26 April 2010

News and Media: True Story of Newsies

By Lorelie Brown

Oh, Christian Bale. He's come a long way, hasn't he, from fresh-faced Jack Kelly in Newsies to the grownup version of himself? Let's take a moment to make a scientific comparison. Yes, that's a good idea. We're all about academic inquiry here at Unusual Historicals.

But did you know that the story of a youth-led strike was based on a true story? The original wasn't nearly cheery enough to have song and dance though, I can promise you that.

In the late 1800s, the newsboys were the lifeblood of the newspaper publishing industry. They were the primary distribution system for almost every newspaper and stood on street corners hawking their wares. Never well received because of their loud screams, they were endured. And they endured as well--crappy as hell living conditions. They were poor. Dirt poor. They usually slept on the streets and often slept right in front of the newspaper offices so they could be the first ones to buy their bundles of papers and get to selling. Thousands upon thousands of them. No coats, no shoes for many of them, and no education.

They weren't allowed to return the bundles of papers they bought. If they didn’t sell them all, they were screwed. Even if they sold every paper they got, their max income was around 30 cents a day.

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, most papers raised the cost for a newsies to buy a bundle to 60 cents. No big deal, because they were moving almost all of them. But then the war ended, and circulation rates returned to normal. But the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer--yeah, that Pulitzer, and New York Morning Journal, owned by William Randolph Hearst, kept their rates the same. Why should they lower the cost? They were making more money and the only ones who paid for it were the newsboys.

In 1899, they’d had enough. The newsies went on strike and refused to sell either the World or the Journal. Rallies were held and gathered more than 5,000 striking newsboys. The most charismatic speaker was Kid Blink, so named because he was blind in one eye, but he was often humiliated in the very papers he was striking against by having his speeches transcribed as a faithful report of his accent and dialect. He was arrested on disorderly conduct charges at least once while leading the strike, but bailed out and continued on.

Though Pulitzer and Hearst never did lower the price of a newspaper bundle back down to 50 cents, they finally did agree to buy back unsold papers. The newsie union disbanded, and as far as I can tell Kid Blink was never heard from again.