The New York Times Just Turned 160

Last Sunday was the 160th anniversary of The New York Times. Throughout those years, The Times has created quite a reputation for itself and has even garnered the nickname the “newspaper of record.” These days, the paper is the third most popular in the world, only ranking behind The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, neither of which are location-based like The Times. But how did the paper get to be so well-respected and widely circulated? Read on to learn more about the illustrious “Gray Lady.”

The History Of A Legend

The Times was founded on September 18, 1851 by journalist/politician Henry Jarvis Raymond (that's him above), who eventually became the second chairman of the Republican National Committee, and former banker George Jones(below). Originally the paper went by the name of the New-York Daily Times and was sold for one cent. Rather than just diving into the news of the day, the first edition attempted to explain why the editors created it and what positions the paper would take on issues, stating:

We shall be Conservative, in all cases where we think Conservatism essential to the public good;—and we shall be Radical in everything which may seem to us to require radical treatment and radical reform. We do not believe that everything in Society is either exactly right or exactly wrong;—what is good we desire to preserve and improve;—what is evil, to exterminate, or reform.

Within only a few years, the paper changed its name to The New York Times and in 1858, the paper was doing well enough to move into its own building, making it the first newspaper in New York City to be housed in a building built specifically for its own use. Ten years after its original release, it started adding a Sunday edition. Prior to this time, it was fairly rare for any paper to print on a Sunday, but public demand for news updates about the Civil War caused the change in papers around the country.

Given that the paper was started by a Republican politician, it’s not surprising that it was originally a supporter of the party’s ideals and candidates in its early years. But in the 1880’s, the paper started becoming independent and in 1884, it supported Grover Cleveland in his run for president on the Democratic ticket. This infuriated a lot of the paper’s Republican readers and The Times lost a lot of its readership as a result.

Within two years, the newspaper was acquired by Adolph Ochs, who also owned The Chattanooga Times. Ochs was responsible for coming up with the paper’s slogan, which is still in use, “All The News That’s Fit To Print.” While we take the slogan for granted these days, at the time, it was intended to be a sassy commentary about the paper empires of Pulitzer and Hearst, which were both known for their sensationalist yellow journalism.

In 1904, Och moved the paper to an area called Long Acre Square. While the original name might not sound familiar, you might recognize it by its more recent name –Times Square. The Times is even responsible for the tradition of the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve, which started when the paper moved into the building. The Times was also responsible for putting up the electronic news ticker Times Square is known for, although these days, the ticker is now ran by another company.

Interestingly, while The New York Times was still printed in this building up until 1997, they stopped using it as their main business headquarters only nine years after moving in –despite the fact that the area retains their name.

When Och first bought the paper, its readership was down to only 9,000, by the early twenties, it had 780,000 readers. Throughout this time, the paper also achieved an international reputation for accuracy and fairness at a time when most papers were known to be partisan rags. Ochs’ family is still in charge of the paper to this day.

Controversies That Made The Paper

For most of us, the biggest story The New York Times was directly involved with was Pentagon Papers, but the newspaper has been involved in many other major news stories long before Nixon was even born.

You probably already know how corrupted Boss Tweed was during his rule of New York, but did you know that The Times played a major role in his undoing? While the paper was working to stop the corrupt politician for a while, their campaign really gained steam after the Orange riot of 1871 that left 60 people dead and 150 injured.

Days after the riot, public sentiment turned against Tweed and the Times campaign started receiving a lot of support. The Times started to receive information from past Tweed supporter, County Sheriff James O’Brien who provided the paper with evidence of embezzlement by Tammany Hall. Despite being offered $5 million not to print the evidence, the Times went forward with the story and soon Tweed was out of power and eventually arrested.

While it wasn’t nearly such a scandal, the paper received a lot of international attention when managing editor Carr Van Anda found a mistake in the hieroglyphic interpretation on King Tut’s tomb back in 1922.

In 1960, The Times published a full-page ad that described actions taken against civil rights protesters. The ad falsely accused the police force of Montgomery, Alabama, of a number of wrongdoings. While nothing in the ad mentioned Montgomery Public Safety commissioner L.B. Sullivan, he felt that the criticisms could be considered as defamation because it was his duty to supervise the police department. He asked the paper to issue a retraction, but The Times refused on the grounds that he was not actually mentioned in the ad. Sullivan then sued and won $500,000 in a court judgment.

