For and Against Pulitzer’s Idea of Journalism School

Professor (Dr.) Santosh Kumar Tewari
(Former Dean, Centre for Mass Communication, Central University of Jharkhand, Ranchi.)

History of journalism as well as journalism education will never be complete without describing the contribution of Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911). In 1892, Pulitzer offered Columbia University of the USA two million dollars to set up the world’s first journalism school, but the university refused to accept his offer. In 1902, University’s top administration changed. The new one expressed interest in his plan to establish a school of journalism and journalism prizes.

Through his will Pulitzer gave Columbia University two million dollars. Within ten months of his passing away the University founded School of Journalism where classes began in September 1912 with seventy-nine students enrolled including a dozen women.

In the meantime, the Missouri School of Journalism was founded in 1908 at the University of Missouri, USA. Today both schools are among the best in the world. In 1917 Columbia started first Pulitzer Prizes in journalism. There are Pulitzer fellowships at Columbia for outstanding graduates for travelling abroad or specializing in drama, music, literary, film and television criticism.1

This paper describes the main objections to the establishment of a journalism school and Pulitzer’s vision about the school. The paper also gives Pulitzer’s view about journalist’s role in the country. The paper makes us think whether our present day journalism schools are producing journalists of Pulitzer’s standards and vision.

The paper is primarily based on two articles published in The North American Review in January 19042 and May 19043. The eight-page January article, written by a leading US journalist Horace White opposed the idea of journalism school, whereas the 42-page May 1904 article by Joseph Pulitzer explains and presents his complete vision about journalism school.

Who was Joseph Pulitzer

Before discussing the two articles, we should know who was Joseph Pulitzer?

Born in 1847 in a Jewish family in Hungary, Pulitzer tried to join the army in Europe but was turned down due to his poor vision and weak lungs. Then he sailed to the USA in 1864 at the age of 17. In the USA he joined the Union army as a soldier during the Civil War which ended in 1865.

After the war, the tall, red-bearded young Pulitzer was jobless. Then he did some menial jobs as a waiter, taxi driver, etc.

When he came to the USA he didn’t know English, but slowly he picked up the language and mastered it. In 1868 he got a job as a reporter on a US based German language newspaper Westliche Post. In 1871 he bought a share in that paper and resold it at a profit.4

In 1874 Pulitzer acquired another paper in the USA, the St Louis based German paper Staats-Zeitung and sold it a profit.5

Then the hard-working and ambitious Pulitzer bought the St. Louis Post and also St. Louis Dispatch. He combined both the papers as Post-Dispatch which soon became a success.6 Through the paper Pulitzer launched crusades against lotteries, gambling, and tax evasion. The paper also led campaigns for street cleaning and repairing; and sought to make St. Louis more civic-minded. Pulitzer made huge profit from the paper.

From that profit, in 1883 Pulitzer, then 36 years old, purchased the New York World.7

Pulitzer’s eyes began to fail in the 1880s. He went blind in 1889.

Pulitzer’s New York World was in business competition with another paper the New York Journal. In order to defeat his rival, Pulitzer carried human interest stories and sensational material in his paper. He could rightly be said as one of the pioneers of yellow journalism. His paper became the highest circulated daily of America. He set the pattern of modern newspaper.

For him and for William Randolph Hearst, proprietor of his rival paper New York Journal, objectives of yellow journalism were “to serve the people, to inform, to teach, to entertain, and to expose graft and corruption … especially when it can be uncovered in the very citadels of power.”8 In his first editorial in the New York World on 11 May 1883 he wrote, “(His paper) will expose all frauds and sham, fight all public evils and abuses – that will serve and battle for the people with earnest sincerity”.9

Pulitzer gave a new definition to news; new surge to investigative reporting; and new speed to newspaper circulations. He was one of the most powerful journalists of America.10

Pulitzer died aboard his yacht in 1911 in America at the age of 64.

