The Yellow Kid and the Birth of Yellow Journalism
In 1895, the first comic strip was printed in an American newspaper. Called “Hogan’s Alley, this popular cartoon made by Richard Outcault featured a buck-toothed, beady-eyed and big-eared boy wearing a yellow nightdress. Fittingly called The Yellow Kid, this loveable character began to gain popularity in an era full of consumerism, commercialization, urbanization and social reform. Newspapers in the late 1800s started to engage heavily in sensationalism and the reporting of exciting stories without full regard to objectivity and truth.
Two newspapers in particular engaged in this kind of practice. The first was the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer. Being an immigrant from Hungary, Pulitzer was a crusader for progressive thinking, watchdog journalism and investigative reporting. In fact, after just two years of taking over the Journal, the paper became the highest circulating publication in New York. The second paper to heavily practice sensationalism was the New York Journal, which was owned by William Randolph Hearst. Despite being born to a multimillionaire father, Hearst also cared for social reform and using the press as a way to stimulate and reinvigorate society.
A competition formed between these two papers and their owners, leading to efforts to drive up circulation such as reporting on crime, scandals and morality of business and government. Both papers invested a large amount of resources in creating stories that stirred up peoples’ emotions and passions. One of the ways they did this was through bold headlines, pictures and cartoons, games and contests and other kinds of entertainment. Many people criticized this way of reporting, accusing it of being false and vulgar.
The competition escalated, however, when Hearst hired Outcault, who was creating The Yellow Kid cartoon for Pulitzer’s New York World, to work for the Journal instead. Seeing how successful The Yellow Kid became in drawing in readership, Pulitzer hired a man named George Luks to continue the comic with his own characters, essentially providing America with two yellow kids. Because of its popularity, the cartoon gradually took up a whole page in the Sunday editions, which were created because of the Yellow Kid’s popularity.
Soon thereafter, there was Yellow Kid merchandise everywhere, ranging from bottle openers and playing cards to dolls and chewing gum. The comic’s particularly became a hit with the illiterate immigrants in New York due to the large speech bubbles and fun drawings, while the wordy captions and political references catered to the working class.
What came to be known as the “Battle of the Yellow Kids represented a trend in the decline of integrity in journalism. A certain critic, named Ervin Wardman, actually came up with a name to call this kind of journalism: “yellow-kid journalism. This was eventually shortened to “yellow journalism, which is what it is called today.
The Yellow Kid was even used to affect public opinion on important issues, such as the Spanish-American War. Some historians even say that Hearst served a major role in America’s involvement with Cuba through the sensational stories being published about the war, some of which were untrue. The term yellow journalism began to extend to the coverage of events like this, and eventually the sensationalist style in general.
It is obvious that the media wields great power in society, whether for good or bad. Hearst and Pulitzer developed an empire around sensationalism in journalism. It’s up to the reader to decide whether or not that is a good thing for the public.