Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Success story : Joseph Pulitzer

  • Crusading newspaper publisher funded the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
  • Lesson: Aim to become a major influence for good.
  • "Always be drastically independent."

(from IBD 7/20/15Joseph Pulitzer came to America to fight. And that was well before he created his lasting Pulitzer Prize. A Union Army recruiter had promised good pay to leave Budapest, Hungary, and he arrived in Boston in 1864 at age 17.

After a few skirmishes, he had to find new work once the Civil War was over.

Those fighting skills turned out just right for his new profession — journalism. As he exposed corruption in high places, he had to thwart threats of physical harm while taking on libel suits.

"He built a newspaper empire based on serving the people and was fiercely dedicated to the public good," Mike Bernhardt, a member of the Pulitzer clan and author of the forthcoming "Crime, Dodges, Tricks and Swindles: An Insider's Untold Stories of Wall Street, the Pulitzer Legacy and the Recession of 2008," told IBD. "Most newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th century were funded by political parties, but he was dedicated to being independent and telling readers the truth, relying on a large circulation and advertising. He was the father of modern mass media."

In the process, he earned a fortune — $30 million (worth $771 million today), according to "The Wealthy 100" by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther, who rank Pulitzer No. 79.

From Europe To America

Pulitzer (1847-1911) was born in Mako, Hungary, to a Jewish family of merchants. In 1853, they moved to what is today called Budapest and opened a shop. His father died five years later, and the business went bankrupt. Joseph tried to join several regional armies, but was rejected because of poor eyesight.
Then he met the Union recruiter. Even though the combined deaths of soldiers North and South averaged 15,000 a month, Pulitzer decided to take his chances and accepted the trip from Hamburg to Boston.

On arrival in August, he discovered that recruiters were pocketing most of the enlistment bounty. So he left the military camp and made his way to New York City, where he earned $200 (worth $3,000 now) to replace someone in a German-speaking company of the "Lincoln Cavalry" under Gen. Phil Sheridan's command (Pulitzer spoke German and French, as well as Hungarian).

After some minor clashes with Confederates in the fall and spring, peace came and he returned to New York as a civilian.

His English was too poor to get hired, but he heard about a booming job market in St. Louis, home to a large German population.

Out of money, he rode freight trains to Missouri and took any odd job that came along.

Then he was promised a great job down the Mississippi River and joined a group of workers on a steamboat. But it was a swindle, and they were forced off and walked 30 miles back to the city.

He decided to write about the experience for the local German-language paper, the Westliche Post, which led in 1868 to an offer of a job as a reporter.

Pulitzer had found his calling. He worked 16 hours a day at his new profession and spent his precious free time at the library, learning English by reading an array of books.

He soon became an accomplished speaker for causes he believed in. In 1869, his energy and idealism made him so popular that he was elected as a Republican legislator, even though at 22 he was three years below the minimum age, and he moved to the capital of Jefferson City for two years.

He returned to St. Louis to take over as managing editor of the Westliche Post.

The job came with shares, and he bought more as the paper grew in circulation.

Soon he was rolling in cash. In 1873 he sold his stake for $30,000, the equivalent of $600,000 now, then made a series of shrewd investments to add to his stack.

In 1878, Pulitzer, 31, married Kate Davis, from a wealthy Mississippi family, and they would have seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood.

The same year, he bought two St. Louis evening papers and merged them into the Post-Dispatch.

He honed his populist message, which found an audience in the rising middle class, tripling circulation to 28,000 and giving him an annual income of $48,000, or $1.2 million in today's money.

"Pulitzer's goal was to publish every day at least one article so intriguing, so unusual, so provocative that it could cause people to talk about it," wrote James McGrath Morris in "Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power." "Every day for two weeks, Pulitzer detailed the monopolistic practices of the gas company. ... His staff obtained copies of the tax returns for the city's richest residents that cast an embarrassing hue when published for all to see."

Pulitzer was disappointed that the national political candidates he endorsed lost, and he felt the only way to have sufficient impact was to buy a New York paper.

So in 1883 he met financier Jay Gould, who sold him the New York World for $346,000 in installments (worth $8.4 million now), despite the fact that it was losing $40,000 a year.

Long-Distance Aim

Although Pulitzer retained ownership of the Post-Dispatch, he rarely returned to St. Louis.
Now he embarked on a grand plan to expand circulation, aiming it at the huge working class and the poor by running human interest pieces, news of crime and scandals, riveting sports coverage, entertainment stories and exposes.

He hired legendary investigative journalist Nellie Bly, and other top reporters followed. Lawsuits by those he exposed only made the New York World more popular, and he always won in court.

"Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light," he instructed his staff.

Pulitzer made the paper more appealing by producing the first comics in color along with eye-popping ads.

By 1886, the World was making a $500,000 yearly profit ($13 million now). The same year, he led a campaign to pay for the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of America's welcome to immigrants like Pulitzer.

"The French effort had raised more than $750,000," wrote Morris. "The American committee remained $100,000 short of the $250,000 needed. Pulitzer could have used his own checkbook to make up the deficit, but chose to finish the project as it had been intended, by turning to the public for support. He called on them to send money, however little, and in return, he pledged that every donor's name would be published on the front page. By the next morning, the first of 120,000 contributions began to pour in, raising more than the $100,000."


As Pulitzer turned 40 in 1887, he was nearly blind, so he managed the paper by telephone, telegraph, messenger and letter from his New York mansion, his summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine, his yacht, and his winter retreat on Jekyll Island, Ga.

With an eye on his legacy, Pulitzer paid for the opening of the world's first formal school of journalism, in 1908, at the University of Missouri.

In 1911, Pulitzer was on the way to Jekyll Island when he died on his yacht at 64.

He was feisty to the end. At the time of death, 73 lawsuits were pending against the World and 18 against the Post-Dispatch.

William Randolph Hearst, whose New York Journal battled the World, paid tribute to his greatest rival:

"In his conception, the newspaper was not merely a money-making machine. It was the instrument of the will and power of its hundreds of thousands of readers, the fulcrum upon which that power could be exerted in the accomplishment of broad and beneficial results."

Pulitzer left most of his estate to his family, but also gave bonuses to employees, while donating $2 million to New York's Columbia University to establish a journalism school that opened in 1912.

An additional $500,000 went to fund the Pulitzer Prize to recognize great reporting, beginning in 1917, with categories expanded for achievements in literature, drama, poetry, history and music.

The Pulitzer family published the World until 1931, when it was sold to Scripps-Howard and was merged into the World-Telegram.
The Post-Dispatch was part of Pulitzer Inc. when it was sold in 2005 to Lee Enterprises for $1.5 billion.

Bernhardt said flatly, "Joseph Pulitzer was one of the most selfless business leaders who ever lived."

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