The New York World newspaper was established in 1860. By the late 1870s the newspaper was losing $40,000 a year and in 1883 Joseph Pulitzer purchased it for $346,000. It was turned into a newspaper that concentrated on human-interest stories, scandal and sensational material. Pulitzer also promised to use the paper to "expose all fraud and sham, fight all public evils and abuses, and to battle for the people with earnest sincerity". In 1885 Pulitzer recruited Richard F. Outcault as one of his artists on the New York World . Outcault's comic cartoons based on life in the slums were extremely popular with the readers.
In 1887 Nellie Bly was recruited by Joseph Pulitzer to write for the New York World . Over the next few years she pioneered the idea of investigative journalism by writing articles about poverty, housing and labour conditions in New York City. This often involved undercover work and feigned insanity to get into the insane asylum on Blackwell's Island. Her scathing attack on the way patients were treated led to much needed reforms.
After reading Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days in 1889, Nellie Bly suggested to Pulitzer that his newspaper should finance an attempt to break the record illustrated in the book. He liked the idea and used Bly's journey to publicize the New York World . The newspaper held a competition which involved guessing the time it would take Bly to circle the globe. Over 1,000,000 people entered the contest and when she arrived back in New York she was met by a massive crowd to see her break the record in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds.
In 1896 the New York World began producing a colour supplement, Richard F. Outcault created a new young character that wore a yellow nightshirt. Known as the Yellow Kid, this cartoon became so popular that William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal, offered him a considerable amount of money to join his newspaper. Joseph Pulitzer now employed George Luks to produce the Yellow Kid.
Pulitzer's New York World and Hearst's New York Journal became involved in a circulation war, and their use of promotional schemes and sensational stories became known as yellow journalism. The tactics used during this campaign increased circulation and influenced the content and style of newspapers in most of the USA's major cities. Many aspects of yellow journalism, such as banner headlines, sensational stories, an emphasis on illustrations, and colour supplements, became a permanent feature of popular newspapers in the United States and Europe during the 20th century.
Joseph Pulitzer died in 1911 and the New York World was taken over by his son, Ralph Pulitzer. He employed Herbert Bayard Swope, as editor of the newspaper. Swope told Broun: "What I try to do in my paper is to give the public part of what it wants and part of what it ought to have whether it wants it or not." Swope had recruited a significant number of columnists, most of them on a three-times-a-week basis. This included Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott, William Bolitho, Franklin Pierce Adams, Deems Taylor, Samuel Chotzinoff, Laurence Stallings, Harry Hansen and St. John Greer Ervine.
Swope's biographer, Ely Jacques Kahn, has argued: "Its contributors were encouraged by Swope, who never wrote a line for it himself, to say whatever they liked, restricted only by the laws of libel and the dictates of taste. To keep their stuff from sounding stale, moreover, he refused to build up a bank of ready-to-print columns; everybody wrote his copy for the following day's paper." Swope told Broun: "What I try to do in my paper is to give the public part of what it wants and part of what it ought to have whether it wants it or not."
In 1927 Ralph Pulitzer came into conflict with Heywood Broun, one of his main columnists. For several years Broun had campaigned for the release of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco after they were convicted for murdering Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli during a robbery. In 1927 Governor Alvan T. Fuller appointed a three-member panel of Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Samuel W. Stratton, and the novelist, Robert Grant to conduct a complete review of the case and determine if the trials were fair. The committee reported that no new trial was called for and based on that assessment Governor Fuller refused to delay their executions or grant clemency. It now became clear that Sacco and Vanzetti would be executed.
Broun was furious and on 5th August he wrote in New York World: "Alvan T. Fuller never had any intention in all his investigation but to put a new and higher polish upon the proceedings. The justice of the business was not his concern. He hoped to make it respectable. He called old men from high places to stand behind his chair so that he might seem to speak with all the authority of a high priest or a Pilate. What more can these immigrants from Italy expect? It is not every prisoner who has a President of Harvard University throw on the switch for him. And Robert Grant is not only a former Judge but one of the most popular dinner guests in Boston. If this is a lynching, at least the fish peddler and his friend the factory hand may take unction to their souls that they will die at the hands of men in dinner coats or academic gowns, according to the conventionalities required by the hour of execution."
The following day Broun returned to the attack. He argued that Governor Alvan T. Fuller had vindicated Judge Webster Thayer "of prejudice wholly upon the testimony of the record". Broun had pointed out that Fuller had "overlooked entirely the large amount of testimony from reliable witnesses that the Judge spoke bitterly of the prisoners while the trial was on." Broun added: "It is just as important to consider Thayer's mood during the proceedings as to look over the words which he uttered. Since the denial of the last appeal, Thayer has been most reticent, and has declared that it is his practice never to make public statements concerning any judicial matters which come before him. Possibly he never did make public statements, but certainly there is a mass of testimony from unimpeachable persons that he was not so careful in locker rooms and trains and club lounges."
However, it was his comments on Abbott Lawrence Lowell that caused the most controversy: "From now on, I want to know, will the institution of learning in Cambridge which once we called Harvard be known as Hangman's House?" The New York Times complained in an editorial that Broun's "educated sneer at the President of Harvard for having undertaken a great civic duty shows better than an explosion the wild and irresponsible spirit which is abroad".
