First, let me remind you of a post November, 2009, in which I quote Walter Lippmann:
We expect the newspaper to serve us with truth however unprofitable the truth may be. For this difficult and often dangerous service, which we recognize as fundamental, we expected to pay until recently the smallest coin turned out by the mint. … Nobody thinks for a moment that he ought to pay for his newspaper.
Second, a summary of the situation faced by the New York World in the 1920s:
- The world the most revered paper in the world among journalists at the time, and beloved far more than any paper in New York by New Yorkers.
- It’s editor was Herbert Bayard Swope, the first journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize (he won it three times), and a legend even among his contemporaries.
- The World had a reputation for aggressive, what we now call watch dog journalism, showing no fear nor favor toward the powerful or government agencies.
- It’s editorial page was run by Walter Lippmann and Arthur Krock.
- Rollin Kirby was its three-time Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, and the first editorial cartoonist to receive such an award.
- The reporting staff included Allan Nevins, Charles Merz (who would go on to become editor of the New York Times), Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings.
- Among its contributors were Heywood Broun, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kauffman, E.B. White, Ring Lardner, Edna Ferber and Irvin S. Cobb.
So by every measure the acolytes of the Church of Journalism might apply to the sanctity of a newspaper, the World met the standards of absolute divinity.
So what killed the World?
It wasn’t bad journalism. It wasn’t cuts to the editorial staff. It wasn’t competition from the New York Times (the death of the World created a vacuum for the Times to fill). It wasn’t a change in the public taste. It wasn’t new technology (radio news was just barely invented when the World closed in 1931).
According to The Golden Age of the Newspaper, by George H. Douglas, in 1925, Joseph Pulitzer II made a fatal mistake. He raised the price of the paper from two cents to three.
No other New York newspaper followed suit and circulation plummeted. In 1931, Roy Howard bought the World and laid off its remaining 3,000 employees.
People may pay for home delivery. They may pay for a nice package of reporting, entertainment and advertising. But history has shown time and again: They won’t pay for news.