The Yellow Kid's rise as a commercial presence would not
have happened without his namesake: yellow journalism. Media
historian Frank Luther Mott listed some defining characteristics
of yellow journalism: prominent headlines that "screamed
excitement, often about comparatively unimportant news"; a lavish use of pictures, many of them without significance"; faked interviews and stories; a Sunday supplement and
color comics; and a "more or less ostentatious sympathy
with the 'underdog,' with campaigns against abuses suffered
by the common people."1 In
his study of yellow journalism, W. Joseph Campbell explains
that the term came about while New York Press editor
Ervin Wardman was looking for a term to describe the new
kind of journalism represented by Pulitzer's New York
World and William Randolph Hearst's New York
Journal; he tried "new journalism" and "nude journalism" before seizing upon the phrase "yellow-kid journalism" in January 1897, later abbreviated to "yellow journalism."2 Campbell says the
Pulitzer-Hearst fight over the Yellow Kid—Outcault left
Pulitzer to join Hearst in October 1896—was not the immediate
inspiration, but the Yellow Kid's appearance on the Journal's editorial page (in the Yellow Kid Diary entries) during his Around the World trip early
in 1897 angered the editor. Wardman wrote, "The 'new
journalism' continues to think up a varied assortment of
new lies.'"3 It was
one of only many products to carry the Kid's name.
Having the original Yellow Kid artist offered Hearst a selling point for his paper. Historian James D. Norris wrote, "Perhaps the most significant discernible trend during the last two decades of the nineteenth century was not the raw growth of advertising, as impressive as it was; rather, it was the utilization of advertising to introduce new products, to homogenize tastes, and to create demand." Hearst had hired Outcault to create increased demand for the Journal, and the artist recognized his character could become commercially viable. Outcault moved to copyright the Yellow Kid in September 1896, one month before he moved to the Journal, and in doing so he wrote to the Librarian of Congress about his "Yellow Dugan Kid": "His costume however is always yellow, his ears are large he has but two teeth and a bald head and is distinctly different from anything else."4 Outcault's move to the Journal was accompanied by a flurry of activity from both papers,5 because George Luks would take over as the Hogan's Alley artist at the World. Hearst priced his paper at 1 cent, and the World reduced its price to 1 cent to compete—but in effect customers could get two newspapers for the price of one (Sunday papers with the color supplements were still 5 cents). Following the cut, Chicagoans and Los Angelenos could also pick up the paper for a reduced price.6 Faster and cheaper printing, reduced paper prices, favorable postage rates, and bonuses from ad revenue all encouraged a wider and larger distribution of popular newspapers, magazines, and journals in the late 19th century.7 When the dust settled, the Journal's national sales beat the World, likely because of Outcault's version of the Yellow Kid was more popular.8
1 Campbell, W. Joseph. Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies . Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.
2 Campbell 32. Campbell
discounts other myths regarding the origination of "yellow
journalism," including Bill Blackbeard's claim that a
September 1896 cross-country bicycle race sponsored by the
Journal inspired the term; Blackbeard admitted the article
reported to him could not be found. Campbell also says it's unlikely the phrase was coined so early and then not
used again until January 1897. (30)
3 Campbell 31-32.
4 Blackbeard, Bill. Introduction. R. F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1995. 49.
5 Blackbeard 57.
7 Norris, James D. Advertising and the Transformation of American Society, 1865-1920. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. 31.
8 Blackbeard 58.