W. Joseph Campbell

114 years on the front page

In 1897, Anniversaries, New York Times, Newspapers, Yellow Journalism on February 9, 2011 at 7:37 am

Tomorrow makes 114 years on the front page for the best-known slogan in American journalism.

114 years on the front

The slogan, of course, is “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which first appeared February 10, 1897, in the upper left corner (the left ear) of the front page New York Times.

I’ve called them the most famous seven words in American journalism and they have been endlessly parodied and analyzed since 1897. Even admirers of the Times have conceded that “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is “overweening” and even “elliptical.”

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the motto has given rise to some lofty claims over the years. In 1901, at the 50th anniversary of its founding, the Times referred to “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as its “covenant.”

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.”

Adolph Ochs began using the slogan soon after acquiring control of the then-beleaguered Times in August 1896. At first, Ochs made use of “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as an advertising and marketing device.

The slogan’s debut came in early October 1896, spelled out in a row of red lights on an advertising sign the Times had rented at New York’s Madison Square.

Four months later, without fanfare or explanation, the slogan appeared in the “left ear” of the front page. It has appeared in that place of prominence ever since.

In touting “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” Ochs clearly sought to distance the Times from the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Their flamboyant newspapers dominated New York City’s media landscape in the late 1890s.

Ochs was nothing if not aggressive in promoting the Times and in seeking to position the newspaper as a sober counterweight to the activism and excesses of the yellow press.

To that end, he launched in late October 1896 a contest inviting readers to propose “a phrase more expressive of the Times’ policy” than “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which by then had taken a modest place in a corner of the Times’ editorial page.

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.”

The motto contest, cheesy though it may seem today, stirred a fair amount of attention–and reader interaction–in 1896.

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

Among the others:

“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 The Year That Defined American Journalism: “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,” I wrote, “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.”

But the entries kept rolling in. Other suggestions included:

“Bright as a star and there you are.”

“All the news to instruct and amuse.”

“Pure in purpose, diligent in service.”

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

“All that’s new, true, and clever.”

Another entry was inspired by rival titles in fin-de-siècle New York:

“Out heralds The Herald, informs The World, extinguishes The Sun.” (That suggestion is evocative of the slogan of New York Newsday, a tabloid that ceased publication in 1995 after 10 years:  “On top of the News, ahead of the Times.”)

As the motto contest neared its close in early November 1896, the Times noted that that some people had “sent in diagrams and even pictures.

“While these exhibit both skill and thought,” the newspaper said, “they cannot be accepted, because they are not wanted.”

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 these as finalists:

  • 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, had been submitted by D.M. Redfield of New Haven, Connecticut. Redfield’s suggestion:

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

Catchy, that.

WJC

Many thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to this post

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