Newsboys’ Strike of 1899 | The Kids Who Beat Pulitzer and Hearst

Newsboys’ Strike of 1899 | The Kids Who Beat Pulitzer and Hearst

Back before everyone got
all their news for free on the internet, people
bought newspapers. And those newspapers
were typically sold by kids called
newsboys or newsies. But at the end of
the 19th century, two of the wealthiest media
tycoons in the country tried to fatten their
wallets by unfairly cutting into the newsies’ already
meager earnings, which led to the newsboys’
strike of 1899. You might know it as the subject
of the Disney musical, Newsies, starring the pre-Batman
voice of Christian Bale. Using a combination of
public relations know-how and cunning strategy,
the ragamuffin newsies outsmarted the tycoons
and brought their empires crumbling down in
just two weeks, forcing them to rethink
their wage-swiping practices. Before we get going, make
sure to leave a comment, and subscribe to the channel. It’ll make you feel
good, real good. OK. Great. Here’s what happened. Newsies had to buy all the
newspapers they sold directly from the publishers at wholesale
and then try to sell them on street corners for a profit. But during the
Spanish-American War in 1898, a war heavily rumored to have
been engineered by William Randolph Hearst specifically
to sell newspapers, publishers raised the price
of a bundle of newspapers to a then-astronomical $0.60. In 1899, most publishers,
with the exception of Hearst, lowered the price of a
bundle down to $0.50. But that still meant
newsies were only earning an average of
$0.26 a day, roughly $8 in today’s money. That’s barely enough for a
McDonald’s extra value meal. By the summer of
1899, the newsies had had enough and
decided to strike, although presumably
with less singing and dancing than in
the Disney movie. The strike began
when newsies learned that a delivery man for
one of the major newspapers was shorting their bundles,
effectively stealing money from them on behalf
of the publisher. So the newsies flipped
his wagon like a bunch of soccer hooligans and
stole all of his newspapers. The pillaging of the
newspaper carriage led to the formation of the
Manhattan newsboys’ union and a larger strike
that demanded that publishers lower the prices
of their newspaper bundles. To avoid getting
broken up by the cops, the newsies showed their
moxie by planning their strike to coincide with the
Brooklyn streetcar drivers’ strike, which was occupying
most of the police’s attention. Back then, the
newspaper industry depended on the
criminally-underpaid newsies to distribute its papers. So when the newsies
went on strike, the effect was immediate. The New York World, one of the
biggest papers at the time, saw its distribution
drop by nearly 2/3. The editor of The World
said, (SNOOTY TONE) “Practically all the boys in
New York have quit selling. The advertisers have
abandoned the papers. It’s really remarkable the
success these boys have had.” we imagine he issued this
compliment through extremely gritted teeth. In the midst of the
strike, the newsies organized a rally at Irving Hall
to get the public on their side with a rousing speech by their
de facto leader, Kid Blink, which is one of the coolest
names of New York at the time, or even now. Referring to the publishing
tycoon’s’ exploitative bundle prices, Kid Blink
said during the rally, (KID VOICE) “I’m trying to
figure out how $0.10 on 100 papers can mean more to a
millionaire than it does to newsboys. I just can’t see it.” For a group of 5,000
kids aged seven to 12, the newsies we are impressively
well-organized labor union. They met to establish
their demands and also to identify vulnerable
targets, specifically newspaper distribution points. The strikers descended
on Newspaper Row like an underpaid hurricane,
pelting deliverymen with fruit, ransacking their carriages, and
destroying their newspapers. Tactics like this
devastated the distribution of tyrannical publications
like The New York World. As you might expect for
any child labor force, the life of a
newsboy wasn’t easy. Before the strike, newsies would
buy bundles of 100 newspapers for $0.50 and sell each
paper for a penny apiece, meaning they had to sell half
their stock just to afford to work the next day. Newsies would routinely
work long, late hours, and sell as many
papers as they could. Because by the time the
next morning rolled around, a new edition would be out. And yesterday’s stock
would be worthless. Some children would still
be out on the street, desperately hawking
papers at 1:00 in the morning, which is well
past when most people care to receive news. And shouldn’t they be in bed? Nothing moves newspapers
like international conflict. And the Spanish-American
War was no exception. When the war broke out in 1898,
publishing tycoons William Randolph Hearst
and Joseph Pulitzer saw their sales skyrocket,
due in no small part to both men’s habit
of sensationalizing or straight up inventing stories
surrounding the conflict. And like most wealthy
people in history, Hearst and Pulitzer
had no desire to pass on their good
fortune to their workforce. Rather than increase wages for
