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Hearst, William Randolph - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: William Randolph Hearst

hearst’s newspapers american newspaper

American Newspapers, Inc.


Founder of one of the most extensive newspaper empires in history, William Randolph Hearst was a dominant and controversial figure in American journalism and politics for many years.

Personal Life

An only child, William Randolph Hearst was born in a hotel in San Francisco, California on April 29, 1863. His father, George Hearst, was a self-taught geologist who made a fortune in mining before becoming involved in politics later in life. Hearst’s mother, Phoebe (Apperson) Hearst, became a philanthropist and was a regent of the University of California.

Since his father was often away on mining trips, Hearst was raised mostly by his mother, and led a sheltered and privileged life as a child. His mother took him to Europe when he was 10 years old for tutelage in art and antiquities; in 1879 she sent him to St. Paul’s preparatory school in New Hampshire, which Hearst left abruptly two years later. He was tutored at home, then entered Harvard University in 1882. He did not stay long enough, however, to graduate: he was expelled in 1885 for a prank. While at Harvard, Hearst spent much of his time working on the school’s humor magazine, Lampoon, which he made into a money-making publication.

After leaving Harvard, Hearst had the chance to manage his father’s ranches and mines, but instead began an apprenticeship as a reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the New York World. In 1886, he finally talked his father into turning his unsuccessful newspaper, the San Francisco Daily Examiner, over to him.

In addition to his career in newspapers, Hearst also had some encounters with politics. He won election to the House of Representatives in 1902 and 1904, which proved to be his only two successes in the political arena. In 1904 he put great effort into a bid for the presidency, but didn’t get the nomination. The next year, he ran for mayor of New York City as an independent candidate. He lost that race, as well as the one for governor of New York in 1906, for which he ran as the Democratic candidate. The governor’s race was Hearst’s last major political campaign, although he remained involved in politics in a behind-the-scenes role, using his newspapers to garner votes for his preferred candidates.

Hearst didn’t marry until 1903, a day before his 40th birthday. He had a long-term relationship up until that time with Tessie Powers, a waitress whom he had supported since his Harvard days. Hearst’s wife, 21-year-old Millicent Wilson, was a Broadway dancer, and they had five sons together. In 1917, however, Hearst met Marion Davies and began a love affair with her that lasted until his death. During the 1920s, he spent millions on her acting career, which never was a great success.

Career Details

Hearst’s infamous career in journalism began with his publication the San Francisco Examiner in 1887. Hearst modeled the newspaper after Pulitzer’s World, which printed the most shocking, sensational news it could find (or create) in order to attract a large audience. Hearst’s newspaper placed a special focus on scandals and murders, but also attempted to expose injustice and corruption. He hired a talented and well-paid staff, and after running up a debt of nearly $800,000 an astronomical sum at the time the newspaper finally began to show a profit in 1890. Eventually the Examiner began to overtake the other local newspapers in circulation.

In 1895, Hearst moved the Examiner to New York City and continued to “make up” news in order to gain the reading public’s attention. The same year, he purchased the decrepit New York Morning Journal. With the purchase of the Journal, Hearst began a circulation war with Pulitzer. He hired away several of Pulitzer’s best writers, including Arthur Brisbane, and slashed the price of the newspaper to one cent. Thus began what Hearst termed an era of “new journalism.” Later renamed “yellow journalism” by Ervin Wardman, Hearst’s new journalism was known for its use of crude, theatrical, and most often inaccurate accounts of sensational news, meant to appeal to a wide audience. Hearst and Pulitzer engaged in a circulation war during the next few years that ignored both truth and principle in journalism.

In 1900 Pulitzer gave up the field, and Hearst began a steady acquisition of newspapers. His newspaper enterprise was helped by the new technologies of the early twentieth century, including telephones, cables, cameras, faster presses, cheap paper, color printing, and better sorting and folding machines. He was able to print thousands of papers daily and sell them cheaply. In 1900, Hearst bought the Chicago American, followed soon afterward by the purchase of papers in Boston and Los Angeles (1904), Atlanta (1912), and San Francisco (1913). He also moved into the magazine business, founding Motor in 1903. He then purchased Cosmopolitan (1905), Britain’s Nash Magazine (1910), Good Housekeeping (1911), and Harper’s Bazaar (1912). Hearst also started nationwide services for supplying news and features with the creation of King Features Syndicate and the International News Service, both founded in 1910.

