The temporary price increase that spawned a massive newsboys strike
The last few years of the nineteenth century were an exciting time for journalism, especially in New York. Leading papers at the time included the New York World, which pioneered sensationalist “yellow journalism” to sell papers, and was owned by Joseph Pulitzer, and The New York Journal-American, owned by William Randolph Hearst.
Pulitzer and Hearst are two names that have made their mark on the media industry. Hearst has grown to own more than 24 American newspapers, but are most notable for their magazines, which include Cosmopolitan, Food Network, Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health, Oprah’s “O” Magazine, and Runner’s World, among others. And Pulitzer is best known as one of the most prestigious awards for excellence in journalism, awarded annually to the best of the best.
But in 1899, the fate of these powerful news giants rested in the hands of hundreds of their youngest employees; the newsboys. And they were angry.
1898 was a tumultuous year; the Spanish-American War broke out in April and continued on through August. Newsies often made money on the war extras they peddled on the streets, so when the World and Journal newspapers said they’d temporarily raise their wholesale prices from 5 cents to 6 cents per 10 paper bundles, the boys didn’t complain. But as the war ended, the news grew less shocking, and the boys felt the pinch.
They discovered a Journal deliveryman was shorting their bundles in the summer of 1899, and it brought the newsies to a breaking point.
On July 18th of that summer, they tipped over the delivery man’s wagon, took his papers, and chased him out of town. The boys demanded the “temporary” price increase be rolled back, or they would no longer buy Hearst or Pulitzer papers. They knew they had leverage because the Brooklyn Streetcar Operators were already striking and, as one 11-year-old newsie observed, “De cops is all busy!” The next day they decided to unionize, and strike against the World and Hearst’s NY Journal.
Three days later, on July 22nd, 100 boys rallied in Newspaper Row, greeting World and Journal wagons with clubs. Police attempted to scatter them, but another group headed up to Columbus Circle where over 500 more boys bombarded them with fruit, and took their papers. Youthful riots like these continued in Brooklyn, Yonkers, and Jersey City.
Neither newspaper was really concerned about the strike – after all, they were just children – until advertisers began asking for allowances on their bills, since the strike had dragged circulation down so drastically.
As for the boys, word traveled fast. Similar strikes were popping up in Troy, Rochester, New Haven, Fall River, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island.
The publishers used their political weight to call in favors from politicians and police captains. In return, Hearst promptly changed their angle in favor of the police on stories about police brutality in their publications.
The publishers also hired Bowery Boys to replace the strikers – but the newsies took them into flophouses to explain their side, and the boys quickly sided with them, saying “Every one of us has decided to stick by the newsboys! We won’t sell no papers!”
Now the papers were feeling the pinch. The strike had reduced the World’s press run from 360,000 to 125,000 – they were selling less than half as many papers as they used to. The boys had forced their hand – the papers still refused to reduce the price, but both the World and the Journal did agree to buy back any unsold papers. The boys were satisfied by this. Rather than put it to a vote as a union, they simply agreed to the terms and spread the news by word of mouth; though they would never forget the summer they forced the hand of two of the largest newspapers of their time.