the already destitute newsies, they raised the price of
their newspaper bundles, cutting into the
newsboys’ meager wages to maximize their profits. Now that’s asking for
some carriage flipping. You already know that a primary
tactic of the striking newsies was to attack delivery
carriages and steal or destroy the cargo of newspapers to
prevent strike-busting scabs from selling them. But that wasn’t the only trick
up their dusty little sleeves. The newsboys would routinely
target newsstand owners who refused to
support their strike and drench them with
buckets of water, unless the owner was a woman. Because according to
Kid Blink, (KID VOICE ), “A feller don’t soak a lady.” In addition to refusing
to sell their papers and actively disrupting
their distribution, the newsies directly addressed
both advertisers and the public and urged them not
to support Hearst or Pulitzers’ publications, The
New York Journal and The New York World. The newsboys’ union delivered
a resolution that stated, “If you have any
sympathy with us, help us to boycott these
papers by not reading them. Take out your advertisements
as no one sells these papers. No one will be
able to read them.” Instead, the newsies
steered their supporters toward rival publications, like
The Evening Sun, The Telegram, and The Daily News,
which were charging fairer rates for their bundles. Fairer rates for a child
labor force in 1899 still weren’t great. But at least they were better
than what Hearst and Pulitzer were offering. To give you an idea of what
the newsies were up against, William Randolph Hearst
and Joseph Pulitzer weren’t just the big fish in
the pond of New York City. They were the two wealthiest
media moguls in the nation, constantly battling
for the top spot, like Scrooge McDuck and
Flintheart Glomgold. But Hearst and
Pulitzer dramatically underestimated how
much their empires depended on the newsboys. Home delivery hadn’t
been invented yet. And there weren’t nearly
enough newsstands to cover their millions of readers. So when the newsies refused
to sell their papers, Hearst and Pulitzer
couldn’t ignore them. Once both tycoons realized how
much power the newsies held, they finally agreed to
sit down and negotiate an end to the strike. The strike dragged on from
July to August of 1899, until Hearst and
Pulitzer decided their wallets had taken
enough of a beating and were willing to
work with the boys. Originally, the newsboys’ union
had only been asking Hearst and Pulitzer to lower the price
of their wholesale bundles back down to $0.50. But in a stunning
gesture of near humanity, the tycoons agreed to
an even larger demand. In addition to lowering
their wholesale prices, The Journal and The World would
buy back any unsold newspapers from the newsies
for a full refund, protecting the
boys against losses and guaranteeing they never
had to work past midnight just to break even. Despite most of their members
barely being two digits in age and having a colorful
leadership made up of kids named Kid Blink,
Young Mush, Crutchy Morris, and Racetrack
Higgins, the newsboys’ union managed to beat two of the
most powerful men in America in a matter of weeks. How’d they pull that off? It was a combination of insider
knowledge, strategic planning, and plain old business savvy. The boys launched their strike
in the middle of the seemingly more important street
car drivers’ strike, which kept the coppers
out of their hair. They knew the weak point in both
Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s profits was distribution. So they attacked and
looted delivery carriages like a band of
Dickensian orphans. But they also understood the
importance of public opinion, appealing directly to
their millions of customers and urging them to
buy rival newspapers. Those papers in turn wrote
glowing pieces about the boys and their strike, which further
rallied people to their, cause driving advertisers
away from Hearst and Pulitzer. It’s a tactic we see used
effectively to this day. The newsboys’ strike
brought national attention to the heartbreaking reality
of child workers in America. Several boys featured in
articles about the strike were homeless and would
put themselves in danger on a daily basis to try and
earn their meager living, hopping onto trolley cars
to cover more ground, and staying out on the street
alone until well past midnight. Less than a decade after
the newsboys’ strike gained national attention, the
National Child Labor Committee began a serious effort to
abolish child labor, which included collecting photographs
of newsies and other children working in poverty and
in unsafe conditions. The minimum working age
was raised shortly after, ending child labor
in America– not bad for a bunch of newsies
who went to war with two millionaires over a dime. It’s not often that the most
powerful men in the country get outfoxed by a
scrappy gang of kids. But that’s exactly what happened
during the newsboys’ strike the summer of 1899. What did you think
about the newsies? Leave us a comment and
check these other fine videos of our Weird History. Oh, and subscribe– subscribe.


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