Gnats and Camels: The Newspaper's Dilemma

JANUARY, 1927

BY EARNEST ELMO CALKINS

I

WHEN Lord Leverhulme died the newspapers decided that his obituary was worthy of considerable space, and quite rightly, too. Lord Leverhulme was a picturesque personality with many activities and interests outside his business. He had a knack of securing that kind of free publicity which newspapers accord those who do the unusual and unexpected thing. He built the model village of Port Sunlight for his workmen to live in. He presented Stafford House to the nation as a sort of British Carnavalet Museum. He cut the head out of the portrait Augustus Johns painted of him. He was always good newspaper copy. But in a long account, which in some cases ran to a column, no mention was made of one fact about him that would have identified him instantly to the greater number of Americans, — especially housewives, — and that was the fact that he was the manufacturer of Sunlight, Lux, Lifebuoy, Rinso, and other humble products used in millions of American and British homes. To do so would be contrary to newspaper ethics. One can imagine with what virtuous satisfaction the copy reader drew his blue pencil through the forbidden words.

A little later the legal gentlemen in charge of Lord Leverhulme’s estate decided to send his collections of books, pictures, and furniture to this country to be broken up, because auction prices were higher here than in London. The collections were brought over, placed on exhibition at the Anderson Galleries, and the newspapers devoted considerable space to descriptions of the hobbies and interests upon which Lord Leverhulme had spent his money. As a result of the publicity given to these sales the Galleries were thronged for weeks before the auctions, and high prices were realized.

This brings up the legitimate query, why must some articles of sale be confined to paid advertisements, and others be given free publicity? Why should Lord Leverhulme’s soaps, sold for profit in this country, be omitted from a news story where the context demanded them, while his pictures, books, and furniture, sold for profit in this country, are given columns of free advertising space? Is it that articles which are advertised in paid space are utterly different in the newspaper mind from those not so advertised? Is it that soaps and sealing waxes come under the head of business, while collections of beds, tables, stools, and candlesticks are classified as art? Or is it merely that it is easy for a copy reader to cross out a name and substitute a harmless generality, but difficult for an editor to determine where legitimate news ends and free advertising begins? As the customs inspector said: ‘Frogs is toads, and toads is insects, which pays duty, but cats is poultry, which comes in free.’

Last year the Widows Dodge decided to dispose of their interests in their late husbands’ business. Here was a story that lent itself to newspaper exploitation — a business built up in a short time from a small beginning to colossal proportions around so popular a commodity as a low-priced motor car. The newspapers followed the negotiations with liberal space. Few things interest the newspaper-reading public more than vast sums of money. No sooner had the bankers who bought the stock received it than they put it on the market. Not being in their councils, I do not know whether this was part of a predetermined programme, or whether they were wise enough to perceive that the moment was psychological. The stock was absorbed by the investing public so promptly and completely as to draw forth editorial exclamations of surprise. Apparently it occurred to none of the newspapers which commented so naïvely on the popularity of motor securities that it was the advertising they gave so generously to this particular issue which created such a ready and receptive market.

A pathetic incident in advertising history appeared on the front pages of New York newspapers some two years ago. As an indication of its news value, it was boxed. It related how a skywriter, practising his hazardous profession in a Southern city, crashed into a tree while making a landing and was instantly killed. His name was given in full, all the attendant circumstances — every detail but one: —

‘He was engaged,’ said the account, ‘in advertising a cigarette.’

The pathos did not lie in the tragic death of the aviator—though that was lamentable enough. But an advertiser hoped to buy a large measure of fame by having the name of his product written in letters of smoke across the blue sky of heaven, and Fate assisted and gave the enterprise the most dramatic ending conceivable, and the dispatches omitted the name of the product the aviator lost his life to advertise. The advertiser got only what he paid for, and not a groat over, and all his enterprise in employing so daring a method did not avail to get his cigarette named in the news story of the skywriter’s death.

This was poor reporting, measured by the newspaper’s own standards. The name of the cigarette was an essential part of the story. The first question in every reader’s mind was, ‘What cigarette?’ Its omission was eloquent. It testified, ‘See how faithfully we live up to our rule not to permit the names of advertised articles in our news stories.’ The rule is admirable, but the moral effect is weakened when on other pages of the same newspapers several thousand dollars’ worth of advertising is given free to other business enterprises not of that class which is in the habit of paying cash for its space.

