William Randolph Hearst was a leading newspaper publisher and businessman who created yellow journalism – a style of writing that is meant to attract the public by sensationalizing stories.
Hearst was born in San Francisco in 1863 but attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. He then enrolled in Harvard College, where he was expelled for pranking his professors, one of many examples of Hearst’s rebellious nature. In 1887, he began management for his father’s newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, for which he mainly published stories of financial corruption. He attained top-notch equipment and talented writers and, under his control, the newspaper was thriving. In 1895, he bought the deteriorating New York Journal, which he revived and eventually became involved in a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer, owner of The New York World. Using his businessman tactics, he lowered the value of his newspaper by one cent and used eye-catching headlines; these strategies led to unforeseen circulation numbers. Hearst went on to open newspapers in other cities, eventually acquiring a nation-wide chain of 28 newspapers. With the revenue of his immense empire, he began to build the never-completed Hearst Castle, composed of 240,000 acres.
His news empire reached its circulation and revenue peak in 1928, but the Great Depression took a toll on his holdings; newspapers and other properties were liquidated. World War II brought some circulation and revenue, but his empire was never restored to its earlier glory. When Hearst died in 1951 from a heart attack, an August 1951 Time Magazine article announced, “The King is Dead,” illustrating Hearst’s enormous influence in his time.
Hearst’s philosophy for his newspapers was to do anything it took to attract readers. Under his influence, newspapers became more focused on entertaining readers rather than providing factual information. When Hearst began managing The San Francisco Examiner, he changed the appearance of the newspaper to be more attention-grabbing by using sensationalized headlines. The Time Magazine article recalls one such example of the “boob-catching headlines” as “SUICIDE OF A LOVESICK LOAFER.” The stories in the newspaper were simple to read, and they were written with the intent to shock the readers – this news reporting style came to be called yellow journalism.
The term yellow journalism was named after the comic strip character the “Yellow Kid,” a bald, ragged boy who lived in the ghetto. The creator of the “Yellow Kid” was Richard Outcault, credited as the inventor of color comics. Hearst ran the comic strip in full-page color, and Outcault made the comic strip significantly more violent and vulgar, which suited the shocking stories in the rest of the newspaper.
Hearst’s use of yellow journalism techniques involved frequently inventing stories, distorting facts, displaying phony pictures, and faking interviews. He attacked businesses and politicians and reported on sex, murder, and crime, becoming the voice for the working people and poor. Hearst used yellow journalism to rally support for the U.S.’s involvement in the Spanish American War by running exaggerated headlines and falsified stories – the immense power of newspapers to control public opinion was exhibited as public support for the war increased, due to Hearst’s stories. Some people even attribute full blame to Hearst for pushing the United States into the war with Spain. Hearst sent a reporter and artist to “document” Spanish atrocities, and when the artist cabled Hearst to say that there were no signs of conflict, Hearst famously replied, “PLEASE REMAIN. YOU FURNISH THE PICTURES AND I’LL FURNISH THE WAR.”
Hearst was an incredibly influential figure in the newspaper business; he created the largest national newspaper organization of the time. Furthermore, he changed the nature of newspapers from informative to entertaining, causing newspaper circulations to skyrocket and illustrating the enormous potential of newspapers to influence public opinion. Yellow journalism is considered unethical in today’s newspaper world, but Hearst made his mark in history as a leading publisher.
Today, the Hearst Corporation lives on as a large, private media conglomerate in New York City.