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newspaper publisher and prize founder
Joseph Pulitzer was born in Mako, Hungary, on April 10, 1847. His father, a prosperous grain merchant, moved the family to Budapest, and Joseph was educated in private schools there. Rejected for service in the Hungarian Army, French Foreign Legion, and British Army due to poor eyesight and frail health, he was ultimately allowed to enlist in the U.S. Union Army as a substitute for a draftee. He emigrated to the United States in 1864, served in a New York Cavalry unit until the end of the Civil War, and eventually settled in St. Louis, Missouri.
In St. Louis, Pulitzer worked a variety of jobs while studying English at the Mercantile Library. His journalism career began in 1868, when he was recruited by Carl Schurz for his German-language daily, Westliche Post. He was also admitted to the Missouri Bar that year, but his broken English made it difficult to attract and keep clients and, aside from the execution of minor papers and collecting of debts, never practiced law regularly. On December 14, 1869, Pulitzer attended the Republican meeting at the St. Louis Turnhalle on Tenth Street, where party leaders needed a candidate to fill a vacancy in the state legislature. They settled on Pulitzer, nominating him unanimously; he won the general election by a vote of 209-147, and was seated at the session beginning January 5, 1870. In 1872 he was part of a group of Republicans who unsuccessfully backed Horace Greeley for President over incumbent Ulysses Grant, even though Grant was also a Republican. Disllusioned with rampant corruption in the Republican Party, Pulitzer became a Democrat and was a delegate to the 1880 Democratic National Convention.
While dabbling in politics, Pulitzer was also gaining a reputation as a tireless journalist. He acquired part ownership of the Westliche Post in 1871, but sold that interest in 1872 and used his profit to purchase the St. Louis Post, for $3,000. He combined the Post with the St. Louis Dispatch after buying the latter paper at a sheriff's sale for $2,700 in 1878 to form the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which is still that city's principal daily newspaper. Pulitzer used his paper to launch crusades against government corruption, lotteries, gambling, and tax fraud.
In 1878, Pulitzer married Katherine Davis. The couple had seven children, five of whom reached adulthood -- Ralph, Joseph II, Constance, Edith, and Herbert; one daughter, Lucille, died at the age of 17.
In 1883, Pulitzer acquired the New York World for $346,000. At the time of its purchase the paper was losing about $40,000 a year, but by focusing on human-interest stories, scandal and sensational material Pulitzer turned it into a very profitable enterprise. As he had done with the Post-Dispatch, Pulitzer promised to use the paper to expose corruption, telling his readers: "We will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty." He also hired cartoonist Richard F. Outcault, whose cartoons based on life in the slums were extremely popular with the readers. The World soon reached sales of 600,000, making it the largest circulating newspaper in the country.
In 1884, Pulitzer was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New York, and served from March 4, 1885, until April 10, 1886. He resigned due to the pressure of journalistic duties.
In 1887, Pulitzer recruited Nellie Bly away from the Pittsburgh Dispatch, and she went on to pioneer investigative reporting by writing articles about poverty, housing and labor conditions in New York City, often using undercover work to get the story, including feigning insanity to get into the insane asylum on Blackwell's Island and expose the terrible conditions its patients endured. After reading Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days in 1889, Bly convinced Pulitzer to sponsor a contest based on the book. Over 1,000,000 people entered the contest, which involved guessing the time it would take Bly to circle the globe, and she was greeted by a massive crowd when she arrived back in New York in a record 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds.
By 1890, Pulitzer was virtually blind and in very frail health and was forced to withdraw from the editorship of his newspapers; he continued to manage their day-to-day operations, however.
In 1896, cartoonist Richard Outcault created the "Yellow Kid" for the World's new color supplement. The comic strip's popularity caught the attention of William Randolph Hearst, who lured Outcault to his paper, the New York Journal. Pulitzer responded by hiring George L. Luks to take over drawing of the "Yellow Kid." The competition between Pulitzer and Hearst became quite fierce, with each resorting to outrageous promotional schemes and sensationalism (aka "yellow journalism") in an effort to win more subscribers. The banner headliness, emphasis on illustrations, color supplements, etc. that are now common features in most daily newspapers all had their origins in this circulation war.
Although the competition between Pulitzer and Hearst resulted in a great number of "news stories" that had little to no basis in fact, an equally great number of legitimate stories with far-reaching implications were also published. When, in 1909, the World exposed a fraudulent payment of $40 million by the United States to the French Panama Canal Company, the federal government indicted Pulitzer for criminally libeling President Theodore Roosevelt and banker John Pierpont Morgan. Pulitzer ultimately won an important victory for the freedom of the press, however, when the courts dismissed the indictments.
Pulitzer was finally forced to fully retire in 1907, and died aboard his yacht in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, on October 29, 1911. His will left $2 million for the establishment of a school of journalism at Columbia University, as well as an endowment for a fund to reward works of journalistic excellence. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism was organized in 1912, and the first Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1917.
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This page was last updated on 10/19/2018.