The fourth example might be headed ‘The Plaza Jewel Robbery.’ A pearl necklace and other valuable trinkets were stolen from the suite of the daughter of a five-and-ten-cent entrepreneur while she and her husband were having dinner at a fashionable restaurant. No doubt is left in the reader’s mind as to the name of the hotel where the robbery occurred, but the restaurant where they presumably enjoyed such entertainment as to render them for the time oblivious of jewels lying exposed on a dresser is described with the clumsy circumlocution, ‘a wellknown restaurant not far from FortyEighth Street on Park Avenue.’ If, however, they had been poisoned at Pierre’s, and resuscitated at the Plaza, very likely the reports would have named the restaurant and vaguely described the hotel as one in the Central Park region.

These instances and many others — they occur constantly — compel one to wonder if newspaper men are really unaware of the tremendous force they create. Certainly they are not so ignorant downstairs in the business office, where high-powered solicitors are employed to sell advertising space for money. There they rightly believe that the newspaper is the greatest single advertising medium in the world. But they never cite as examples of its power the individuals and enterprises it has enriched for nothing. They respect the editorial reticence, the difficulty of carrying water on both shoulders, of distinguishing between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the largess of free publicity on one hand, the squeamishness over using the name of an advertised article on the other. There is no doubt a distinction, but what is it?

These are things that puzzle the advertising man who must pay real money for the space in which his clients are advertised. They do not puzzle the publicity agent, who knows, newspapers being what they are, he need never pay for the advertising he secures for his clients.

When the late Job Hedges was appointed police magistrate his friend, ex-Governor Whitman, then District Attorney, attended court the first day to see him perform. Two cases of ‘drunk and disorderly,’ apparently much the same, were brought before him; one offender was sentenced to ten dollars and costs, and the other discharged.

‘What,’ asked Whitman, ‘was the difference between those two cases?’

‘That,’ replied the new-fledged magistrate, ‘is the working of the judicial mind, which you would not understand if I explained it to you.’

II

A newspaper is a business conducted for profit. It may have ideals, but so may brickmaking. It has only one product that sells at a profit, and that is space. Actually it sells two products — newspapers to readers, and space to advertisers. Originally the real source of profit for a newspaper was its readers. Advertising was a byproduct. But as advertising increased in volume and the demands upon the newspapers became greater, the time passed long ago when a newspaper could support itself on subscriptions. Today a copy of a newspaper, whether sold for two, three, or five cents, costs more to produce than the sum the reader pays for it. The deficit is made up by advertising, and the profits all come from advertising. This has led to securing circulation primarily for the purpose of selling it to the advertiser, which, of course, has a profound influence on circulation methods, and has induced most newspapers to step outside of their legitimate field of presenting the world’s news according to its relative importance, and to add feature after feature solely for the purpose of securing additional circulation — circulation, mind you, which is sold at a loss. Particularly has it led to playing up those aspects of the news in which the public is supposed, rightly or wrongly, to be profoundly interested.

Sex, crime, and sport are featured with pictures, headlines, special articles, interviews, and other devices, until they overshadow the real news, but sell more papers to Mr. Mencken’s two largest, groups, Boobs and Yokels. When the legitimate news value ends and the event is spotlighted beyond its importance and desert, it becomes exploitation. And exploitation of either enterprise or individual in a position to cash in on publicity furnishes extraordinary instances of the newspaper’s generosity with free advertising.

At the moment I write, the columns of the newspapers are still reverberating with echoes of the great prize fight at Philadelphia, a stupendous spectacle from any angle, but especially illuminating as an example of what can be done by liberal advertising. As far as I know, the promoter and chief beneficiary of the fight did not spend one cent for publicity. He was advertised by his loving friends, the newspapers. Nearly 150,000 people paid $2,000,000 for admission, besides additional sums for railroad fares. Some traveled thousands of miles and endured great discomforts to witness from remote seats a spectacle which lasted about half an hour. What made them do it? Interest in the fight accounts for a certain number of them; the rest were sent there by the irresistible influence of the newspaper drives that went on day after day, from the time the arrangements had been concluded until the moment of the fight, and most of these newspapers have already started on their campaign to make the next meet, a few months or even a few years hence, an even bigger spectacle, and still more profitable to Mr. Rickard and his principals. Every metropolitan newspaper kept on duty at the training quarters of the two combatants a corps of reporters, feature writers, and camera men, which turned in something like a page a day of stuff, some of it forced to the limit in the endeavor to keep alive the interest. This constant and stimulating advertising transformed into fans thousands who would never have gone on the simple announcement that such a fight was to be held. They were sold the fight, as millions of customers have been sold other commodities, by newspaper advertising.

