Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Decent and Dignified Journalism - a History of "All the News That's Fit to Print"



In the classic film Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ character, the newspaperman Charles Foster Kane, issued his declaration of principles:


In the classic film Singing in the Rain, Gene Kelley’s character, silent film star Don Lockwood, revealed the one motto he had always lived by:


 The New York Times has long aspired to live up to similar standards.

In 1896, the New York Times, which had been in business since 1851, adopted its now iconic motto – “the seven most famous words in US journalism[i]:

“All the news that’s fit to print.” 

This simple slogan, said to have been coined by its then new owner Adolph S. Ochs, has stood the test of time, but in its earliest days its continued existence was not assured.  Critics disliked its “colloquial” feel and considered it “not strictly grammatical.”  The editors may also have appreciated the enigmatic or cryptic nature of the words.  Within weeks of first adopting the motto they held a contest offering $100 to the person who could come up with a better motto.

But even before the contest, the motto had an internal rival – a motto that was more literal, if less memorable, and which may also have been coined by Adolph Ochs.

The Fourth Estate, Volume 5, Number 130, August 20, 1896, page 1.


“Decent and Dignified Journalism”

On August 13, 1896, Adolph S. Ochs, through his agent Spencer Trask, purchased the New York Times at “public auction”; they were the only bidders[ii]  Although the sale was nominally designated an “auction”, some considered it “merely a formal proceeding, the outcome of a reorganization of the New York Times company.”[iii]  Details of the sale, including the name of the buyer, purchase price of $75,000 and date of the auction had already been public since July 21, 1896,[iv] and reports of the pending deal had been in circulation since April. 

One of the earliest reports of the pending reorganization and sale of the Times in mid-April of that year suggest that Ochs may have exercised some control throughout the four months of reorganization:


The New York Times, which not many years ago was one of the greatest American papers, will this week pass under the control of Adolph S. Ochs, present proprietor of the Chattanooga Times.  Mr. Ochs will reorganize the Times Company, and will put the paper upon a new foundation, with a new editorial force.  It is his intention to compete with the other New York papers, and it is said he is willing to spend money along with the other newspaper publishers of this city, who are now trying to outdo one another in extravagance.  The Times will be made a straight Democratic paper.

The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), April 15, 1896, page 6.

Two weeks after the first reports of the pending sale to Ochs, the New York Times adopted a new motto or advertising motto or advertising slogan – Don Lockwood would have been proud:

The Times has become known as the “model of decent and dignified journalism.”


New York Times, April 26, 1896, page 7.

The new motto appeared in the New York Times regularly, if sporadically, from late-April to late-September, 1896.  Its last appearance was about one week after the first appearance of “All the news that’s fit to print.” 

New York Times, June 25, 1896, page 12.
                                                                                                 

New York Times, May 31, 1896, page 8.


Whether or not Ochs coined the expression, he clearly felt some close personal affinity to it.  He returned to the motto at significant moments throughout his career at the Times. 

In 1904, his young daughter Iphigene Bertha Ochs recited the motto at the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the New York Times Building at Times Square:

New York Times, January 1, 1905, page 75.


Ochs recited the motto himself twenty-five years later at the dedication of Times’ building in Brooklyn:


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 4, 1930, page 16.

In a speech before the National Editorial Association in 1916, Adolph S. Ochs invoked both mottoes while discussing his early days at the Times:

I thought there was an opportunity in this great city for a metropolitan newspaper conducted on ideal interior daily principles; a newspaper with all the news that's fit to print, honestly presented and fairly and intelligently interpreted; a newspaper for enlightened thoughtful people; a newspaper conducted as a decent, dignified journal.

The Editor & Publisher, Volume 49, Number 2, June 24, 1916, page 3.

Editor & Publisher, Volume 49, Number 2, June 24, 1916, page 3.


He may have been dissatisfied with the motto, or have just thought up one he liked better.  Or, perhaps, if it was not his in the first place, he may have just wanted to put his personal stamp on the paper.  But whatever the reason, the New York Times launched the new motto with no particular fanfare about one month after the public auction. 



A New Motto

The New York Times’ online timeline of its history dates the first appearance of the motto on its editorial page as October 25, 1896.[v]  But the motto actually appeared more than a month earlier.  It first appears in a stealth marketing campaign as teeny little, innocuous advertising items squeezed in and among stock quotes or classified ads at the bottom of one or two interior pages per issue. 

The first one appeared on September 19, 1896:
First appearance of new slogan - September 19, 1896, page 10.
New York Times, September 19, 1896, page 10.

The new motto items seem to have replaced similarly sized and placed notices advertising the location of the “Times Up-Town Office” at 1,269 Broadway at 32d Street, which had regularly appeared in the paper previously, but which stopped when the motto started appearing:

New York Times, September 17, 1896, page 11.

