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Schiff, Dorothy - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Dorothy Schiff, Social and Economic Impact

post york paper city

(1903-1989)
New York Post

Overview

As the owner and publisher of the New York Post newspaper from 1939 to 1976, Dorothy Schiff transcended her reputation as a Manhattan socialite to steer the creaky Post back to a level of profitability it had not seen since its founding by Alexander Hamilton in 1801. Changing the newspaper to tabloid format, and filling its pages with the gossip and scandal of which she was so fond, Schiff was the first woman to publish a major New York newspaper. The New York Post would survive stiff competition to become, in 1967, the only remaining afternoon daily circulated in New York City.

Personal Life

Dorothy Schiff was born in New York City on March 11, 1903. The daughter of Mortimer and Adele (Neustadt) Schiff, she benefited from the wealth amassed by her paternal grandfather, Jacob Schiff, who had become a successful investment banker in New Jersey. While she and her brother, John, grew up with all the luxuries that their family’s money could provide, Schiff gained little in the way of family affection due to her parents’ active lives and their estrangement from each other. After attending the Brearley School in New York City, Schiff enrolled at Bryn Mawr, a prestigious women’s college, but was expelled at the end of her freshman year due to poor grades.

Finding herself back at the home of her parents in an era when women did not often choose careers over marriage, Schiff wed stockbroker Richard W. Hall in 1923. While the couple would have two children, the marriage was an unhappy one—Schiff later claimed that her husband, an Episcopalian, found her Jewish heritage a social liability. In the early 1930s her parents died and her large inheritance assured her financial security. Shortly thereafter, Schiff and Hall divorced. She then married George Backer, an active liberal Democrat. Through Backer’s social circle Schiff came to know members of the Algonquin Round Table, a colorful group of journalists and writers that included well known figures such as Dorothy Parker. Her marriage to Backer coincided with Schiff’s eventual rise to publisher of the New York Post and her influential position within New York City.

Career Details

In addition to adopting her second husband’s liberal Democratic politics and becoming close friends of both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Schiff also began investing some of her wealth in communications companies. In 1939, with the encouragement of both her husband and President Roosevelt, she became the majority stockholder of the debt riddled New York Post, moving from that position to vice president, director, treasurer, and then publisher and owner of the paper in 1942. When Schiff took over control of the Post from its past publisher, J. David Stern, it had been floundering in a sea of competition for several years; the paper lost $2 million during its first year under Schiff’s ownership. Determined to make the paper profitable, Schiff set about actively managing the Post. While she had little business training or experience, she knew what people wanted to read. Together with features editor Theodore Thackrey, Schiff began to revitalize the paper. Publishing syndicated columns by such noteworthy journalists as Elsa Maxwell, Drew Pearson, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Schiff and Thackrey watched the Post ‘s circulation soar. Championing Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and supporting the causes of the working classes gained “Dolly” Schiff, as she was known to her staff, a loyal readership.

Ultimately, Schiff’s involvement in the paper ruined her marriage to Backer and in 1943 the couple divorced. Schiff quickly remarried, this time to Thackrey, whom she promoted to editor and who would be the third of her four husbands. Their marriage would last until 1948, when their support of opposing presidential candidates finally broke down their working relationship.

In addition to supporting the politics of New York City’s working class, Schiff was determined to appeal to the popular appetite for glamour and gossip. Reworking the Post into a more appealing tabloid format and incorporating the Bronx-based Home News into the Post in 1948, she included more comic strips and human interest stories. Her reports on the city’s upper class society were more than a little scandalous. She also established a foreign bureau and published a Paris edition. While others in the industry questioned her tactics, Schiff proved she had a firm grasp on her readership’s taste; by 1950 the New York Post had shown it could withstand competition, moving into the black to become one of the city’s most read afternoon dailies. Schiff herself contributed a column, “Dear Reader,” to the paper during the 1950s, and added editor-in-chief to her duties at the Post in 1962.

While Schiff’s control of the Post continued to drive the paper’s profit margin steadily uphill, she worried constantly about the possibility of losing everything and ending up impoverished. A 114 day newspaper strike in early 1963 sent her into a panic, but the paper managed to hold out and stay in business. In 1965 she began automating the Post newsroom, both as a means of cutting employee overhead and as a means of guarding against future strikes. Throughout her career she remained active in charitable work, donating both time and money to causes for social betterment.

In 1976 Schiff surprised everyone, including her own Post staff, by announcing the sale of the successful daily to Australian publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch. In fact, Post reporters were still in the dark at press time and the announcement of the paper’s sale broke to the public the following morning through a rival’s headlines. With a reported sale price of $32 million, the seventy-three year old Schiff was able to retire from business, living the remainder of her life in relative seclusion. Diagnosed with cancer in May of 1989, she refused treatment and died three months later, leaving three children and fifteen grandchildren.

Chronology: Dorothy Schiff

1903: Born.

1939: Becomes vice president and treasurer of New York Post.

1942: Becomes co-publisher and co-president of New York Post.

1943: Becomes owner and sole publisher of New York Post.

1951: Begins writing her “Dear Reader” columns for the New York Post.

1963: The New York Post survives a three-month strike and begins the process of automation.

1967: The New York Post becomes the sole afternoon daily circulated in New York City.

1976: Sells the New York Post to Australian newspaper publisher Rupert Murdoch.

1989: Dies in New York City.

Social and Economic Impact

As the first woman to head a New York newspaper, Schiff blazed a trail for future generations of business-women and journalists. Her savvy, common sense, and perseverance in supporting the Post in the face of opposition from spouses, and ridicule from journalistic competitors, came at a time when women were still expected to have little head for business and to relegate their lives to domestic matters rather than a career. While other papers laid off workers, Schiff managed to keep her paper not only afloat, but sailing ahead at a steady clip. From her beginnings as a New York City socialite, she eventually gained the respect of her peers, bringing the New York Post to a golden age during the 1950s and gaining respect for herself as an experienced journalist.

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