Pulitzer made a fortune from his newspapers and set aside a part of it for establishing Columbia Journalism School and Pulitzer Prizes. Today his fame rests on the donations he made. Pulitzer wrote his The North American Review article of May 1904, when he was blind. He writes, “I am compelled to write by voice, not by pen, and to revise proofs by ear, not by eye – a somewhat difficult task”.11

Arguments against journalism school:

In fact the January 1904 issue of The North American Review carried an article against the Pulitzer’s idea of journalism school. Then the editor of the Review requested Pulitzer to give his point of view in an article. That January 1904 article entitled ‘The School of Journalism’ was written by Horace White who had been reporter and editor in chief of Chicago Tribune for more than one and a half decades. He wrote:

” . . . Mr. Pulitzer’s money (two million dollars) would probably be spent in less time than he took to earn it.”12

“The . . . (requirement) here is not a school of journalism, but a good teacher. . . . Every experienced journalist will agree that a nose for the news cannot be cultivated at college. . . . that is something which can be trained only in a newspaper office. . . . but such men have never been made at college and never will be.”13

He further wrote: “It is not a new kind of training that Columbia will introduce in her School of Journalism, but a betterment of the kind she already gives. She could do nothing different even if Mr. Pulitzer’s gift were ten times as great as it is.”14

Regarding learning English language Horace White said: “My College education included Latin and Greek (not English). At that time English was supposed to be born not made.”15

On yellow journalism his comment was: “The question arises at this point, why there are so many black sheep in journalism. . . . Why is the epidemic of “yellow journalism” so prevalent?”16 He said: “No self-respecting youth will prepare himself for future connection with a yellow journal; . . .”17

He affirmed that “(T)he press of fifty years ago was, as a whole, stronger intellectually, more influential and more respected than the press is now, . . .”18

In the last paragraph of the article he concluded:  “To make good journalists is not difficult. The raw material … and tools are not deficient. But to do noble work of preparation they must see a field of labor worthy of noble minds. Show them an arena where the highest merit will win the highest prize, as in law, medicine and engineering, …”19

Pulitzer’s reply

In reply to the above arguments Joseph Pulitzer wrote an article for The North American Review. He started his article from a quote of President Roosevelt’s speech of 7 April 1904:

“The man who writes, the man who month in and month out, week in and week out, day in and day out, furnishes the material which is to shape the thoughts of our people, is essentially the man who more than many others determines the character of the people and the kind of government this people shall possess.”20

Pulitzer wrote: “Some of my critics have called my scheme “visionary.” If it be so I can at least plead that it is a vision I have cherished long, thought upon deeply and followed persistently. Twelve years ago I submitted the idea to … Columbia (University), when it was declined.”21

In reply to the argument that journalists are born and cannot be made, Pulitzer said: “Of course in every field natural aptitude is the key to success.”22 He explained: “The great general even more than the great editor, is supposed to be born not made. . . There is not a cadet in any military school who is not expected as a necessary part of his professional preparation to study every important battle on record – to learn how it was fought, what mistakes were committed on each side, and how it was won.”23

According to him: “Every issue of a newspaper represents a battle – a battle for excellence. When the editor reads it and compares it with its rivals he knows he has scored a victory or suffered a defeat.”24 Pulitzer’s article abounds with examples from military battles which indicate his unfulfilled teenage dream to join the army.

In reply to the argument that news instinct of a journalist is born and cannot be made, Pulitzer said: “One of the chief difficulties of journalism now is to keep news instinct from running rampant over restraints of accuracy and conscience.”25 And for this journalists need training.

Pulitzer said: “Teachers of journalism should also be experienced editors. . . .They should have in the first place a combination of the highest character and capacity, with love and aptitude for teaching.”26

He explained: “The greatest painters of Paris visit the art schools and criticize the work of the pupils. The masters of the New York bar give lectures in the law schools. The most famous physicians teach in the medical colleges. Why should the great editors not have an equally unselfish pride in and love of their profession? Upon their generous sympathy and aid will depend the success of the experiment (of establishing the world’s first school of journalism).”27

“I wish to begin a movement that will raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession, growing in the respect of the community as other professions …”28

In his article Pulitzer didn’t prescribe any syllabus, but said that history, economics, sociology, law, ethics, physical science, literature, statistics, art of writing, etc. might be included in it. On writing he said: “In no profession is the art of writing more important than in journalism, which is daily turning out a literature … in great part bad, but still the literature of the millions.”29

Writing has several styles – descriptive, analytical, literary, satirical, expository, critical, narrative, etc., but in journalism all these styles should, according to Pulitzer, have a common purpose – “public interest”.30

He said that public service should be the supreme end of journalism.”It will be the object of the college to make better journalists, who will make better newspapers, which will better serve the public. It will impart knowledge – not for its own sake, but to be used for the public service.”31

