The first tycoon

The prizes given in his name are world famous. But who exactly was Joseph Pulitzer? And why are his heirs selling the empire he created? David Usborne reports on the death of a dream

For anyone with romantic notions about press ownership, there is distressing news from America. A venerable family media empire is about to be broken up. It will be a sale to the highest-bidder, never mind tradition and legacies passed from fathers to sons. The name is not Murdoch - that particular clan's narrative still has far to run. We are reaching much further back in history. Unravelling before us is the Pulitzer dynasty.

Word of surrender from America's first family of the press seeped out late last week. It was reported that the surviving heirs of Joseph Pulitzer, the founder of the journalistic prizes that bear his name, was, as the Wall Street terminology goes, "exploring strategic alternatives" for their company. Translation: the "For Sale" sign is up.

True, Pulitzer Inc, based in St Louis, is hardly in the league of the likes of Murdoch's News Corporation. Its two most important assets are the St Louis Post-Dispatch and the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, Arizona. Then there are the 12 daily newspapers around America and another group of weekly and niche publications. But it does represent a tidy prize for someone - speculation is centred on The New York Times or Gannett Newspapers (owners of USA Today) as likely buyers for a price of about $1.5bn - although the broader landscape of media ownership in the United States will barely feel a ripple.

The sadness is in the severing of a line of control that has run unbroken ever since the founding of the company by the first Joseph, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant, in 1878. He was succeeded at the head of the company successively by his son and his grandson - both of whom were also named Joseph.

Since the death in 1993 of the third Joseph Pulitzer, whose 71-year-old widow, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, is the company's biggest shareholder - with voting powers equal to 49.6 per cent of all shares - the presence of the family has waned. His own son, Joseph Pulitzer IV, left the family business in 1995. Now, the only relatives involved are board members: Emily, Michael Pulitzer, 74 (the brother of the third Joseph), and two cousins. Overall, however, the family controls about 90 per cent of the company's voting shares.

As Emily pondered this step she surely would have recalled how her late husband drew on his every energy back in 1986 to keep the business in family hands when it was the victim of an attempted hostile takeover bid. Pulitzer eventually won after taking the company public and, at the time, he vowed: "I will not trade my heritage for a pot of gold."

That is the trade that seems set to take place now. The company has hired the brokerage house Goldman Sachs to oversee whatever transaction eventually transpires. Possibly, assets will be sold off singly. More likely, the whole group will change hands at once. In either event, the pot of gold will be gratefully accepted. And the precious heritage established by the first Joseph will evaporate.

No single dynasty has been more synonymous with the trade of newspaper journalism than the one established by that gangly Hungarian immigrant with a fiery ambition and chronically bad eyesight. In his time, Joseph Pulitzer competed with Randolph Hearst in the New York market, to launch a different, scrappier, sort of tradition. They called it "yellow journalism"; we call it red-top or tabloid journalism.

It was Herbert Peter Pulitzer, grandson of the first Joseph, who took the family itself into the tabloid headlines after he eloped with Lilly, a New York socialite and friend of Jackie Kennedy. But the tales didn't end there. The divorce from his second wife, Roxanne in 1983, became the most sensational trial of the decade and their lurid sex and drugs tales of the Palm Beach elite made the clan infamous. Their reputation was damaged further when Roxanne went on to pose for Playboy and write an exposé of her marriage, Prize Pulitzer.

The Pulitzer story started in the 19th Century, when, aged just 17, Joseph met a bounty recruiter for troops for the Union Army in the American Civil War, in Hamburg, Germany. It was 1864 and he agreed to take the boat to America. Legend has it that when the ship entered Boston harbour, the young Pulitzer jumped overboard to swim ashore to collect the $300 in bounty money himself to prevent it from falling into the agent's hands. With almost no English, he fought briefly in the Lincoln Cavalry. In time, however, he ended up in St Louis, where he found a large German-speaking community, and survived at first doing an assortment of menial odd-jobs.

His first newspaper job was as an eager reporter for the German-language Westliche Post. The newspaper was struggling and, aged 25, he was offered control of it. A few shrewd business deals later, he found himself owner - for a purchase price of just $2,500 - of the St Louis Post-Dispatch paper, which was on its last legs. It was 1878 and the Pulitzer publishing company was born. His first edition of the Post-Dispatch sold just 987 copies and had four pages.

