In the late 1800s, the two most powerful men in the newspaper industry were Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The USA was the cultural and commercial centre of the world, and it was through newspapers that Americans watched their country flourish.
New York City was the gateway to this New World; a seething, tumultuous melting pot where people of wealth and poverty, of hundreds of different and languages and cultures, having poured in from the docks, were crammed into the town.
Pulitzer and Hearst simplified the language in their papers and added more pictures, so that they could be read by the foreigners and the uneducated. Tactics such as these saw their sales rise to unprecedented numbers; Pulitzer’s New York World reaching seeing circulation figures of around 360,000. Most of these papers were distributed by ‘newsies’.
We’ve all seen newsies, depicted in movies and cartoons as charming, cheeky kids in waistcoats and flat caps standing on street corners yelling “Extra! Extra!” But these depictions are the result, some say, of a deliberate effort of the newspapers of the time to glamourise and sugar-coat the lives of the children who distributed their product.
The truth was the newsies were desperately poor, often homeless and starving. They were not employees of the newspapers, they simply bought the papers by the bundle, 100 papers for 50 cents, and sold them on the streets for a tiny profit. The newspapers would not buy back unsold copies, so while a slow news day might mean a reduced profit for them, it meant missed meals for the newsies.