Rochester’s Scion of Yellow Journalism: Rochester’s Journal-American (June 25, 1922-July 1,1937)

Every day, hundreds of Rochesterians pass the building at the southeast corner of Andrews and St. Paul Streets and give it little thought. Today, it is the home of Cook Iron Store Company, a supplier of construction and industrial-strength equipment. A closer examination of the doorway facing St. Paul, however, reveals a curious inscription: “Journal-American Building.” What was the Journal-American? What is the story behind the curious inscription?

Democrat_and_Chronicle_Sun__Nov_22__1981_

“Journal American” Inscription at 136 St. Paul Street
(From Upstate Magazine, Democrat and Chronicle, 22 November 1981, p. 23)

 

Today, Rochester has one major newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle, but in years past it had many more. Older citizens will remember the Times Union (the afternoon paper). Further back, the city had the Rochester Herald, the Rochester Post-Express, the Rochester Union and Advertiser, and, of course, the Rochester Journal, and the Rochester Sunday American. The building on St. Paul Street was the home of the latter two publications.

The life of these two papers was brief but interesting, and they represent an entrée into the broader history of American journalism. Both papers were owned by William Randolph Hearst (April 29, 1863-August 14, 1951), the model for Charles Foster Kane in the motion picture Citizen Kane. At the time of his death, Hearst had built the largest newspaper and media company in the country, Hearst Communications.  Its publications were often cited as examples of “yellow journalism,” a form of communication specializing in human interest stories, scandals, and sensationalism. Or, in the jocular phrase of the profession, “If it bleeds, it leads!”

Democrat_and_Chronicle_Wed__Aug_15__1951_

William Randolph Hearst
(From: Democrat and Chronicle, August 15, 1951, p. 1)

In 1922, Hearst considered running for New York State Governor, a stepping stone to the Presidency. To complement his existing newspapers in New York City, and to build support in the rest of the state, Hearst established newspapers in other portions of the state. The Rochester Journal was the afternoon newspaper, directly competing with the Gannett-owned, Times Union. The Rochester Sunday American, as the name implies, was a weekly publication, competing directly with the Sunday edition of the Democrat and Chronicle (owned by Gannett after 1928).

Starting a newspaper from scratch requires, among other things, experienced reporters, and Hearst wasn’t above stealing them from other papers. Local journalist, Curt Gerling, recounts that in 1922, mysterious invitations arrived in the mailboxes of journalists employed by other Rochester newspapers. The invitations offered free dinner and drinks at one of Rochester’s best hotels. At the conclusion of the dinner, their host clinked a fork against the closest Scotch bottle (remember, this was during Prohibition!) and said,

“Gentlemen, tonight’s party was on William Randolph Hearst. Today we purchased the Post-Express and we begin operations in 90 days. We’re looking for a staff. Anyone who wants a future in the newspaper business and double their present salaries can make an appointment with me this evening.”

Upon acquiring the papers, Hearst began an all-out drive to attract readers to his publication. At one point he was sponsoring a contest offering a car a day. He also sponsored a number of other contests offering other prizes. Free roller skates were provided to local paper boys.

Hearst’s articles were boisterous, making ridiculous, often unsupported claims. As local journalist Curt Gerling observed:

“Anyone born to English-speaking parents and worth more than $1.50 became ‘a scion of a well-known wealthy family,’ at least when his two-car crash was reported under a streamer head. … [Or] Old man Schultz, who gave a few Dutchtown friends a bottle or two of home brew became – when he was apprehended for the offense – ‘Sudsie Schultz, Beer Baron Racketeer.’”

journal american-ad 1936

Advertisement for the Rochester Journal-American
(From the city directory for 1936, the last full year the paper was published)

For fifteen years, the newspaper wars between Gannett and Hearst continued unabated. On July 1, 1937 Hearst published his last issue of the newspaper and closed his Rochester and Syracuse papers. Gannett bought the Hearst paper’s circulation list, its comics and other features, and the mechanical presses in the Journal American building. In return, Gannett gave up the morning newspaper in Albany (which competed directly with the Hearst-owned paper).

Since 1940, Cook Iron Store Company has owned the entire building at 136 St. Paul Street, the Journal-American’s glory days as “Rochester’s scion of yellow journalism” long behind her.

 

-Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

Curt Gerling, Smugtown, U.S.A. (1957; reprint, Rochester, New York: Plaza Publishing, 1993).

Bob Marcotte, “Journal-American Lived from 1922 to 1937,” Democrat and Chronicle, June 23, 1997, p. 5B.

Bob Minzesheimer, “Signs of Old Rochester,” Upstate Magazine, Democrat and Chronicle, November 22, 1981, p. 23-24.

Published in: on July 10, 2018 at 3:36 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Many people do not know that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote for the Journal American. She married a Rochesterian who she met at the U. of Wisconsins and was unhappy in Rochester. They followed his brothers to Florida for a visit. Marjorie took one look and only came back for her stuff. The men didn’t stay, but MKR made a life and a career out of the Sunshine State.

  2. Fascinating story. Thank you for sharing.


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