The winner and the loser received $900,000 between them, and Rickard’s share was $500,000. The rest went for expenses, but the expenses did not include advertising. They did include a small slice of profit for the Sesquicentennial, whose promoters must have realized wistfully that even a portion of the free advertising poured forth for Tex Rickard would have made their fair a success. In a rather complacent interview with Mr. Rickard after the show, he announced that he had realized the ambition of a lifetime in assembling a greater paid crowd in one spot than had ever been assembled before, and gave some outline of his plans for the next one, but he uttered no expression of gratitude to the newspapers, nor even an acknowledgment that without them he could not have achieved his ambition.

Let us try to arrive at some conception of what such publicity means in terms of money as advertising men estimate space. There are 2008 daily morning and evening newspapers published in this country, and 548 of them issue Sunday editions. Say the average space given by each to advertising the Tunney-Dempsey fight was only three pages. (And that is conservative to a degree. The New York Times, which does not often overstep the bounds, ran eleven pages.) Three pages in daily and Sunday newspapers alone would cost at regular rates $1,075,200. This figure takes no account of the weekly newspapers, or of the magazines, all of which did their bit. Two million dollars would not have bought that much and that kind of advertising. Promoting prize fights is Tex Rickard’s business. There is no question of public interest involved. It is a private commercial enterprise. It is profitable largely because its most necessary ingredient, advertising, is furnished free. Many manufacturers would like to engage in business on those terms. But no newspaper is aware of its contribution. At least none has said so, though Heywood Broun admits that the fight was overwritten, that too much space was given to the preliminary write-ups, and that in this instance the public, for whose benefit it was all done, got too much of it. The newspapers are debarred from admitting, much less claiming credit for, their yeoman service because of that other ethical pose of theirs toward free advertising. They must observe the letter of their ethics, even though the exigencies of circulation compel them to violate the spirit.

The Philadelphia fight is one example of an organized commercial industry receiving an inexplicable boost from the newspapers, but there are also many instances in which profitable publicity created around a personality has been capitalized after the fact. A gallant young German-American swims the English Channel. Here is a good news story if there ever was one, and so each paper in its desire to turn to itself the public interest adds to that public interest and makes Miss Ederle so valuable a property that she must be surrounded and guarded by an attorney, press agent, or what you will, to protect her interests and see that the valuable asset wished upon her by the newspapers is turned into the most profitable channels. And whatever Miss Ederle does with her asset of publicity, — whether she grants the use of her name to swimming suits, bathing caps, sport clothes, or beverages; whether she goes into vaudeville or the movies, writes signed articles for the newspapers or the story of her life for the confession magazines, — be sure it is not her ability as a long-distance swimmer that these people are buying, but the golden publicity heaped upon her by the newspapers. If poor Floyd Collins, who died in a hole in Kentucky, had been so fortunate as to come out alive, he too would have needed press agent and attorney, even more than a doctor, because he would have found that Kentucky cave a gold mine of nationwide publicity, which could and would be exchanged for large checks in payment for services for which he had no other fitness than that his name was known to millions. Rudolph Valentino was fortunate even in death. His estate benefited by the publicity the newspapers gave his funeral. Every theatre in the country immediately put on a film in which the great sheik was a hero.

The visit to this country of Marie, Queen of Rumania, is the latest topic concerning which the newspapers spare us nothing. Again the newspapers are asking, ‘Why all this pother?’ The New York World inquires: —

Now that Queen Marie is safely aboard the Leviathan, and now that she is duly reconciled with her son; now that we know exactly how her hair is cut, how long her skirts are, how many trunks she has, and what she will drink, would it be fair to ask someone, the Queen herself, her official spokesman, or anybody else’s official spokesman, what the purpose of this visit is?

But on the front page of the World, and most other newspapers, is a detailed account of Marie’s first day on shipboard, including the negligee she wore on going to her bath. When she lands, what price Queen Marie as an endorser of lipsticks, or a godmother to boudoir caps? The World editorial reveals a curiously detached attitude toward its own news activities, as if the diligent recording of unimportant details were a natural process which it can only wonder at but cannot control.

