In the mid-1890’s, there was a fierce newspaper battle raging between the New York World and the New York Journal. At the helm of each was a powerful man who ran the paper like a shark. For The World it was Joseph Pulitzer, and for The Journal it was William Randolph Hearst — undoubtedly two names you’ve heard before.
The two couldn’t have been more opposite. Pulitzer was a Hungarian immigrant who got his start at the very bottom of the industry in St. Louis, eventually climbing the ranks and running the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before purchasing The World. Hearst, on the other hand, came from extreme wealth and was given his first newspaper company, The San Francisco Examiner, by his wealthy father before purchasing The Journal to compete with Pulitzer.
Upon seizing The Journal, Hearst sold individual copies at half the price of his rival (one cent per issue, rather than two) in an effort to capture the largest circulation. Over the next several years, the two newspapermen would implement various competitive tactics aimed against the other, but maybe none has withstood the test of time more than the practice of what was called “yellow journalism.”
The term comes, literally, from the color of the ink, as sometimes yellow text would be printed on the front page of the paper. In an effort to generate attention from passersby, the strategy used sensationalism, large headlines and photos to attract readers.
In essence, it was nineteenth century clickbait.
It created a battle to produce the most eye-catching headlines, where the quality of reporting fell to the wayside and was replaced by fabricated stories that could generate impulse reading or gossip.
Nowadays, with the high competition for readers’ attention online, this is the world where we still live. The shift is nearly complete from physical newspapers to online-only sources, and with that comes the need to drive viewers to sites. The result is image-heavy content, or short video clips, or bold, outlandish headlines that the reader cannot resist clicking. Or, even, article after article of plain fake news.
The quality of reporting, and pure writing, is no longer a priority. After all, who is going to read the words if no one visits the site?
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It’s easy to create a blog these days (me being Exhibit A). You can self-publish an ebook in 15 minutes (that is an exaggeration, but honestly not by much). There are social media platforms for anyone to say anything about any topic. The point here is that there is no shortage of content to absorb — and it is being produced by all. Amateurs have to compete with the professionals, the experts, but likewise the large media corporations are under pressure more than ever to fend off these pesky bloggers and generate unique visits to their sites.
Is any of this going to change anytime soon? Not likely. We live in an increasingly competitive world, and as long as the competition rages, media corporations — and any content producers, for that matter — will continue doing whatever’s necessary to gain clicks.
That’s why, not only is yellow journalism thriving in today’s digital world, but it’s here to stay.
For an entertaining look into the rivalry between Hearst and Pulitzer, and the origination of yellow journalism, check out the National Geographic episode from the show Genius: