W. Joseph Campbell

‘Yours neatly, sweetly, completely’: Revisiting the Times’ motto contest

In 1897, New York Times, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on February 10, 2010 at 12:06 am

How about this as the motto for the New York Times? “Clean, crisp, bright, snappy; read it daily and be happy.”

Or this? “Bright as a star and there you are.”

Or? “Pure in Purpose, Diligent in Service.”

Or? “You do not want what the New-York Times does not print.”

They were among thousands of entries submitted in a “motto contest” organized by the Times and its new owner, Adolph Ochs, in autumn 1896.

The contest ostensibly was to encourage readers to propose “a phrase more expressive of the Times’ policy” than “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which Ochs had begun using as a marketing and advertising slogan in early October 1896. By the end of that month, the phrase had taken a modest place in a corner of the Times’ editorial page.

And on February 10, 1897–113 years ago today–“All the News That’s Fit to Print” appeared in the upper left corner, the “left ear,” of the Times’ front page, a place the motto has occupied ever since.

The 1896 motto contest was in reality a way to call attention to the Times in New York’s crowded newspaper market—one dominated by the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Ochs had acquired the beleaguered Times in August 1896 and faced such rough going that Pulitzer’s New York World declared several months later:

“The shadow of death is settling slowly but surely down upon” the Times.

The motto contest, cheesy though it may seem today, stirred a fair amount of attention–and reader interaction–in 1896. The Times promised to pay $100 to the person who proposed in ten words or fewer a slogan deemed better than “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which had first appeared in early October 1896, spelled out in a row of red lights on an advertising sign above New York’s Madison Square.

Among the entries sent to the Times were clunky such suggestions as: “All the News Worth Telling,” “All the News That Decent People Want,” and “The Fit News That’s Clean and True.”

Other were:

“Full of meat, clean and neat.”

“Instructive to all, offensive to none.”

“The people’s voice, good the choice.”

“Aseptic journalism up to date.”

“Yours neatly, sweetly, and completely.”

As I wrote in my 2006 book, a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms: “Before the contest ended, the Times altered the stakes by making clear it would not abandon ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print.’

“The Times justified this change of heart by saying no phrase entered in the contest was more apt and expressive than ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print.’ The $100 prize would be awarded, to the person adjudged to have submitted the best entry. But the motto would not be changed.”

Indeed, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” lives on as the most famous slogan in American journalism, the “leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also … for most other general-interest papers in the country,” a columnist for the Wall Street Journal once wrote.

The Times characterized its motto contest not as a grubby publicity stunt but as an opportunity for high-minded rumination about New York City newspapers. The contest, it said, had “set the people of this city to thinking upon the subject of newspaper decency in a more attentive and specific way than has been their custom.”

In any event, a committee of Times staffers winnowed the entries to 150 semi-finalists, which were submitted to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century magazine. Gilder selected four finalists, which were:

  • Always decent; never dull.
  • The news of the day; not the rubbish.
  • A decent newspaper for decent people.
  • All the world’s news, but not a school for scandal.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, Gilder noted “that terms of the contest had changed from the original intent of selecting a slogan that ‘more aptly express the distinguishing characteristics of the New-York Times’ to the more theoretical task of determining which entry ‘would come nearest to it in aptness.’”

That entry, Gilder determined, was submitted by D.M. Redfield of New Haven, Connecticut. Redfield’s suggestion:

“All the world’s news, but not a school for scandal.”

Catchy.

WJC

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