The Times appealed and eventually the case went to The Supreme Court who ruled on the paper’s behalf, explaining that press reports must contain “actual malice” against public officials or celebrities in order to be considered defamatory. This had a welcome effect on the publishing industry, as many papers were afraid to criticize officials and companies during the Civil Rights movement for fear that they could be accused of defamation or libel.

Only ten years later, The Times was involved with another groundbreaking Supreme Court decision, this time involving the president of the United States himself. Yup,  I’m referring to the Pentagon Papers. If you aren’t already familiar with the story, the Pentagon Papers were a series of documents relating to the secret history of the U.S. Department of Defense’s role in the Vietnam War. The papers revealed that the government had intentionally conducted air strikes over Laos and the coast of North Vietnam even while the government was promising the public they wouldn’t expand the war. As The Times began publishing the documents, Nixon worked with Attorney General John Mitchell to get an injunction commanding the paper to cease publication of the excerpts.

Unsurprisingly, the paper appealed and the case eventually went before the Supreme Court, bundled in with the issue of the Watergate tapes that were being published by The Washington Post. While the court ruled that the injunctions were illegal and that the public had the right to know the information, the fact that each justice wrote an individual opinion on the matter left little protections for future occasions involving similar circumstances. Even so, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate tapes both had a major impact in the country’s politics, ultimately resulting in the termination of the war and the resignation of Nixon.

Changes To The Icon

While The Times has tried to stay pretty true to its roots, it has changed drastically throughout its publishing history. One of the most popular additions to the paper took place on February 15, 1942 when first Sunday Times crossword puzzle was published.

1946 was a big year for the paper, as it was the first year The Times published their fashion section and the first time they started publishing an international edition. In 1967, the company stopped publishing their international edition, instead opting to work together with the New York Herald Tribune and The Washington Post to publish the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

The paper was one of the last to start publishing color photos and it wasn’t until October 16, 1997 that they printed their first color image on the front page. If you were curious, the first color image was of Tony Fernandez who earned the Cleveland Indians a place in the World Series with an 11th inning home run.

Most of the recent changes are cost-cutting measures, which makes sense since the paper’s circulation has been dropping drastically (like all newspapers in our internet-powered culture). In 2006, The Times narrowed its printing size by one and a half inches, making it the same size as most standard newspapers. This resulted in a 5% reduction of news coverage and a projected savings of $12 million per year.

In 2009, the paper broke a 150 year-long tradition by publishing an ad on the front page. The Times promised that while they were now offering some front page space, they would still refuse to sell any ad space on the upper half of the page.

Things That Make The Times Special

The New York Times is a huge paper and to get all that news takes a lot of reporters –the company currently employs 1200 in their main newsroom, which is twice the size of The Los Angeles Times. The Times has 10 news bureaus in New York State, 11 throughout the rest of the country and 26 international bureaus. All of that reporting is certain to bring in some great stories, which is why it’s not too surprising that The New York Times has more Pulitzer Prizes than any other paper in the world, ranking in at 106 as of 2010. In 2002, they even set a record for most awards given to any one paper in one year, receiving seven Pulitzers that year.

The paper still has a number of aspects that few others adhere to. For example, there is no single headline on the first page. Instead, the most important story of the day usually appears on the top right column. They also are one of only a handful of papers not to feature a comics page or to have their own editorial cartoonist on staff.

The paper was one of the first in the nation to announce same-sex commitment ceremonies in their weddings section, making the change in 2002. Within only two years of their decision to start printing these announcements, 500 papers in the country followed suit.

Image Via Haxorjoe [Flickr]

With more than a century and a half of history, there’s plenty more to be said about The Times, but I can’t possibly cover it all here. Before I go though, I would like to add one more fun bit of trivia about the paper –the book that spent the longest time on their best seller list was The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, which was on the list for about 13 years and 4 months –now that’s one heck of a record.

Have any interesting New York Times trivia? Add it in the comments!

Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2, #3, #4, The New York Times Co.

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