I’ve written that 1897 was a decisive year in American journalism.
The evocative sneer “yellow journalism” first appeared in print in 1897.
What became the best-known, most-reprinted editorial in American journalism, the New York Sun‘s “Is There A Santa Claus?,” was published in 1897.
William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal developed its bold and interventionist model of “journalism of action” in 1897.
And the seven most famous words in American journalism, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” took a permanent place on the front page of the New York Times in 1897.
The smug and tidy slogan has occupied the spot ever since. As I noted in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the motto represents “an enduring statement of guiding principle of what has long been recognized as the best newspaper in America.”
I also noted that the Times’ motto has been endlessly parodied and analyzed. Even admirers of the newspaper have acknowledged it’s a bit “overweening” and “elliptical.”
The motto has evoked lofty claims over the years. The Times in 1901, at the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, referred to “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as its “covenant.”
An historian of the Times, Elmer Davis, said the motto had served as “a war cry.”
In 2001, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal described the motto as the “leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media.”
It was also, I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, “a pithy summation of the Times’ … vision for American journalism,” a model of detachment in newsgathering “that stood in apposition to the extravagance and self-promotion” of Hearst’s “journalism of action.”
Indeed, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is a timeless rebuke to the practices of Hearst and, to an extent, of Joseph Pulitzer — aggressive and flamboyant techniques that critics scorned as “yellow journalism.”
Interestingly, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was at first a feature of a marketing campaign by the Times which, in August 1896, had been acquired in bankruptcy court by Adolph S. Ochs, a newspaperman from Tennessee. “All The News That’s Fit to Print” appeared in advertisements in the trade journal Fourth Estate in mid-October 1896. By month’s end, the phrase had taken a modest place in a corner of the Times’ editorial page.
The seven most famous words in American journalism made their debut in early October 1896, in a row of red lights arrayed across a huge advertising sign above Manhattan’s Madison Square. The illuminated sign was on the north wall of the old Cumberland Hotel building at Broadway and 22d Street.
Ochs, who turned 39 in 1897, had a bit of a flair for self-promotion, as the illuminated sign at Madison Square suggested. Securing the space “was nothing less than a coup” for the newcomer to New York journalism, I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism.
“The sign’s bright, multi-colored lights could be seen for many blocks away. Nowhere in the country, or in Europe, the Times immodestly crowed, was there ‘so large and perfect a display.'”
It was illuminated by four rows of lights. White lights of the top and bottom rows spelled, “New-York Times” and “Have You Seen It?” A row of blue, white, and green lights spelled out “Sunday Magazine Supplement.” The red lights, which formed the second row of illumination, announced:
“All the News That’s Fit to Print.”