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Pulitzer, Joseph - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Joseph Pulitzer, Social and Economic Impact

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Pulitzer Prize


The modern newspaper was virtually created by Joseph Pulitzer during the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was a newspaper that seemed to meet the needs of the modern industrial world. With headlines, sensationalism with social conscience, a sports page, a business page, and the comic strips, it was a paper the average man could take to work with him to learn about the world, and be entertained. Largely, this was the social invention of Joseph Pulitzer.

Personal Life

Joseph Pulitzer was born in Mako, Hungary, on April 10, 1848 and was one of three children born to Philip and Louise (Berger) Politzer. Politzer was the Hungarian spelling of their last name. As a young child, Pultizer was considered sickly. He was very thin, his lungs were weak, and his vision was poor. His father was a wealthy grain dealer, wealthy enough to retire early and be with his family. When Joseph was six years old, the family moved to a quiet estate in Budapest, Hungary, where Joseph was educated, with his brother and sister, by private tutors. Pulitzer was raised speaking Hungarian, German, and French fluently.

The young Joseph Pulitzer was perhaps overly-energetic, and was wild about seeking fame. He was brilliant, very independent, and intensely ambitious. There was early signs, in the extremes of his behavior as a young man, of the emotional problems that would hurt him later, as a grown man.

At the age of 17 he left home, and desperately sought fame in the military. He and attempted to join the Austrian Army, the British armed forces, and the French Foreign Legion. He was rejected from each army because of his poor eyesight. At one point, during the American Civil War, he was approached by a recruiter of the Union army. In September of 1864, he came alone to the United States to join the Lincoln Cavalry of the American Union army. In Boston, he jumped ship. He then went to New York where he enlisted on his own behalf, thereby collecting his own enlistment bounty. On September 30, 1864, Pulitzer joined a cavalry regiment that was organized by Carl Schurz, with whom Pulitzer would work after the War.

Pulitzer was discharged from the Union army in July of 1865. He had little money and no prospects for work. He settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where there was a large German community. In St. Louis, Pulitzer found familiar customs that reminded him of his European origins. So, at age 18, the tall, slender young man, with an odd accent, attempted to make his way in the American frontier. Despite his problems with poor eyesight, emotional ups and downs, and his poor grasp of English, Pulitzer was nevertheless a brilliant and hard-working young man. Pultizer worked at a variety of jobs including a mule tender, waiter, and hack driver. He also worked for several lawyers and while doing so, studied the law books and was admitted to the bar. In 1867, Pultizer became an American citizen.

Carl Schurz, who he had met during his army service, hired Pulitzer as a reporter for the Westliche Post, an influential German-language newspaper in St. Louis. The paper specialized in political articles, and was very much committed to social reform in a young America gone haywire with the corruption of unbridled politicians. Pulitzer became very interested in the local politics and in public affairs, and was exceptional reporter in these areas. As a result, Pultizer was nominated for the state legislature by the Republicans in 1969, and won. While serving his term as a representative, Pultizer also worked as a correspondent for the Westliche Post. In 1872, Pulitzer became very involved in the Liberal Republican movement which had nominated Horace Greely for president. After the election and defeat of Greely, Pulitzer became a Democrat. During the following few years, Pultizer bought and sold various newspapers and became a rigorous editorial crusader. He turned several struggling newspapers into successful, respected newspapers.

In 1878, Pulitzer married Kate Davis, who was an accomplished, beautiful, and socially well-connected woman. By his mid-thirties, Pulitzer’s health began to deteriorate. His eyesight became worse, and his mood swings, perhaps suggesting a manic-depressive disorder, were creating terrible personal problems. Joseph and Kate Pulitzer had seven children during their, reportedly, difficult marriage. Apparently, he was a difficult husband, and living with him was often torturous because of his emotional problems. He was described as a distant parent, lacking the confidence to assume a genuinely fatherly role to his children.

Pulitzer spent much of his time away from his family, traveling widely. In later years, he lived aboard his yacht called Liberty , where annoyances and distractions were kept to a minimum. Pulitzer was constantly in poor health. He had several ailments including asthma, diabetes, insomnia, chronic exhaustion, and manic depression; by 1889 he had become blind. On October 29, 1911, at the age of 64, Joseph Pulitzer died of an apparent heart attack while aboard his yacht in the New York harbor.

Career Details

In 1872, Joseph Pulitzer bought his first newspaper, the St. Louis Post for about $3 million. He also bought a German newspaper that had an Associated Press membership, which he quickly sold for a profit. In 1878, the same year he was married, Pulitzer purchased the St. Louis Dispatch. which he combined with the Post ; the newspaper then became the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He, as the publisher and editor of the paper, declared immediately that his paper would be devoted to issues of social reform. He vowed to his readers that the paper would be independent of political influence, but would be, instead, “the organ of truth,” as he put it in an early editorial. Along with his editor in chief, John A. Cockerill, Pulitzer printed verbal crusades against wealthy tax dodgers and corrupt gambling practices. For example, they printed the tax returns of local citizens, wealthy and poor, in parallel columns. They editorialized for the building and maintaining of streets and other public structures; they were instrumental in starting a city park system. They made the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a civic minded newspaper and it became very successful.

