pulitzer was the use of graphic element to attract attention from potential readers. Within two weeks of acquiring the World, Pulitzer placed an illustration of the newly-constructed Brooklyn Bridge on the front page. 6  (See appendix for comparison of new and old Worlds.) Illustrations had been used in newspapers before, but new technology made the process more simple and cost effective.

Before the advent of the stereotype rotary press, printing machines would press a blank page against a flat bed of type to get a printed page. Placing a rule between every column bound the type together when the press was running. Large graphic elements, such as woodcuts and multi-column headlines, did not bind the type as well and often required some adjustment during a press run. The stereotype rotary press used the bed of type to create a mold. Molten metal was poured over the mold, and the resulting metal plate was bent into a cylinder. The sturdy cylinder was able to withstand the stresses associated with the printing process without falling apart. 7 

Graphic elements allowed Pulitzer to denote importance to certain stories with a large picture or headline, creating a hierarchy on the page. He had the foresight to know that readers responded to "eye candy." He revealed his true motives for using pictures to a group of visiting reporters:

I had a small paper which had been dead for years, and I was trying in every way I could think of to build up its circulation. . . . What could I use for bait? A picture, of course. . . . On page one, in a position that would make the World stand out as the paper lay folded on the newsstand. . . ." 8 

Long before marketing executives at USA Today discovered the multi-color pie chart, Pulitzer understood the value of packaging in selling a product.

Using illustrations was not the only innovation the newsman made. As soon as he took over the editorship of the World, he changed the boring masthead to an interesting Oxford-style typeset. He removed the words "New York" from the masthead and replaced them with a line drawing of a world map centered on a printing press which emanated rays of light.

Over a period of time, Pulitzer transferred the lead story from its traditional place at the top left side of the front page to the top right. The crafty editor experimented and came to the conclusion that people do not read newspapers and books in the same manner. Without the use of focus groups or market analysts, he instituted a policy which soon became standard good practice.

Multi-column headlines were another Pulitzer innovation. Previously in the 19th century, editors denoted important stories by stacking numerous one-line headlines on top of the text. A particularly significant story would sometimes have headlines continuing down half of the first column. The following headlines described a Cincinnati riot in an 1884 World Extra:

A NIGHT OF TERROR

CINCINNATI IN THE HANDS

OF A MOB.

THE BATTLE RENEWED.

ARMED WITH DYNAMITE THE MOB RETURNS

AND FIRES THE COURT HOUSE.

BERNER RE-ARRESTED.

THE MILITIA AGAIN FIRE ON THE

MADDENED RIOTERS.

BLOODY MIDNIGHT WORK.

ARMORY HALL ON FIRE - COL. HUNT'S HOTEL

THREATENED - A REGION OF TERROR. 9 

Pulitzer, in his quest to make the World's front page as appealing as possible, abandoned confusing one-column headlines in favor of a single headline extending over more than one column. The large, single headline was another graphic element, in addition to the illustration, which Pulitzer used to draw the reader's eye.

Eventually, he made use of the space on either side of the masthead by proclaiming the paper's virtues in small, square boxes. The test in these "ears" varied, but the following is a typical example: "READ THE SIXTH PAGE / CIRCULATION OVER / 100,000 EVERY DAY / ADVERTISE YOUR WANTS. / CHEAPEST RATES IN THE CITY." 10  Today, newspapers commonly use this space for weather capsules or their mottoes, such as The New York Times' "All the News That's Fit to Print."

Pulitzer was never shy about publishing his circulation in order to attract advertisers. During his tenure at the World, advertising would become a more important source of revenue for newspapers. In 1880, big city journals received about sixty-five percent of their revenue from reader purchases, and thirty-five percent came from advertising. By 1900, the statistic had flip-flopped, with advertisers paying fifty-five percent of the cost of the newspapers. This trend continued, and people who buy newspapers today pay only twenty percent of the true cost, while advertisers pick up the rest of the tab. 11 

The advent of large department stores such as A.T. Stewart's began this trend. These stores had large advertising budgets, but they had to attract many patrons to ensure the success of their capital-intensive ventures. To get the most value for their advertising dollar, department stores would only advertise in newspapers with the highest circulations. 12 

Pulitzer understood the dynamic. He lowered the World's price February 10, 1896 to one cent to compete with Hearst's Journal and continued to innovate in ways that drew readers. Unfortunately for other publishers, running a traditional newspaper and retaining a small group of loyal subscribers did not appeal to advertisers. This often sounded the death knell for papers which came in second or third in the race for circulation. Today, the industry still suffers from its dependence on advertising, and some cities have lost all their journals but one.

Shortly before his death, Pulitzer defended his obsession with increasing readership:

If a newspaper is to be of real service to the public, it must have a big circulation . . . because circulation means advertising, and advertising means money, and money means independence. 13 

Some critics charge that Pulitzer is partly responsible for perpetuating a system which benefitted newspapers with the highest circulations. They say the lofty ideals purported in his Pulitzer Prize simply disguised his true desire to create a memorial to himself. "After all, if he felt the news media had become too commercial, he was in a perfect position to develop a strategy for making them less so. . . . 14