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From AJR,   March 2010  issue

Pulitzerís Lessons for Todayís Journalism   

Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power

By James McGrath Morris

Harper

576 pages; $29.99


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

This new look at one of journalism's most colorful and influential characters raises at least two questions.

First, do we really need another book on one of history's most-written-about journalists? Several biographies, including one as recent as 2001, already feature Joseph Pulitzer.

The answer is maybe.

James McGrath Morris' interesting book does draw on some new sources, especially regarding Pulitzer's relationship with his wife, Kate, brother Albert and others. But little here seems surprising or likely to change our appraisal.

The second question, more tantalizing, asks not what the book teaches us about Pulitzer, but what Pulitzer teaches us about succeeding against the odds. His rise from penniless immigrant to media titan holds unexpected insights for journalists caught in today's turbulence.

Familiar as it may be, Pulitzer's story remains exciting. Born in Hungary in 1847, he sailed to America in 1864, lied about his age to join the Union cavalry and after the war meandered through odd jobs in St. Louis. Then lightning struck.

Impressed with Pulitzer's community contacts, a friend hired him at age 20 to report for a German-language paper. Pulitzer worked indefatigably and simultaneously burrowed his way into local politics. For the rest of his life, politics and journalism consumed him. He was elected to the Missouri legislature (while still covering it, and where he shot a lobbyist on the street) and later to Congress.

Scraping together his savings, he bought the German paper and then in 1878 paid $2,500 at auction for the St. Louis Dispatch. A merger turned it into the Post-Dispatch, which flourished under his shrewd blend of sensationalism, populism and professionalism. In 1883 he acquired the New York World and soon made it the nation's biggest paper, while contending with archrival William Randolph Hearst for the kingship of yellow journalism.

Morris' presentation is solid if short on brio, and some of his new material seems dubious. He tiptoes up to a suggestion that Pulitzer had a homoerotic relationship with a mentor and delves into an affair between Kate Pulitzer and one of her husband's key editors, but those parts feel halfhearted and marginal. He focuses more on Pulitzer's politics and world travels than his newspaper management and content, an approach that may satisfy general readers but will probably disappoint journalists.

On the positive side, Morris pins down previously blurry details, especially regarding Pulitzer's business dealings, and he keeps the book commendably balanced, considering the complicated personality of his subject.

Pulitzer bloomed with contradictions. He was a serious journalist who brazenly took sides. He demanded accuracy and integrity (insisting that his paper treat his nemesis Hearst fairly) but could be ruthless (ordering odious, "hyperbolic" attacks on candidates he didn't like, such as James Blaine). He pioneered international coverage and investigations but pandered for circulation through sensationalism. He lived as both a rich cosmopolite and a street brawler (getting into a fistfight with a rival editor, knocking to the floor a reporter who resisted an assignment).

Always mesmerizing, his story has renewed relevance today.

His career parallels in many ways the trajectory new media are following as they lurch from early ragtag disarray toward dominance. Pulitzer went on such a journalistic journey, from a disorderly, disreputable trade to an established commercial juggernaut with professional values and standards. What qualities made him exceptional, and might they help today?

Pulitzer worked prodigiously and demanded excellence. He had wits, vision and a blogger's edge. He embraced his audience and never neglected content. "Pulitzer's goal was to publish every day at least one article so intriguing, so unusual, so provocative that it would cause people to talk at the dinner table." And he took risks, showing "remarkable foresight and..an uncanny ability to recognize value where others didn't." Once, for example, he snapped up a small, seemingly doomed German newspaper. All he wanted, it turned out, was rights to the paper's Associated Press membership ó an unappreciated asset he immediately resold for a huge profit.

Raise the standards. Galvanize the audience with diversion and depth. Leap boldly toward innovation. All these years later, this still looks like a Pulitzer prize-winning formula.