Never a Dull Moment: The Rough and Tumble History of Philadelphia Newspaper Publishing


Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos The Evening Telegraph at the Lincoln Building on Broad Street, South of City Hall. Photograph by
N.M. Rolston, October 4, 1916.

When Philadelphia boomed so did its newspapers. The city’s population, about 81,000 in 1800, expanded fifteen-fold over the next century to 1.3 million. This did wonderful things to make Philadelphia a robust newspaper reading and publishing town.

No less than a dozen dailies started up in Philadelphia between 1836 and 1880. During the Civil War, Charles Edward Warburton and James Barclay Harding thought afternoon readers could be better served and launched The Evening Telegraph, a newspaper with a name that actually meant something. Utilizing the telegraph, editors transmitted news from the first national political convention after the Civil War held at “The Philadelphia Wigwam” directly to their offices. The Evening Telegraph compiled and ran editorials from newspapers across the United States and Europe. It commissioned translations and serialized Jules Verne’s novels, including his popular Tour of the World in Eighty Days.

By the mid-1890s, then run by the second generation of leadership, The Evening Telegraph built a promising  future. While conducting research for his book American Journalism From The Practical Side, Charles Austen Bates toured the paper’s new quarters at 704 Chestnut Street and sat down the owner/publisher, the thirty-year old Barclay Harding Warburton. Bates came away impressed, finding The Evening Telegraph “in every respect a model newspaper’s home.” He recognized that the young Warburton needed to maintain the paper’s appeal “to the millionaires, solid business people, and the society people” but he also needed to broaden the paper’s popularity. This Warburton accomplished with an array of new features including a woman’s page, “an amateur sporting page,” pages devoted to art, literature, theater, “the secret and colonial societies,” and, on Saturdays, a “ministerial page.” The Evening Telegraph, Bates noted, “seems to appeal very strongly to both the classes and the masses.”

“At Broad Street Station and the Reading Terminal,” wrote Bates, “more copies of The Evening Telegraph are sold than of probably all other papers put together.” Warburton had increased circulation by 300%. He had increased advertising by 60%, selling to every last one of Philadelphia’s 44 banks, 28 trust companies, as well as getting “all the legal business there is.”

The Evening Telegraph at the Lincoln Building on Broad Street, South of City Hall, 1916, detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

The Evening Telegraph thrived on Chestnut Street in a remarkable district, a complex, competitive, journalistic community. By the late 19th-century, eleven of the city’s dailies could be found between 6th and 12th Streets, Chestnut and Market Streets. To Bates, the neighborhood appeared to be thriving; he couldn’t quite imagine how fragile the state of Philadelphia journalism really was. In the first decade of the 20th century, three newspapers would fold. By the Great Depression, ten were gone.

In 1911, perhaps sensing the seachange, Warburton sold out to Rodman Wanamaker, his wealthy, dilettantish brother-in-law. Wanamaker may have bought The Evening Telegraph as a plaything, or possibly as an investment. To run the operation, he installed John T. Windrim, an architect with no experience in journalism or publishing. The paper left its 7th and Chestnut Street office for the high-priced, ostentatious Betz Building, a stone’s throw from both City Hall and Wanamaker’s Department Store. Many things were different on Broad Street, but a few remained the same. Journalists at The Evening Telegraph continued their longtime practice of “transmitting” the latest news by scribbling it on blackboards hung at street level. On October 4, 1916, this was the latest bloodletting from the front lines of World War I (the Battle of the Somme) and the score from the last baseball game (Phillies lost to the Boston Braves, 1-6).

Two years after Wanamaker’s bet on The Evening Telegraph, Cyrus Curtis, an even wealthier Philadelphian, started on an ambitious newspaper acquisition and consolidation spree. Between 1913 and 1930, Curtis, who had been hugely successful as a publisher of magazines, purchased five Philadelphia dailies, three of which he would fold. Curtis’s second target, The Evening Telegraph, acquired for its wire services, was bought and closed on June 28, 1918—after 54 years of publication.

As it turned out, Curtis’s publishing acumen didn’t quite translate to the world of daily journalism. His last acquisition, a $10.5 million purchase of the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1930, was meant as a savvy final stroke in Curtis’s plan. It was final, but not terribly savvy. After Curtis died in 1933 his company was forced to sell the Inquirer at a loss.

It wouldn’t be the last time such a thing could happen.

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