Herbert Bayard Swope was on holiday and Ralph Pulitzer decided to stop Heywood Broun writing about the case after a board meeting on 11th August. As Richard O'Connor, the author of Heywood Broun: A Biography (1975) has pointed out: "The editorial board's decision certainly was defensible if one takes into account the climate of the twenties... The country was acutely aware of what some newspapers termed the Red Menace, now that all hope that the Bolshevik dictatorship in Moscow might crumble or be overthrown had vanished."
On 12th August 1927 Pulitzer published a statement in the newspaper: "The New York World has always believed in allowing the fullest possible expression of individual opinion to those of its special writers who write under their own names. Straining its interpretation of this privilege, the New York World allowed Mr. Heywood Brown to write two articles on the Sacco-Vanzetti case, in which he expressed his personal opinion with the utmost extravagance. The New York World then instructed him, now that he had made his own position clear, to select other subjects for his next articles. Mr. Broun, however, continued to write on the Sacco-Vanzetti case. The New York World, thereupon, exercising its right of final decision as to what it will publish in its columns, has omitted all articles submitted by Mr. Broun."
Heywood Broun was not willing to be censored and asked for his contract to be terminated. Pulitzer refused and reminded him that his contract contained a passage that meant he could not work for any other newspaper for the next three years. Broun now went on strike. On the 27th August, 1927, Pulitzer wrote: "Mr. Broun's temperately reasoned argument does not alter the basic fact that it is the function of a writer to write and the function of an editor to edit. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I publish Mr. Broun's articles with pleasure and read them with delight; but the hundredth time is altogether different. Then something arises like the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Here Mr. Broun's unmeasured invective against Gov. Fuller and his committee seemed to the New York World to be inflammatory, and to encourage those revolutionists who care nothing for the fate of Sacco and Vanzetti, nor for the vindication of justice, but are using this case as a vehicle of their propaganda. The New York World, for these reasons, judged Mr. Broun's writings on the case to be disastrous to the attempt, in which the New York World was engaged, of trying to save the two condemned men from the electric chair. The New York World could not conscientiously accept the responsibility for continuing to publish such articles... The New York World still considers Mr. Broun a brilliant member of its staff, albeit taking a witch's Sabbatical. It will regard it as a pleasure to print future contributions from him. But it will never abdicate its right to edit them."
Broun was not allowed to write for a newspaper Oswald Garrison Villard to write a weekly page of comment and opinion for The Nation. While he was away the circulation of the New York World dropped dramatically. Samuel Hopkins Adams blamed the crisis on the inexperienced Ralph Pulitzer: "Joseph Pulitzer had made a disastrous will, taking control of the paper from two sons (Joseph II and Herbert) who were able and devoted journalists, and vested it in the cadet of the family, an amiable playboy."
Herbert Bayard Swope managed to persuade Broun to return and his first column was on 2nd January 1929. The dispute changed the image of the New York World . As Ely Jacques Kahn, the author of The World of Swope (1965) pointed out: "the shining integrity of the op ed page seemed to have been irreparably, if not fatally, tarnished" by the temporary silencing of Broun and the suspicion would linger that the columnists weren't absolutely free to speak their minds.
Heywood Broun was a strong supporter of birth-control. These views were not shared by Ralph Pulitzer who was frightened by the power of the Roman Catholic Church in New York City. Fearing that he would be censored, Broun wrote an article about the subject in The Nation. He argued: "In the mind of the New York World there is something dirty about birth control. In a quiet way the paper may even approve of the movement, but it is not the sort of thing one likes to talk about in print... There is not a single New York editor who does not live in mortal terror of the power of this group (Roman Catholic Church). It is not a case of numbers but of organization."
Pulitzer was furious with Broun for exposing the censorship concerning the discussion of birth-control and on 3rd May, 1928, Broun's column was missing from the New York World . Instead it included the following statement: "The New York World has decided to dispense with the services of Heywood Broun. His disloyalty to this newspaper makes any further association impossible."
In December 1930 Ralph Pulitzer began negotiating with Roy W. Howard about the selling of the New York World . The sale went through and the last edition of the newspaper was published on 27th February, 1931. The Scripps-Howard organization now merged the two newspapers and gave it the name the New York World-Telegram .
Heywood Broun was worried about the merger and wrote on 28th February, 1931: "I sat and watched a paper die. We waited in the home of a man (Herbert Bayard Swope) who once had run it. A flash came over the phone. The World was ended.... The World fired me, and the Telegram gave me a job. Now, the Telegram owns the World. This is a fantastic set of chances almost like those which might appear in somebody's dream of revenge. But I never thought much of revenge. I wouldn't give a nickel for this one. If I could, by raising my hand, bring dead papers back to life I'd do so... I am a newspaperman. There are many things to be said for this new combination. It is my sincere belief that the Scripps-Howard chain is qualified by its record and its potentialities to carry on the Pulitzer tradition of liberal journalism. In fact, I'll go further and say that, as far as my personal experience goes, the Telegram has been more alert and valiant in its independent attitude than the World papers. Yet I hope, at least, that this may be the end of mergers. The economic pressure for consolidation still continues. A newspaper is, among other things, a business. And, even so, it must be more than that."