The other day a remarkable interview appeared on the front page of every newspaper served by the Associated Press. Its significance did not lie in the fact that in distributing it the Associated Press broke one of its own unwritten laws, not to send out interviews as news; nor in the fact that the little corps of Washington correspondents was stirred to its depths and greatly incensed that the President should give such an interview to a rank outsider, and an advertising man at that, instead of to a regular newspaper man with a union card and everything. No, the remarkable thing about it was that Bruce Barton took one of the sacred cows of journalism gently but firmly by the halter and led it out from the consecrated cowshed and turned it loose to graze among other contented cows in the pasture.

No cherished belief of journalism has been more sedulously cultivated than that people like to read about politics. All over our land newspapers have been christened ‘The Democrat’ or ‘The Republican,’in the belief that their mission was to discuss politics, and they have continued to discuss politics until the cows came home. But Bruce Barton told the President that the people were not nearly so much interested in politics as the folks down at Washington thought, and that he would like to ask some of the questions the average American would ask if he were sitting there on the porch steps with such an opportunity to talk to the President. No newspaper man, and certainly no politician, would have dreamed of asking the President such questions. And it appears that Bruce Barton was right, and the politicians and political reporters were wrong. The public were more deeply moved to learn how the President did his shopping, or that when he was up home in the country he liked to putter around and fix the lock on the woodshed door, exactly as you or I, than to learn his views on Farm Relief or the World Court. In short, they were more interested in the President as a human being than as a politician or a statesman.

III

There is no implication in all this that newspapers should be more complaisant to bona fide commercial advertisers. On the contrary. A newspaper’s value as an advertising medium is directly in proportion to the conscientiousness with which it discriminates between news and advertising. Its righteousness at a mere casual mention of an advertised article is contrasted with its liberality toward other classes of business enterprises which are just as commercial as soaps and cigarettes, though going under the name of sports or amusements. The names of many articles created by advertising have become household words. They have passed into the language. They appear familiarly in conversation. When they appear naturally in the news they are a part of the news. To omit them is a vain gesture. But the overplaying of certain phases of the news to the point of public surfeit, which results in publicity around certain people that can be and is a source of large profit, gives a suggestion of hypocrisy to the meticulous elision of a name which is already familiar to everyone because it has been made so in newspaper space paid for with cash.

But, at the best, that accidental publicity is at least the newspaper’s own work. It has not been promoted by the beneficiaries. It is to them a gift of the gods. But there is another far too large volume of free publicity not so untainted. Its presence in newspaper columns snatches the last vestige of sincerity from an otherwise admirable newspaper ethic. This is the releases run at the request of business houses, corporations, public utilities, benevolent societies, theatrical managers, and many publicity-seeking individuals. The motive here is different. There is no circulation-building power in this stuff. It is the result of various forms of pressure brought to bear on the newspapers, ranging from the obvious tricks of the press agent to the more dignified and skillful technique of the public relations counsel.

The growth of this business is enlightening. In the early days of paid advertising it was customary for the advertiser to accompany his order for space with a few reprint stories about his product, which the newspaper was expected to run free as pure reading matter in return for the advertising patronage; and in most cases the newspaper did so. In those days advertising was largely patent medicines; the reprint told of miraculous cures, and some of the smaller newspapers carried columns of this stuff. Its value lay in the supposition that it was published spontaneously by the newspaper, but even in those days few people were so credulous as not to recognize these paragraphs for what they were. Most newspapers sandwiched them between news paragraphs, and readers soon learned to skip automatically.

A growing sense of fair play to the reader, and also a greater appreciation of the value of that commodity which a newspaper has to sell, — namely, advertising space, — led later to these reading notices being marked with an asterisk or the abbreviation ‘adv.,’ or to their being set in slightly different type. As paid advertising grew in volume, producing greater demands for free reading matter, the better newspapers became less and less compliant, and gradually these crude early efforts disappeared from the columns of any but the smallest and weakest newspapers. Tightening the lines provoked the seeker of free advertising to greater ingenuity. As the newspapers became more rigid in their limitations, a whole race of publicity men sprang up, whose ingenuity has up till now stripped off the editorial camouflage.

