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Murder of the Century | Article

New Look Dailies

In the decade preceding Stanford White's 1906 murder, New York City's daily newspaper circulation increased dramatically. Over a dozen major English-language dailies competed for a swelling urban audience. The sensationalist style known as yellow journalism emerged from the rigorous competition. 

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Before radio, television and the Internet, newspapers were the only sources of daily news, and at a price of one or two cents -- the cost of a stamp -- papers were affordable. Design and printing advances enabled newspapers to print a more robust, enticing product. The love triangle between White, Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Thaw -- and its violent end -- was THE newspaper story of its time.

Read about the changes in the newspaper industry and see how the story was reported.

Manufacturing Advances
Advances in press technologies and reductions in materials costs helped the dailies pack their pages with dynamic layouts, photographic reproductions, and colorful illustrations. During the Civil War, raw paper for printing had cost up to $440 a ton. The introduction of sulphite pulp (wood pulp prepared with chemicals — often magnesium, calcium or sodium) reduced the cost to $42 a ton by the 1890s.

Production rooms were outfitted with new rotary presses — cylinders with typeset plates wrapped around them — which were sturdier than plates used on flat presses. These new presses printed on rolls of paper, on both sides. A top-of-the-line press could print 48,000 12-page newspapers in one hour, cut and folded.

Until the 1880s, newspapers had few visual elements, with perhaps only a time-consuming woodcut for the front page. Publications such as Harper's Weekly, which didn't grind out two or three editions a day, could add more illustrations -- often steel plate engravings — to their articles. Zinc plate etchings were cheaper and faster to produce and by 1884, The New York World published drawings more regularly. Photo engraving and the halftone process, used to reproduce photographs, allowed even more visuals to be added. The timing was perfect for reporting stories with photogenic subjects — like Evelyn Nesbit.

New Look, New Stories
Joseph Pulitzer, editor of The World, pioneered visual elements that became standard in newspapers. He splashed images across multiple columns, designed attractive headlines, and considered what his paper would look like folded on a newsstand. Previously, the layout of a newspaper consisted of uniform single columns. Important stories were distinguished by several successive headlines. Pulitzer's visual innovations were soon co-opted by his competitors, expecially William Randolph Hearst.

In addition to adopting a bolder visual style, newspapers expanded the notions of newsworthiness to include more human-interest stories. Sports pages, women's news and kids' sections, and comics became commonplace. In a city like New York, accounts of activities about town helped make the urban landscape seem more familiar. Even staid publications like The New York Times expanded their leisure and feature pages in response to the popularity of The World and The Evening Standard. White, Nesbit and Thaw were familiar faces in the society pages well before shots were fired in Madison Square Garden. Their fame drew even more readers to the newspapers, to absorb all the story's fascinating details.

Yellow Journalism
Newspapers raced to publish more visually exciting and sensational stories. Joseph Pulitzer, editor of New York's The World, and William Randolph Hearst, editor of The New York Morning Journal were strong rivals in the late1890s. Hearst had hired away a number of key staff members from Pulitzer, including Morrill Goddard, head of the Sunday edition, and cartoonist R. F. Outcault, who drew the popular "Yellow Kid." Hearst upped the hype with lurid copy and headlines. Sample Journal headlines from 1896 include: "One Mad Blow Kills Child," "Startling Confession of Wholesale Murderer Who Begs to Be Hanged," and "Strange Things Women Do for Love," The Spanish-American War in 1898 was a battle between the publications as well — and Hearst pulled out all the stops and money to scoop Pulitzer. The one-upmanship that began with a battle over the colorful cartoon character resulted in a rise in sensationalism — inspiring the term "yellow journalism."

Salacious details involving a social lion and a young Broadway showgirl provided great copy. Add to that a murder by an abusive, unstable husband — in a jealous rage -- and readers had a real page-turner. It was a wealth of riches for the papers. The subsequent trial of Harry Thaw dominated the newspapers for months in 1907. And editors beautified their coverage of legal proceedings with a few Evelyn Nesbit images.

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