Yellow Journalism: The Battle for Control of New York

During the last part of the nineteenth century a battle for the control of readership in New York began with the rising sensationalism being reported in the two prominent newspapers in New York. Joseph Pulitzer as head of the New York World and William R. Hearst head of the New York Journal began to go head to head to determine who had the best selling and widest circulation in the city.  The effect of this battle would end up haunting both men long after the fact. The battle would give rise to the term “yellow journalism” to describe the sensational news reporting while the real news went largely unnoticed.

Joseph Pulitzer purchased The New York World in 1883[1] and began charging two cents for a paper that ranged from eight to twelve pages and included pictures and comic strips along with crime stories that ran along side actual news items. By 1885 The New York World had become the highest circulating paper in the city of New York. In contrast William R. Hearst, backed by his family fortune, purchased The New York Journal in 1895[2] and began selling it for only one cent in order to gain a foothold in the city. Hearst admired Pulitzer and took his ideas for his paper with the advent of publishing crime stories[3], comic strips and photographs with more emphasis than actual news stories. Hearst’s choice to sell his paper for only one cent would spark the battle between himself and Pulitzer that would damage the reputation of both men and their papers for years to follow.

The first idea of the sensationalism that would give rise to the term yellow journalism would come from the escalating problems in Cuba. With the decision of President McKinley to invade Cuba and start the Spanish-American War, the sensationalism would soon begin.

The problems started in 1896, Hearst’s paper even with such a large audience continued to lose money at an extraordinary rate of approximately $100,000 a month[4]. With Hearst in trouble, Pulitzer waged an all out circulation war by cutting his price to one cent and trying to drive out the upstart Hearst.

There is confusion over where the term yellow journalism originated. The most popular theory came from a cartoon published in both papers titled “Hogan’s Alley” drawn by Richard Outcault first in Pulitzer’s paper around 1895 and later adopted by Hearst when Outcault left to join the Journal.[5] First the term was applied to the rising sensational content of the papers for the sole purpose of driving up circulation. Sociologist W. I. Thomas credits yellow journalism as “news of highly sensational character.”[6] The battle seems to refer not only to the war between Hearst and Pulitzer for circulation but for the rights to publish the comic strip “Hogan’s Alley” and it was suggested that the term yellow journalism came about while both papers continued to publish “Hogan’s Alley”. The height of the sensationalism came when both papers published what turned out to be a fake telegram between the captain of the USS MAINE and the secretary of the Navy on February 17, 1898 which alleged Charles Sigsbee, the captain of the MAINE as reporting the explosion was not an accident.[7]

After the publication of the “fake” telegram both papers suffered damage to there reputation as many other papers called both Hearst and Pulitzer’s tactics disgraceful; however circulation had increased by more than a million copies per day.[8] Even with their credibility in question by the end of the Spanish-American War both papers held wide circulation as it would seem the readers were interested in sensational stories more than the truth.

In conclusion, the battle for circulation rights between Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s New York Journal embodied more than the cause of increased circulation and rising profits. There is no clear answer as to where the term yellow journalism first began; however the comic strip “Hogan’s Alley” with the character of the Yellow Kid is real and the creator did work for both Pulitzer and Hearst and there was a battle for publication of the strip between both papers lends some idea of reality as to a possible origin of the term.



Clark, Carroll D. “Yellow Journalism as a Mode of Urban Behavior.” Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 14 (Dec. 1933): 238-245.

Herringshaw, Thomas W. ed. Herringshaw’s National Library of American Biographies. Chicago: American Publishers Association, 1914.

Morris, James M. Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power. New York: Harper, 2010.

Porter, Ben H. William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years 1863-1910. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Whyte, Kenneth. The Uncrowned King: The Sensationalism of William Randolph Hearst. Toronto: Random House, 2008.

[1] James M. Morris, Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power (New York: Harper, 2010), 206-207.

[2] Kenneth Whyte, The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst (Toronto: Random House, 2008), 83.

[3] Ben H. Proctor, William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years 1863-1910 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 83.

[4] Ben H. Proctor, William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years 1863-1910 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 97.

[5] Thomas W. Herringshaw, Herringshaw’s National Library of American Biographies (Chicago: American Publishers Association, 1914), 352.

[6] Carroll D. Clark, “Yellow Journalism as a Mode of Urban Behavior,” Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 14 (Dec. 1933): 238-245.

[7] Ben H. Proctor, 116-117.

[8] Ben H. Proctor, 117.

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