Gradually departments were added to the regular news layouts — books, amusements, sports, and later, more specifically, automobiles and radios. These pages are glorified advertisements, promoting the industry as a whole, and specifically boosting individual products inside these lines, discriminating against some classes of business in favor of others no more worthy. The cleavage in the newspaper mind is that the one contains nothing to interest the public and would therefore amount to free advertising, while discussion or promotion of the other makes circulation. If it also yields free advertising, that is unfortunate. These departments became the dumping ground of all the reprint publicity stuff in their respective categories, until the pressure became too great. Now such departments are conducted by a skilled advertising man disguised as a department editor.

The great industrial corporations and the public utilities, because of their size and their activities, were constantly getting into the news columns, and much that was written about them by reporters working from the outside was untrue, and much that was true was unpalatable. So it became the custom for some officer to give out to the press a carefully prepared statement, which at least presented the corporation’s side of the matter. Sometimes these things were used as written; sometimes they were edited; and sometimes they were thrown into the wastebasket. Being prepared by amateurs, as far as any sense of news value was concerned, the only inducement the newspaper had to publish them was that they contained some real news which the rewrite man could handle better, or the obligation of the newspaper to that corporation was so great that it felt compelled to use the material.

Out of this situation — that is, the need of the corporations for an efficient spokesman, and the complacence of the newspapers in regard to matter which was really more or less advertising — has grown a new profession, that of the public relations counsel, generally spoken of as the publicity man. The publicity man is the old press agent with a high hat. The press agent grew out of the old advance agent of the circus or traveling theatrical company. It was his business to get free notices about his play or his star, and the childishly simple devices used in those days, such as the escape of a wild animal or the stealing of an actress’s jewels, have become clichés. It was his job to find a story good enough to print which in some way brought in the show or actors that it was his business to exploit. Most newspapers ran a theatrical or dramatic column in which such stuff could be run and was run until the supply greatly exceeded the space of many columns, but it was the ambition of the press agent to get his story on the front page, and often he did so; and some were clever enough to make their stories real news. Many of the press agents were trained newspaper men with a sense of news value who knew how to write a story. They had the entry of the newspaper offices. They frequently sold their stories at space rates and collected at both ends. Not only actors, but steamships, hotels, summer resorts, public men, and philanthropic causes employed press agents, and still do; some of them are good and some are not, but they all flourish on the principle of getting something for nothing out of the newspapers.

But the public relations counsel operates on a much higher plane. His primary and original purpose was to edit the pronunciamentos which the corporation issued to the newspapers of the country in such a way that they would be palatable to the news editor. But he goes much further than that. As Ivy Lee put it, it is his business to advise his clients to such courses of action as will produce live news, and then of course see to it that no newspaper misses the news.

The technique of this kind of work was greatly improved by the war. It became a public duty to spread propaganda, and an immense amount of talent was available for the purpose. This experience and this talent have since found a profitable field in working for corporations instead of nations, with many new and tried devices at their disposal. Every drive that has run its course in the few years since the war, to raise money for various philanthropies, to build cathedrals, to endow colleges, to furnish funds to Y. M. and Y. W. C. A.’s, or the Salvation Army, or the Red Cross, has been planned and engineered by a publicity expert. Every line that has appeared in print, except a comparatively small amount of paid advertising, has appeared because of the newspaper’s dilemma between its duty not to run advertising as news at the urgent appeal of a publicity expert and its uncertainty as to how much of this matter is real news or for the good of the public. At any rate it is safe to say that to all of these great funds that have been raised for various good purposes in the last few years the newspaper has been the largest actual contributor. Its name does not appear in the list of donors, but anyone who is used to buying newspaper space and paying for it can easily figure out the millions that have been donated to each one of these funds by the press of the United States.

IV

It would seem, then, that newspapers know nothing about advertising, that they are professionally oblivious of it. They throw free advertising about like drunken sailors. They allow columns to be ‘wangled ’ through the wiles of the publicity man. They keep the professional advertising department walled up by itself, hedged in by an alleged code of newspaper ethics. When a single product that belongs in the advertising manager’s domain leaks through into the news they eliminate it with gusto. When stories of advertising activities get into the news they handle them with a curious unfamiliarity. Apparently they know no more about the tremendous force they produce than the man who wired your house knows about electricity. If at an advertising convention something kind is said about newspaper advertising they give it space, but an advertising agent is called an ‘advertiser,’ and a telephone booth which transmits ‘want ads’ to newspapers is styled an ‘advertising agency,’ and all advertising is lumped together, without discrimination between the fake advertising of a baldhead cure and the constructive institutional advertising of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Apparently either kind is equally anathema. The advertising man wonders if other departments of human endeavor are as sketchily handled as his own appears to be, and it seems that they sometimes are.

