Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, made clear the other day he doesn’t fully understand the derivation and significance of his newspaper’s famous, 114-year-old motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”
And he didn’t seem particularly comfortable with the slogan coined (most likely) by Adolph Ochs, who in 1896 acquired the then-beleaguered Times and eventually led the newspaper to preeminence in American journalism.
Sure, the motto’s smug and overweening, elliptical and easily parodied. But it is the most recognizable motto in American journalism, and it evokes a time now passed when slogans helped define and distinguish U.S. newspapers.
In an appearance not long ago at the National Press Club in Washington, Keller was asked about “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which took a permanent place of prominence on the newspaper’s front page on February 10, 1897.
Keller rather sniffed at it, saying the motto “harkens back to a day when the aim of the newspaper was to be comprehensive.”
According to a transcript of his remarks, Keller said that nowadays the Times is “going to tell you maybe only a little bit, but a little bit about everything.
“And I think that slogan describes an aspiration, or a mindset. Now we tend to be more selective, and try to give you more depth, to tell you the stories that are not obvious.”
Ochs clearly meant the slogan to be a rebuke to the flamboyant ways of the New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst and the New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. Their newspapers were the leading exemplars of the yellow press in fin-de-siècle urban America.
As I wrote in my 2006 book, a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the motto was, and remains, a daily rejection of flamboyant, self-promoting journalism.
And as the Times pointed out in 1935 in its obituary about Ochs, the motto “has been much criticized, but the criticisms deal usually with the phraseology rather than with its practical interpretation, and the phraseology was simply an emphatic announcement that The Times was not and would not be what the nineties called a yellow newspaper.”
I further noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism that the Times, at its 50th anniversary in 1901, “referred to ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’ as its ‘covenant.’ One-hundred years later, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal aptly identified 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.'”
So, no, the motto wasn’t an assertion of intent to be comprehensive — although the Times surely carried a lot of news in the late 1890s. Thirty or more articles, many of them a paragraph or two in length, usually found places on its front page back then.
Ochs’ slogan was more than a daily slap at yellow journalism.
It also represents “a daily and lasting reminder of the Times’ triumph in a momentous … clash of paradigms that took shape in 1897—a clash that helped define the modern contours of American journalism,” as I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.
That clash pitted three rival, incompatible models for the future of American journalism.
“As suggested by its slogan,” I wrote, “the Times offered a detached, impartial, fact-based model that embraced the innovative technologies emergent in the late nineteenth century but eschewed extravagance, prurience, and flamboyance in presenting the news.
“Extravagance, prurience, and flamboyance were features typically associated with yellow journalism, a robust genre which, despite its controversial and self-indulgent ways, seemed to be irresistibly popular in 1897. The leading exemplar of yellow journalism was … Hearst’s New York Journal, which in 1897 claimed to have developed a new kind of journalism, a paradigm infused by a self-activating ethos that sidestepped the inertia of government to ‘get things done.’
“The Journal called its model the ‘journalism of action’ or the ‘journalism that acts,’ and declared it represented ‘the final state in the evolution of the modern newspaper.’
“The third rival paradigm,” I wrote, “was more modest and idiosyncratic than those of the Times and Journal. If improbable, it was nonetheless an imaginative response to the trends of commercialization in journalism. The paradigm was an anti-journalistic literary model devised and promoted by J. Lincoln Steffens, who in late 1897 became city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser, then New York’s oldest newspaper.”
That model, Steffens said, was predicated on the notion “that anything that interested any of us would interest our readers and, therefore, would be news if reported interestingly.”
The Times ultimately prevailed in the three-sided rivalry that emerged in 1897, and “All the News That’s Fit to Print” lives on as a reminder of the outcome of that momentous clash of paradigms.
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