Pulitzer edited the Post-Dispatch from 1878 to 1883. He became and remained involved in all aspects of the publication. By 1881, the newspaper had achieved a high profit and had wide readership, and moved to a new building where two Hoe presses were installed. Pulitzer’s health weakened and he gave more responsibility to Cockerill. In 1882 Cockerill shot and killed Alonzo W. Slayback who was a local lawyer running for Congress. Slayback, who Cockerill openly opposed and insulted, confronted Cockerill and was consequently murdered. Afterward, Pulitzer asked John A. Dillon, founder of the Post , to take over the management of the paper. During the aftermath of the scandal, Pulitzer’s health deteriorated further and he was advised to take a long rest by his physician. On his way to Europe, via New York, Pulitzer met with an opportunity he could not refuse: the New York World was for sale.

In 1883, when he was 36 years old, Pulitzer bought the failing New York World newspaper, and applied the principles that led to success with his St. Louis paper. In 1883, the paper sold 15,000 copies daily. With Pulitzer’s genius for sensing what the public wanted, he built a newspaper which, by 1898, was selling 15 million copies a day.

Pulitzer created the modern newspaper, one that caught the democratic and populist spirit of America at that time and instituted changes that had never been seen in American papers before. Pulitzer changed the form of how Americans received their news, and he created a format and prototype that countless other papers came to imitate.

Pulitzer carefully picked his talent, and encouraged them. He paid high salaries to his reporters, and demanded hard work from them. He also started the first two-week paid vacation for newspapermen. Pulitzer used illustrations and political cartoons to attract readers. He initiated features such as greatly expanded sports coverage, and began to include line-drawings in the paper to give variety to the look of different sections of the paper. He began the colored cartoon strips, known as the “Sunday Funnies”, and captured a new readership for newspapers—children.

Perhaps Pulitzer was able to do so much in changing the form of the paper because his own idealistic, crusading, flamboyant, up-and-down character mirrored much of the sentiments of the mixed character of America at that time. He remained an idealist, but he also learned how to sensationalize and exaggerate real issues to get public attention. Pulitzer became the master of detailing lurid stories of crime, and sex, and disaster. He had his reporters using bold headlines, illustrations and diagrams for murder scenes. Pulitzer was one of the first to understand that a successful newspaper had to entertain as well as provide the truth. This was the revolution in newspaper style that became the model for newspapers—sensationalism with a social conscience.

Chronology: Joseph Pulitzer

1847: Born.

1865: Emmigrated to the United States and joined the Union army.

1872: Bought first newspaper, the St. Louis Post.

1878: Bought St. Louis Dispatch newspaper and merged it with the Post newspaper.

1883: Bought New York World newspaper.

1902: First plans for a journalism school and literary prize.

1911: Dies.

1912: First journalism class at Columbia University.

1917: First Pulitzer Prize awarded.

Social and Economic Impact

Joseph Pulitzer’s approach to printing and publishing a newspaper became the model for the modern press tradition. He almost single-handedly created the style of the American newspaper for the twentieth century. Pulitzer began to recognize the expanding potential audience for newspapers, and explored ways to give new readers of newspapers something for their money. He printed stories and reports of interest to new immigrants to America, to people who loved reading about sports, and even engaged children as readers, by initiating the comic strips.

Pulitzer used his editorials to speak out against corruption and uncovered several scandals such as the insurance fraud and corruption in the construction of the Panama Canal. He also crusaded against unsafe working conditions, the Bell telephone monopoly, the Pacific Railroad Lobbyists of 1887, unpleasant conditions in mental hospitals, police corruption and inefficiency, and police brutality. Pulitzer used his power to rally public support around various causes. In one editorial, for example, he urged the completion of the pedestal for Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty.

With his health failing to the point where he could no longer work, Pulitzer turned his focus on his plan to provide Columbia University with a large sum of money for the establishment of a school of journalism. In 1902, while drawing up a memorandum, Pulitzer compared the preparation of journalists to that of lawyers and doctors. In 1912, with an endowment of $2 million, Columbia University accepted its first class in the School of Journalism. The 1902 memorandum also stipulated that a portion of the endowment be used for annual prizes to journalists and writers. The first Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1917. Dying in 1911, Pulitzer did not live to see either of his plans materialize.

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about 7 years ago

Is there any indication that Pulitzer spoke with an accent--and if so, what was it? Primarily German?

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over 6 years ago

Why is Anna Pulitzer left out of his biography? Why no mention of Pulitzer's Park?