I once wrote about this anomaly to the business manager of perhaps the greatest journal in the country — not because his paper was the most guilty, but because it was the most eminent. He pointed out that Henry W. Taft had made a similar charge about the handling of legal matters, but that it was impracticable for a newspaper to maintain a staff of experts. It must work with reporters and ‘gradually build up the level of the news staffs to a point where anyone is a good general-news man, able to cover intelligently any story requiring ordinary information educated persons should possess; and where every reporter or desk man has in addition some special field of knowledge in which he is qualified and up to date. Then a newspaper would arrive at its desired goal, and its news columns would be read with interest by all persons and with respect by the expert.’

And yet an editor could, if he would, find under his own roof pretty fair knowledge of advertising. One New York newspaper maintains a staff of two hundred men to solicit advertising, but only about half of them are engaged in selling space. The remainder are busy studying advertising, digging up the facts upon which the solicitors depend for their selling story. But they never uncover the fact that the newspaper is constantly making various individuals rich with unearned publicity. It is a pity the city editor does not send one of his bright young men downstairs to interview the advertising manager. Instead the editor despises the business office and resents any attempt to bring pressure to bear on his news columns. The business manager might with greater justice take umbrage at the free gift of the very commodity he is employed to sell.

The object in playing up certain phases of the news is to secure more readers — readers making circulation, and circulation increasing advertising profits. When a piece of news breaks that the editor knows is good for this sort of treatment, he takes advantage of all his resources to make his presentation outshine the others and stimulate more sales. When the facts give out, as they often do, then recourse is had to more remote details, and each line of investigation is pushed to its ultimate paragraph.

Since this is done to attract more readers, the advertiser asks what sort of readers. People who read newspapers as ‘escape’ literature are worth less to him than the legitimate natural circulation. The motive that makes a man buy and read a particular paper is important to him, and since he supplies the profits that make the newspaper possible his view should be considered.

The best newspapers for the advertiser’s purpose are those which best perform the function of a newspaper. Circulation secured by giving premiums is less desirable than straight circulation — that is, readers who buy the publication for its own sake. A premium is a gift to induce a man to subscribe. Many of the features used by newspapers to extend their circulation are nothing more or less than premiums. They are inducements outside the legitimate field of presenting the news. Comic strips, ‘syndicate,’ heart-to-heart talks, guessing contests, crossword puzzles, symposiums, articles alleged to have been written by channel swimmers, baseball players, prize fighters, mayors, and other stars of the day’s sensational news, are all devices to induce the reader to read that particular paper, and do not strengthen the hold of the paper itself in its real character. A book given to secure a subscription is a premium. Certainly a serial story published in the columns of a newspaper differs only in degree, not in kind. In this category belong all stories of current happenings extended beyond their worth. They are premiums offered that portion of the public which cannot be induced to read the news.

This policy carried to its logical conclusion produces the tabloid. This peculiar apotheosis of the worst in modern journalism not only plays up the sensational news to the last shriek of 70-point Gothic headlines, but omits other kinds of news altogether. It is no more a newspaper than Spicy Stories is a newspaper. It adds a new tinge to the expressive word ‘yellow.’ And the tabloid, like the chart of a drunkard’s stomach, serves the useful purpose of the horrible example, showing the legitimate newspaper where overplaying some phases of the news at the expense of others will lead it.

But neither æsthetics nor morals, good taste nor decency, enters into this discussion. The question is one of expediency. The best, newspaper is the best advertising medium. If circulation is extended beyond legitimate demand, by abnormal, illegitimate expanding of certain phases of the news, or by creating features out of some of those phases, the advertiser is asked to pay for this new circulation at the same rate as for the old. Is it worth it? If featuring some news beyond its news value, sometimes beyond the public’s patience, profits the beneficiaries, the regular cash customers of the papers are bound to feel unfairly treated, especially since the names of their products are given short shrift when they happen to turn up in the news. And most of these cash customers are uncomfortably aware that large amounts of free advertising are had for the asking, the asking being an organized industry in its own right. This is the dilemma of the newspaper from the advertiser’s point of view: an enterprise which makes no profit on its product, but only on its by-product. The newspapers sell papers at a loss, advertising space at a profit, and give away publicity free.