“Fools have had no place in my plans for a College of Journalism. They belong with other journalists who are “born, not made.”32

According to him what is most required for the success in journalism is: “To think rightly, to think instantly, to think incessantly, to think intensely, to seize opportunities when others let them go by – this is the secret success in journalism. To teach this is twenty times more important than to teach Latin and Greek.”33

On commercialism and business of newspapers, Pulitzer said:

“Commercialism has a legitimate place in a newspaper, namely in the business office. The more successful a newspaper is commercially, the better for its moral side. The more prosperous it is, the more independent it can afford to be, the higher salaries it can pay to the editors and reporters, the less subject it will be  to temptation, the better it can stand (losses) for the sake of principle and conviction. But commercialism … becomes a degradation when it invades the editorial rooms.34

“George Washington had extraordinary business capacity. By intelligent economy, method, sound judgment and the closest attention to details he accumulated the greatest American fortune of his time. Yet when he was called to serve the country in the (battle) field, he did it without a salary. At Mount Vernon he was a businessman; in history he is a soldier, a statesman and the father of his country.”35

(Mount Vernon was the plantation house of George Washington, first President of the USA, who led the America’s war of independence against the British.36)

Pulitzer said: “The power to mould the future of the Republic (country) will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”37

This is true for all successful democracies.

Pulitzer said: “A journalist is the lookout on the bridge of the ship of state.”38 That means a journalist is watchdog over government.

After Pulitzer, over the last one century, due to the emergence of new communication technologies journalism has no longer been limited to print alone. It has crossed many milestones: from print to electronic to digital to mobile. Today there are thousands of journalism schools around the world and the discipline has come to stay. Therefore Horace White’s argument that journalism schools are not required has failed practically and finally. Even India has more than two hundred journalism departments with different nomenclatures in different universities and institutions.  If we look at the Indian scenario, we find yellow journalism has no public service goal in the country. It is only sensationalism and trivialism with an additional concept of blackmailing.

Now we need to see that in India whether these departments are producing those journalists and media communicators who could act on the Pulitzer’s vision of public service. Pulitzer wanted journalists who could serve as the arm of the voiceless masses in protecting them from the ugly might of the powerful and could expose frauds and fight all public evils and abuses.

On present day journalism schools, a renowned media professor J. Herbert Altschull madea general statement that: “(These schools) transmit ideologies and value systems of the society in which they exist and inevitably assist those in power to maintain their control of the news media.”39 His statement is largely true even for our country and this situation goes against Joseph Pulitzer’s vision of journalism school. Though our education system has several shortcomings, we as media educators need to keep in mind Pulitzer’s vision of journalism school.


  1. The Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 9, 15th Edition 2010, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., Chicago, 793
  2. White, Horace, ‘The School of Journalism’ The North American Review, USA, Vol. 178, No. 566, January 1904 25-32
  3. Pulitzer, Joseph, ‘Planning a School of Journalism – The Basic Concept in 1904’ The North American Review, USA, Vol. 178, No. 570, May 1904 641-680
  4. The Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 9, op. cit, p.793
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Altschull, J. Herbert, From Milton to McLuhan: The Ideas Behind American Journalism (1990) New York: Longman, p.265
  9. New York World, 11 May 1883. George Juergens, Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966, p.15
  10. The Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 9, op.cit.,p.793
  11. Pulitzer, op.cit., p.641
  12. White, p.26
  13. Ibid
  14. Ibid, p..27
  15. Ibid, p.29
  16. Ibid, 27
  17. Ibid, p.31
  18. Ibid, p.30
  19. Ibid,p.32
  20. Pulitzer, op.cit.,p.641
  21. Ibid, pp.641-642
  22. Ibid, p.643
  23. Ibid, p.644
  24. Ibid
  25. Ibid
  26. Ibid, p.652
  27. Ibid, p.653
  28. Ibid, p.657
  29. Ibid, p.666
  30. Ibid
  31. Ibid, pp.680-681
  32. Ibid, p.678
  33. Ibid, p.678
  34. Ibid, p.659
  35. Ibid, p.658
  36. The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 12,Micropaedia, 15th Edition 2011, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., Chicago, 510
  37. (retrieved on 28 March 2016.)
  38. Ibid
  39. Altschull, J. Herbert, Agents of Power:The Role of News Media in Human Affairs (1984) New York: Longman, p.298

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