During the 1920s, Hearst branched out into the radio business, purchasing stations in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Milwaukee. In 1935 he consolidated his 90 newspapers under the name American Newspapers, Inc. At the time his assets were estimated at $197 million. His wealth started to erode due to several factors, however. One was his extravagant personal spending, which at its peak reached $15 million a year. In 1919, upon the receipt of his father’s fortune, he spent $50 million on New York real estate and $50 million on his art collection—the largest ever assembled by a single individual. In that year he also started construction on a 37-million-dollar castle in San Simeon, California. Combined with his refusal to sell any of his properties or cut salaries, Hearst’s extravagence had a serious impact on his financial situation. This impact was intensified by the effects of the Great Depression, and by 1937 Hearst faced a financial crisis. In June of that year, Hearst suddenly gave up control of several of his properties. His legal advisor, Clarence Shearn, became the sole voting trustee of Hearst’s stock in American Newspapers. Shearn immediately cut back by selling some of the newspapers and radio stations, shutting down one of the magazines, and liquidating parts of Hearst’s real estate holdings. He also halted construction on the castle that Hearst had begun in 1919 and sold many of the antiques that Hearst had collected to furnish it.

The Hearst empire survived the crisis and as a result of wartime prosperity and corporate reorganizing, Hearst regained some control over his publishing enterprise. Although somewhat diminished, by the end of World War II Hearst’s publishing conglomerate was still the largest in the United States.

Social and Economic Impact

The journalistic legacy Hearst left was not necessarily a positive one according to some critics. Many feel that the period of yellow journalism was not a shining moment in history, though some observers say that Hearst’s influence was not felt beyond the time when his approach to news went out of style, soon after his death. W. A. Swanberg, author of Citizen Hearst, called Hearst “essentially a showman and propagandist, not a newsman.” Whatever the impact Hearst had on the future of journalism, he certainly had influence during the time he was in power, albeit less than he may have liked. Although he did have some power in national Democratic politics, his influence was due more to his status as a millionaire than as an opinion-maker.

One example of the effect of Hearst’s yellow journalism came during the Cuban revolt against Spain and the resulting Spanish-American War. Hearst had early favored American intervention and printed stories in the Journal that played up sympathy for the Cubans and hatred for the Spanish, as well as sensationalizing the situation. When the American battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, Hearst immediately blamed it on the Spanish, although there was never proof that they were responsible, and demanded war. Hearst’s wish was granted when President McKinley declared war against Spain on April 11, 1898. Although historians disagree about how much influence Hearst and his newspaper had on bringing about the Spanish-American War, Swanberg insists that had it not been for Hearst’s effort, “there would have been no war.”

An accidental effect of Hearst’s actions resulted in 1927 when Hearst newspapers printed unchecked, forged documents charging that the Mexican government had paid several U.S. senators more than $1 million to support a Central American plot to wage war against the United States. Hearst emerged from the scandal unaffected, but the fiasco led President Calvin Coolidge to appoint Dwight Morrow as ambassador to Mexico, and this move launched a new era in U.S.-Latin American relations.

Chronology: William Randolph Hearst

1863: Born.

1887: Took over father’s newspaper.

1895: Bought the New York Journal.

1903: Started in the magazine business, beginning with Motor.

1903: Began four-year stint in Congress.

1910: Created King Features Syndicate and International News Service.

1913: Started in motion picture business with newsreels.

1935: Incorporated his 90 newspapers.

1951: Died.

By the 1920s, Hearst owned 31 newspapers, and one in every four Americans read a Hearst newspaper. Hearst had become, according to John Ingham, “one of the best-known, best-hated, and most thoroughly publicized figures in the land.” Many believe that his life was portrayed in Orson Welles’s classic film Citizen Kane, the release of which Hearst tried to suppress. He was unsuccessful, however, and the film was released in 1941, ten years before his death.

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