V

Newspapers deserve a certain amount of sympathy in their complex problem of paid advertising and free publicity. Many new factors enter into it as a result of our peculiar civilization, so that it is no longer a simple matter to draw the hard and fast line.

One such factor is the devices for duplication, which add enormously to the power of advertising and furnish the machinery for capitalizing it. Two of these devices are the syndicate and the movie, which confer, among other things, the privilege of being in two places at the same time.

The venerable ex-President of Harvard and a popular moving-picture star died the same day. Dr. Eliot received a decent tribute from the newspapers, but Rudolph Valentino’s passing was chronicled with a blazon of headlines and a fullness of detail once reserved for an assassinated President. This publicity had the logical result of stirring the herd mind, and the crowds descended on the funeral in droves. It used to be argued whether advertising created a demand or supplied one. It does both. The voluminous publicity produced a great outpouring of morbid curiosity, and the newspaper accounts of the manifestation of this curiosity added others to the mobs. The newspapers created the interest and then made news of the interest they created. Some of them showed editorial uneasiness at the disparity between the space accorded Dr. Eliot and the orgy of publicity spread out for Valentino. The uneasiness was confirmed by protesting letters from readers asking if this discrepancy was a measure of the respective values of the two men to our civilization, or even a just measure of the popular interest.

Dr. Eliot was the focus of a similar comparison some years ago — that time in comparison with a comic-strip artist. Some paragrapher proclaimed that Dr. Eliot, then President of Harvard, received $15,000 a year, but that Bud Fisher, creator of ‘ Mutt and Jeff,’ received $150,000 a year, and wondered if that meant that Bud was worth ten times as much as Eliot. Among the comments on this was one which said that it meant just that: that Bud Fisher was ten times as valuable, worth ten times as much in our present civilization. What was overlooked was that these two men were not being compared on equal terms, even on a remuneration basis, since Bud Fisher had the advantage of a purely mechanical device denied to President Eliot, a device which multiplied him without effort or desert on his part, enabling him to be in more than one place at the same time and to earn his salary in each place. His income of $150,000 did not come from any one newspaper, but from a syndicate of newspapers; that is, he was worth $15,000 each to ten newspapers, or, as is probably the case, $1500 each to a hundred newspapers. If there were any arrangement or device or system whereby Dr. Eliot could have been president of ten universities, each paying $15,000, then he too could have earned $150,000 without doing any more work than he did to earn $15,000.

Dr. Eliot lost out in salary against the comic-strip artist and in réclame against the celluloid knight, not because ‘Mutt and Jeff’ and ‘The Son of the Sheik’ are greater services to mankind than turning freshmen into useful citizens, but because Dr. Eliot is denied the rubber-stamp publicity machine.

The moving picture is another and more remarkable instance of the effect that simultaneous duplication has on the earnings of certain stars, putting them in a class by themselves with remuneration out of all proportion to that of equally able talents in fields where power of being in two places at one time is denied. The public gasps at the profits of moving-picture stars, and is under the wrong impression that these stars earn those vast amounts of money, when as a fact they merely receive them because the original talent or gift or art or skill is mechanically multiplied.

When Douglas Fairbanks completes a film — of which he is author, producer, and star — the film is easily multiplied to any desired number of duplicates. After the film is completed Fairbanks has nothing further to do but blow about the world, enjoying columns of free publicity which increase the attendance at the ten thousand or more theatres at which ‘The Black Pirate’ is showing nightly. If it were possible to make only one original film, which then could be presented in but one theatre at a time, traveling from town to town as a theatrical company travels, and it still had at the end of its tour the same popularity, Doug would presumably receive the same money; but it would take ten or twenty years to complete the run and exhaust the earning power of that particular picture, whereas now, since a film can be multiplied indefinitely and shown simultaneously in just as many cities as desire to see it, the income that under normal conditions would cover the entire earning power of a man’s life is received in a few months.

