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Yellow Fellow

January 19, 1910


He was an inventor of “yellow journalism” and the chief editorial writer for William Randolph Hearst’s nationwide chain of newspapers. He played a role in sparking the fever that led to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and became one of the most highly paid editors of his day. Along the way, he had hob-knobbed with British Prime Minister William Gladstone, was manhandled by a Japanese wrestler, and even helped ban pigeon shooting on Long Island. His name was Arthur Brisbane, and on January 19, 1910 he was the keynote speaker at the KU-sponsored first annual National Conference of Schools of Journalism.

This gathering of professional newspapermen and journalism faculty from colleges across the Midwest was the brainchild of KU professor of journalism, Charles M. Harger. It was organized principally in order that journalism teachers might better prepare their students for future careers as reporters and editors. To accomplish his goals, Prof. Harger invited participants and speakers from such regional schools as Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa State, and the University ofChicago.

Also attending and taking part in a series of panel discussions were former KU student William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette, Henry J. Allen of the Wichita Beacon and Charles Sessions of the Kansas City Journal. Missouri’s dean of the School of Journalism, Walter Williams, was to give a major address on how best to organize a journalism school. Brisbane, however, was the main attraction.

If there was ever a journalist whose reputation preceded him, it was Brisbane, who first rose to national prominence in 1897 when Hearst named him managing editor of the New York Journal on the condition that his salary would be tied directly to the paper’s circulation. Under Hearst’s orders to “make a great and continuous noise to attract readers, denounce crooked wealth, and promise better conditions for the poor to keep readers,” Brisbane helped pioneer a newspaper style that became known as “yellow journalism.”

Characterized by bold, shocking headlines, gruesome, lurid illustrations and photographs, and salacious stories full of intrigues, conspiracies and sexual titillation, “yellow journalism” could play fast and loose with the truth. It did, however, sell millions of newspapers, making the $50,000 a year Brisbane the highest-paid newspaper editor of his time. This was the man KU invited to speak on “What Schools of Journalism Ought to Teach.”

Brisbane began by describing his profession, asserting, “Journalism is to the human race what language is to the individual.” It is the perfect means to bring millions of people together and communicate ideas and information. The editorial and news columns, he said, “hold a place in the nation today like that of the public square in Athens. One of the ancient Greeks said that if the nation ever got so big it could not get together and talk, it would fall to pieces. And so it would.” But, he added, “Men can meet just as well in the columns of a newspaper as in Madison Square Garden.”

“A newspaper man has the people for his client,” and his responsibility is to them, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant the issue. Brisbane told a story about how his paper had forced the “ice trust” to cut its prices after “many thousands” of New York City children died one summer because “poor people could not buy ice with which to keep milk sweet.” Indeed, journalists should “have sympathy for those who suffer and for those who are wronged…. He must learn to regard as a joke the government which we have at present – a joke on republican or democratic government…. A man who does not have a feeling of indignation at seeing children working in mills will never be a newspaper man.” Crucially, “he must see that there ought to be a fairer distribution of money,” Hearst’s life of exorbitant, boundless opulence notwithstanding.

As to what journalism students should study in school, Brisbane stressed the need for a wide-ranging, diverse education: study “everything,” he said. The student “doesn’t need to be a scholar, but everything that he reads will help him…. Read widely rather than thoroughly.” Furthermore, the best way to improve one’s writing is to practice “a great deal”; and the most useful thing a journalism school can offer its students is a strong emphasis upon “correcting copy and re-writing.”

Brisbane then moved onto a defense of “yellow journalism.” Young journalists, he said, must decide what kind of paper they want to work for. “There is the yellow paper – which is mine. I invented it and am proud of it. I suppose that a man is proud of almost any kind of a baby, if it is his.” As to the charges of sensationalism leveled against the “yellow” papers, Brisbane implored that “the people must have it – just as the Chinese take opium [and] the ignorant man takes whiskey…. If people don’t have some one kind of excitement they will have another, and I believe that a paper that gives legitimate excitement to people renders a public service…. The newspaper furnishes the vaudeville in the lives of a great many people.” But, he insisted, “We draw the line at vileness.”

For those planning to enter the field of professional journalism, Brisbane did have some words of warning. From his perspective, newspaper work “is the most dangerous thing in the world…. It brings you into contact with the evil in life. Men lie to you, and you become cynical. A great many newspapermen, I am sorry to say, are cynical. Then, newspaper work exposes the young man to all kinds of temptations,” not to mention being a profession which boasts few wealthy men. Overall, though, Brisbane had mainly positive things to say about his experiences and, indeed, adventures, as a professional journalist. “There is no life so interesting,” he concluded, “as that of a newspaper man.”

Although the University Daily Kansan later reported that Brisbane had “rushed through his speech at lightening speed,” his presence that day in Lawrence achieved its intended effect. The conference was successful enough that the organizers decided to make it an annual event, even though KU itself would not have a full-fledged School of Journalism until 1944

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For pre-coverage of the journalism conference, see University Daily Kansan, January 11, 1910, p. 1; and University Daily Kansan, January 18, 1910, pp. 1-2. For a very detailed account of Brisbane’s speech and all other proceedings of the conference, see University Daily Kansan, January 20, 1910, pp. 1, 3-5. See also, the Graduate Magazine, vol. 8:4 (January 1910), pp. 145-146.]