Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Robert Bonner

Of all the newspaper editors we have ever read, possibly Robert Bonner is the most enterprising. He was born in Ireland in the year 1824, and at the age of sixteen came to Hartford, Connecticut. He had an uncle here who was a farmer, but Robert aspired to own a paper, and drifted into the office of the Hartford Courant. Robert Bonner determined to own a paper; he, therefore, set about it, working faithfully every day, and overtime, saving his money. He mastered his business, becoming an expert compositor. In 1844 he went to New York and obtained employment on the Mirror. He was intrusted with the oversight of the advertising department, and it was soon seen that he had a decidedly fine taste in the arrangement of this line, a feature which has undoubtedly had much to do with his wonderful success later. He was also at this time a correspondent of the Hartford Courant, also newspapers in Boston, Albany and Worcester. About 1851 he bought out the Merchants Ledger, a paper devoted to the commercial interests of the country. This he transformed into a family story paper, and christened it the New York Ledger. Fanny Fern was just appearing in the columns of literature. Bonner offered her $1,000 to write a story for the Ledger, enclosing his check for the amount. As this was a very high price in those days, of course she accepted. Then the papers throughout the country were full of advertisements—”Read the Thousand Dollar Story in the Ledger.” “Read The New York Ledger“—Some people said, “Well, first-class journals don’t use such flashy ways of inducing people to subscribe; they rely on the merits of their paper.” Bonner heard this and began to study how to overcome this tide of sentiment. There was Harpers Weekly—no one questioned its respectability. The Harpers never indulged in any flashy advertising, but soon the people were surprised to see in all the leading papers, ‘Buy Harpers Weekly,’ as no one imagined that Bonner had paid for the advertising; they attributed the advertisements to the necessity Harpers felt through the rivalry of the Ledger. This sort of enterprise cost, but it convinced people that respectable journals advertised as did the Ledger. People said it was ‘cheap, trashy literature, etc.’

Mr. Bonner at once hunted up Edward Everett who was recognized as the representative of New England refinement. This was a most opportune time for Mr. Bonner, as Mr. Everett was trying to raise a large sum with which to aid in beautifying the home and tomb of Washington. Mr. Bonner engaged Mr. Everett to write a series of articles on Mount Vernon, giving in return his check for $10,000 to be applied toward the Everett Fund for the aid of the Association. Probably Mr. Everett would have refused to write at any other time, but Bonner took advantage of circumstances—always.

He next secured George Bancroft, the eminent historian. Then followed Horace Greely, James Gordon Bennett, and Henry J. Raymond. When such lights of journalism would write for the Ledger, what could lesser country editors say? Next came a story by Henry Ward Beecher, who was followed by Dr. John Hall the great Presbyterian Divine, Bishop Clark, Dr. English, Longfellow, Tennyson, and others, including a series of articles from the presidents of the leading colleges throughout the country.

Mr. Bonner is a Presbyterian, being a member of the church presided over by Dr. John Hall, on Fifth Avenue. He has given many thousands of dollars to various institutions and charities. He owns the finest stable of horses in the Union, among which are such as Maud S.—his first great trotter was Dexter. He never allows one of his horses to trot for money.

Mr. Bonner is getting along in years but still attends to business. His paper has at times attained a circulation of 400,000 copies, each issue.