This duplication of result, without any increase of the original effort, is not confined to entertainment alone. It has made chain stores possible. Formerly a grocer, druggist, or tobacconist, no matter how successful, found his earnings confined to the capacity and potentiality of one store. Now his methods can be duplicated and applied to any number of stores. The initial experience, buying knowledge, stock arrangement, window dressing, advertising, training of clerks, can be set down, reduced to a system, and applied to other stores, under one management, and thus a single storekeeper receives the profits, not from one store, but from a thousand. To some extent the same phenomenon is being exhibited by the radio. A speaker who formerly could talk only to the capacity of one hall now talks to a nation. He too is able to be in more than one place at the same time, and the corresponding publicity value is infinitely greater. These factors help to make disproportionately profitable every word printed in newspapers about a person or thing able to capitalize such advertising on so vast a scale. They give new meaning to the word ‘publicity.’

Henry Ford owes, not his success, but the size of his success, largely to the newspapers. He has received the largest free advertising campaign of any one business man. He was in a position to realize on it. He is probably shrewd enough, if he had not been presented with his advertising, to have bought it as other manufacturers have done. But, starting early, when the motor car was live news, he occupied a unique position in the new industry, and he has kept that unique position and has always furnished good copy, which, coupled with the newspaper’s policy to play up subjects of popular interest, has made it possible for Ford to spend a much smaller amount in advertising in proportion to the size of his business than any other motorcar manufacturer — or, for that matter, any manufacturer of any kind — and get practically one hundred per cent out of the free advertising.

It is not suggested that the newspapers could or should have handled such things differently. It is hard to determine what is news and what is not, and if the news makes a few people rich beyond calculation with the priceless gift of free publicity, that does not mean that the newspapers should confine themselves to dull topics. Yet one can think of other fields of endeavor which have equal interest, importance, and economic value to us, which receive scant consideration. One might ask why newspapers should give a page daily to organized baseball, from two to four pages to radio, as much to the motor car, at least a column daily to books and the theatre, and not have a page or two devoted, say, to electric utilities.

The American home is going to be transformed into an electrically motored, labor-saving housekeeping device by groups of men who are no more selfish in seeking their own profit than fight promoters or movie magnates. Their product is full of interest to us all, concerns our welfare deeply, and will have as far-reaching effect on the way we liveas the Dempsey-Tunney slugging match or the Ford tractor. The combined electrical interests are planning to spend seventy million dollars in the next ten years to put electric refrigerators, toasters, coffee percolators, bread mixers, hair curlers, heating pads, sadirons, and vacuum cleaners into American homes, to take the place of and render unnecessary the ‘help’ that no longer exists. Is it not a subject of importance? Is it not full of human interest? Could it not be featured? True, it would not sell papers, as do the details of Babe Ruth’s life, or the fact that Ford pays a week’s wages for five days’ work. But that is poor consolation for those who live by selling electric utilities instead of baseball or flivvers. Why are not the newspapers moved with one accord to exploit such fields of gainful endeavor on their inherent interest? For one reason, lack of a personality around which to build up their features. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, Tex Rickard, Edward Bok, Red Grange, Suzanne Lenglen, Babe Ruth, Irving Berlin, Queen Marie, are all good copy. It is incidental, as far as the newspaper is concerned, that using them for copy presents advertising to the gainful industries with which they are associated.

The newspaper believes that men are not born with an interest in electric utilities. Neither are they born with an interest in baseball. The public concern with certain phases of life has been developed by exhaustive treatment in the news columns. That interest was put there by the newspapers, the same powerful force that has sold so many things to us in paid space. But the paying advertiser is greatly handicapped by the high cost of the space he buys. He cannot do things on the Tex Rickard scale. Given enough advertising, the public can be interested in anything — especially the American public, already so standardized, so herd-minded, that it is timid about doing or wearing or liking anything that is not endorsed by the crowd. How many of the 60,000 at the World Series, or the 150,000 at Tex Rickard’s show, or the hordes that are packing the college stadia, care that much for baseball, or prize fights, or football, and how many go only because they learn from the newspapers that they are supposed or expected to care? It is a hundred years since Edmund Burke christened the newspapers the ‘Fourth Estate,’ and Napoleon said that four hostile newspapers were more to be dreaded than an army. The power of the press was puny then compared with the mighty engine of publicity we have to-day, an engine which is apparently getting out of control. Like the fisherman in the Arab tale, the newspapers have opened the bottle; they are appalled by the djinni that has come out, the djinni of publicity, with vast powers for good or evil; they do not know how to control it, what to do with it, or even how to coax it back into the bottle.