The new motto may have been novel in its directness and succinctness, but its sentiments were not new.  A newspaper seller in Delaware hawked his wares with something similar, if wordier, while focusing on fitness to be read, as opposed to fitness to print:


The New York Times used something language in an ad campaign that appeared in several newspapers 1890[vi]:

The excellence and interest of The Times as a general newspaper are proverbial.  It is its business to print the news, all the news that it is worth anybody’s time to read.

The Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, Delaware), December 10, 1890, page 3.

If nothing else, the new motto provided the Times with an excellent proverb to go along with their proverbial excellence.

In early October[vii], the new motto’s campaign switched out of stealth mode and turned on an electric sign at Madison Square.  The sign “attracted the admiring attention from multitudes in the vicinity” and looked something like this:

New York Times, October 22, 1896, page 7.


The editors waited a few weeks before bringing specific attention to the motto within the pages of the paper.  On October 22, 1896, they launched a crowd-sourced write-in contest, offering $100 to any reader who could come up with a slogan which, in ten words or less, better conveyed the idea, “All the news that’s fit to print.”  The announcement spelled out the enigmatic slogan’s intended meaning – Charles Foster Kane would have been proud:

The Times seeks a phrase more expressive of The Times’s policy, of freedom from sensationalism; designed to appeal distinctively to the intelligent and the thoughtful; of having its columns devoid of revolting details of scandal, sickening chapters of crime, unfounded attacks on public men, and reckless assaults on private interests; of being essentially a newspaper for the home, a newspaper that is progressive and enterprising, without being indecent or careless of the rights of others; of being newsy and entertaining and at the same time clean and instructive; of earnestly endeavoring to be the family paper of the Greater New-York; of appealing directly to the tastes of refined and cultured people; and of being a newspaper that upholds morality, inspires patriotism, and encourages good citizenship.

The New-York Times will pay One Hundred Dollars for a phrase that will better convey this idea: “ALL THE NEWS THAT’S’ FIT TO PRINT,” everything of human interest, but nothing except the truth.

Over the next two weeks, The Times generated interest in its paper, the contest, and the prize with free press from newspapers throughout the country reporting on the contest.  And perhaps more importantly, they got their readers to associate the paper with the lofty standard expressed by the new motto.  If people did not understand the expression the first time they read it, the contest and coverage of the contest provided ample opportunity to learn its meaning and to associate the paper with its goals. 

After one month, the contest ended with no winner.  In the judgment of the editors, none of the readers’ entries better articulated the meaning of their motto. 

They did, however, still award the $100 prize to the best entry.  The three runners-up were:

Always decent; never dull.
The news of the day; not the rubbish.
A decent newspaper for decent people.

The winning submission came from D. M. Redfield of New Haven, Connecticut:

All the world’s news, but not a School for Scandal.

The Winning Postcard.


Many of the also-rans were more entertaining. 

Some of them did not stray far from the source material:

All the news that’s fit to read.
All the news that should be printed.

Some of them did not stray far, but found a way to make it rhyme:

The world’s news that’s fit to peruse.
All the news fit to use.

Some did not stray far, but upped the clever quotient – perhaps a bit too far:

All the news without a nuisance.

I found this one perplexing:

Full of meat, clean and neat.

This one seems more like a ‘70s kitchen cleanser or shampoo slogan:

Cheerful, clean, with glossy sheen.

This one makes me think of doughnuts:

Dollars to dimes if it’s good it’s in The Times.

Some of them sounded more like a beer commercials (or a fictional Japanese whiskey commercial, “Make it Suntory Time”):

No times like The New-York Times
The Times for the times.

Many of them featured a little alliteration, perhaps a little too much alliteration:

Neat news in a nutshell.
If in The Times ‘tis writ, ‘Tis decent, pungent, forceful, fit.

Some reflect the more rural nature of the population at the time:

We skim the day’s news and leave the dregs
The Wheat of the News Threshed of Chaff.

Some were a bit too high-toned:

Avoids the Charybdis of dullness and the Scylla of sensationalism.

In retrospect, it seems like a good decision to stick with their original (well, second) motto.  It deftly avoids the Charybdis of triteness and the Scylla of pomposity, while upholding the highest ideals of Charles Foster Kane and Don Lockwood.

The motto  finally landed on its familiar position on the front page on February 10, 1897.





[ii] The Star Gazette (Elmira, New York), August 13, 1896, page 7.
[iii] The Tallapoosa New Era (Dadeville, Alabama), August 20, 1896, page 4.
[iv] The Evening Post (New York), July 21, 1896, page 2; On the St. Lawrence and Clayton Independent (Clayton, New York), July 24, 1896, page 1.
[vi] Barry Popik’s online etymological dictionary, The Big Apple, found this ad in the New York Times, December 4, 1890, page 4.  It also appeared in other papers.
[vii] The New York Times, October 22, 1896, page 7.

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