Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: James Gordon Bennett

When Horace Greeley was starting the Tribune the Herald was five or six years old, and its success assured. Mr. Greeley started his as an uncompromising party paper; Mr. Bennett presented the Herald to the people as an independent paper, the first ever published that was simply an indicator of public opinion bound and gagged by no party.

To Scotland shall we as a nation ever be indebted for one of the greatest journalists of the nineteenth century. When about fifteen years old he entered a Catholic school at Aberdeen expecting to enter the clergy, but after an academic life of two or three years he abandoned the idea. This sudden change was in no small degree influenced by an edition of “Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography” which was published in Edinburgh about this time. He was greatly taken with the spirit of this volume which found sympathy in his thrifty Scotch nature. From the moment he finished this life of Franklin he determined to come to America, and after a short stay in Halifax, and Boston, his stay in each place being attended with great privation, we find him in the year 1822 in the city of New York, and still later he is employed on the Charleston Courier, of Charleston, South Carolina. There his knowledge of Spanish was a benefit, enabling him to translate the Cuban exchanges, and to decipher the advertisements which were sent in that language.

After a few months he returned to New York where he attempted to open a Commercial School. This scheme came to naught, however, and he then tried lecturing on political economy with but moderate success to say the least. He soon saw that these undertakings were not in his sphere, and once more he returned to journalism. He first connected himself with the New York Courier and when that journal became merged into the Enquirer he was chosen associate editor. After this thesenior editor, J. Watson Webb, turned square around and began to support the United States Bank which he had so bitterly opposed and fought so vehemently. Young Bennett now withdrew and started a small paper, The Globe, but it was short-lived. He next went to Philadelphia and assumed the principal editorship of the Pennsylvanian. At that time all papers allied themselves to one party or the other.

Mr. Bennett conceived the idea of an independent paper; one which would be bound to no party or ring. He accordingly returned to New York for this purpose. He was very short of funds, and this fact alone would have discouraged most young men; not so with this man. He hired a cellar; two barrels with a board across served as desk on which was an ink-stand and goose quill. The proprietor of these apartments was not only editor and manager, but reporter, cashier, book-keeper, salesman, messenger and office boy. One hour he was writing biting editorials or spicy paragraphs; the next rushing out to report a fire or some other catastrophe, working sixteen to twenty hours per day. He persuaded a young firm to print his paper, and he was thus tided over that difficulty. Most young men would never have undertaken such a task, but what would they have done had they, after embarking in it, been twice burned out and once robbed within the first fifteen months? Such was the experience of Bennett, but as expressed by himself, he raked the Herald from the fire by almost superhuman efforts, and a few months later, when the great fire occurred in Wall street, he went to the scene himself and picked up all kinds of information about the firms burnt out, the daring deeds of the firemen, and anything sensational he did not fail to print. He also went to the unheard of expense of printing a map of the burnt district and a picture of the Produce Exchange on fire. This enterprise cost, but it gave the Herald a boom over all competitors, which it well maintains. It was the first paper that published a daily money article and stock list, and as soon as possible Bennett set up a Ship News establishment consisting of a row-boat manned by three men to intercept all incoming vessels and ascertain their list of passengers and the particulars of the voyage.

Mr. Calhoun’s speech on the Mexican war, the first ever sent to any paper by telegraph, was published in the Herald. At one time when his paper wished to precede all rivals in publishing a speech delivered at Washington, for the purpose of holding the wire, Mr. Bennett ordered the telegraph operator to begin and transmit the whole Bible if necessary, but not to take any other message until the speech came. Such enterprise cost, but it paid; and so it has ever been. Seemingly regardless of expense, bureaus of information for the Herald were established in every clime. ‘Always ahead’ seemed to be the motto of James Gordon Bennett, and surely enterprise was no small factor in the phenomenal success of the Herald. The tone, it has been said, was not always so edifying as that of its contemporaries, the Post and Commercial, still every article was piercing as a Damascus blade. To buy one paper meant to become afterwards one of its customers. It was indeed astonishing what a variety of reading was contained in one of those penny sheets; every thing was fresh and piquant, so different from the old party papers. As originally intended, the Herald has always been independent in politics, although inclined to be Democratic. It supported Fremont and the Republican party, and was one of the staunch war papers.

Mr. Bennett has been described as being stern and disagreeable in his manners. In this we do not fully concur, and in view of the large number of employes who have grown old in his service, we cannot but feel justified in this belief. Horace Greeley and James Gordon Bennett, the two leading New York journalists, but how different. Mr. Greeley had a larger personal following than the Tribune; the Herald had a larger friendship than did Bennett who was the power behind the throne. Journalism lost no lesser light when the great Herald editor passed away June 1st, 1872, than it did six months later when Horace Greeley passed from darkness into light. As Mr. Bennett was a life-long Catholic, he received the last sacrament from the hands of the renowned Cardinal McClosky.