But with an eye for populist stories and campaigns, Pulitzer soon revived the fortunes of the paper. Five years later, even though his fragile health was already fading, he travelled to New York and bought a title called the New York World. It was there that that Pulitzer discovered his tabloid instincts. When he found out that the delivery of the Statue of Liberty from France was being delayed because rich New York philanthropists were shying away from paying for its pedestal, he used the pages of a the World to shame them and launch a fund-raising campaign. He set a goal of $100,000, which was eventually achieved and helped push the World's circulation to 600,000.

His health, however, continued to deteriorate. Aged 43, and almost blind, he withdrew from editing the World. He had also begun to suffer from a condition that meant noise was intolerable to him. He was to spend the last two decades of his life in sound-proofed vaults aboard his yacht, Liberty, in Bar Harbor, Maine. He kept in close, daily touch with the editorial operations of both the World and the Post-Dispatch - sending messages in a code that he himself had invented to ensure secrecy - but he was rarely seen again in either New York or St Louis.

What he perhaps would not want to be remembered for were the "yellow" tactics sometimes employed by the World in the late 1890s, as it engaged in furious circulation competition with the rival New York Journal newspaper owned by the media baron Randolph Hearst. There were sensationalised features about New York social life, as well as fearless investigations into city corruption. But even stories that were completely fictional were not beyond the newspaper, as it tried to win the readership battles. Both papers were eventually censured by the US Congress for inflaming emotions during the four-month Spanish-American war in 1998. After the war was over, Pulitzer ordered that his New York newspaper become more restrained in its tone and coverage of the war.

Historians will always forgive Pulitzer for his "yellow journalism" lapses. As the century turned, the World captured new respect for its investigative reporting. In 1909, it famously exposed an illegal $40m payment by the US government to the French Panama Canal Company. Washington tried to punish Pulitzer, charging him with slandering the president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, and the banker, J P Morgan. The suit was thrown out by the courts, however.

Pulitzer's personal creed, and his role in defending the freedom of the press, was perhaps best expressed in words he wrote for the North American Review in 1904. "Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations." These words are up there for all to see in the lobby of the St Louis Post-Dispatch today.

As if still anxious to save himself from the "yellow" period, late in his life Pulitzer did two remarkable things, by which he will always be remembered above anything else. He willed $2m for the creation of the School of Journalism at Columbia, which today is still the pre-eminent centre of learning for aspiring journalists. And in his will, he endowed the foundation that distributes the Pulitzer prizes. Pulitzer died in 1911. The School began operating the following year and the first Pulitzer prizes were awarded in 1917. The number of prizes has now been expanded to 21, awarded annually. The many categories range from investigative journalism, photo-journalism and newspaper cartoons, to American works of literature, drama and poetry. There is no more prestigious an award for a reporter in the United States to win than a Pulitzer prize.

Before his death, Pulitzer had pulled his youngest son, Joseph, out of Harvard early to get his toes wet at the Post-Dispatch. "This is my son, Joseph. Will you try to knock some newspaper sense into his head?" he wrote to the editor there at the time. The younger Joseph remained at the newspaper in St Louis until his death in 1955. Memories of the second Joseph, who greatly expanded the newspaper, adding Sunday sections and introducing an opinion page called the "Dignity" section, also came with a yellow tinge. This time it was the memos written on yellow paper that he dispatched in a blizzard around the newsrooms daily. They became known as the "yellow peril" from Pulitzer.

Joseph the third, who was also to become one of America's most important collectors of contemporary art, took over within weeks of his father's death in 1955. He pledged to maintain the "thread of continuity" represented by the family's continuing control. "We of the Post-Dispatch shall abide by the standards we have inherited. With all the moral strength, the intellectual strength, the professional strength at our command, we will continue to labour as public servants. Not only will we report the day's news but we will illuminate dark places, and, with a deep sense of responsibility, interpret these troubled times," he declared, on taking the reins. In his time, he expanded the company many times over, buying other titles and acquiring radio and television assets, which have since been jettisoned.

Of the four family members of the company's board today, three are at least 70 years old. That the span of the age of Pulitzer in American daily journalism was almost over was perhaps obvious eleven years ago with the death of Joseph Pulitzer Jr. Or perhaps we should have seen it two years later with the decision of his son to forgo the chance to carry it through to the next millennium.

But whatever happens in the auction for the company's assets, we know at least that a place for the Pulitzer family will always remain in the pantheon of American journalism. Most casual observers of the media scene may not even have known that the family was still in the business as such. They associate the name of the Pulitzer family only with the prestigious prizes, which are awarded annually, in the month of April. And the prizes - and hence the name - will not be diminished by the machinations of Wall Street or the temptations of a pot of gold.