DiGirolamo podcast: A Nation of Newsboys

podcastlogoFor the 46th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke with Vince DiGirolamo about the successes and struggles of the children who have hawked and delivered newspapers since the founding of America.

Vince DiGirolamo is a member of the History Department at Baruch College of the City University of New York. A former newspaper reporter, editor, and documentary filmmaker, he is the author of Crying the News: A History of America’s Newsboys (Oxford University Press, 2019).

This episode is sponsored by Baruch College’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences.


Nick Hirshon: 00:08 Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through our own drafts of history.

 00:24 This episode is sponsored by Baruch College’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences. Located in the heart of New York City, Baruch’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences offers the atmosphere of a small liberal arts college and the resources of a major public university, providing personalized, supportive attention to its 2,600 undergraduates and more than 350 graduate students.

 00:49 Newsboys are ingrained in the fabric of America. Decades before he signed the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin delivered the New England Courant. Long before he brought light to the world, Thomas Edison brought newspapers to the masses. And before he became a symbol of American masculinity, John Wayne sold papers to the public. Not every newsboy rose to fame, of course. But generations of children – boys and girls – have announced the defining events of our nation’s history, from economic depressions to world wars.

  The screams of “extra extra, read all about it” have inspired authors and songwriters and filmmakers for decades. Perhaps no depiction is more famous than the 1992 movie Newsies, which shows boys becoming men by striking against powerful publishers. The newsboys sing, “The roar will rise, from the streets below, and our ranks will grow and grow and grow. And so the world will feel the fire and finally know!” And now the world finally knows the story of America’s newsboys, thanks to today’s guest. On this episode, we learn about the lives of the newsboys – and their role in American society – from Vince DiGirolamo, a history professor at the Baruch College of the City University of New York, and the author of the new book Crying the News: A History of America’s Newsboys.

Nick Hirshon: 02:20 Vince, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.

Vince DiGirolamo: 02:22 Thank you. Happy to be here.

Nick Hirshon: 02:25 Well, we’re very glad to have you here. I’m excited to talk to you about newsboys in American culture, a subject we don’t hear too much about. So let’s start with the emergence of newspapers and newsboys in America. The numbers of newspapers in America reached 235 in 1800. You write how that grew to 350 by 1810, 512 by 1820. And then there was a milestone moment in journalism history in 1833: the New York Sun started selling copies for just a penny each, an unheard-of sum at the time. And the Sun‘s publisher, Benjamin Day, began hiring people to peddle the papers in the street. Reputable publishers weren’t supposed to resort to street sales; they were expected to build a base of subscribers. But the Sun changed that model. So you mention in the book that the first generation of newsboys from 1833 to 1865 witnessed and hastened major shifts in the way that Americans came to know each other, earn their living, and govern their affairs. So how do those early newsboys reflect or maybe even influence the evolution of early America?

Vince DiGirolamo: 03:29 Well, they were products of the major changes that were going on in the early republic in this age of a transportation revolution, a market revolution. So the fact that there was the mass production of newspapers as well as greater opportunities for transportation and communication via turnpikes and railroads and new markets for not just newspaper but for crops and manufactured goods. And so newspaper – newsboys were right in the middle of these major changes. And so they were promoting them in the sense that they were promoting the newspapers and promoting advertisements and communication. This was also the age of a Jacksonian democracy, where the ideas, you know, newspapers became affordable. Ordinary people could afford to purchase their own newspaper and ordinary non-landholding workers could engage in politics in a way they hadn’t before. So newsboys were part of a – were part of these major shifts and instrumental in perpetuating them.

Nick Hirshon: 04:54 And you mention in the book how there is a prevailing image of newsboys as young, able-bodied, white. But that’s not true of many of them. Actually, by the 1850s, the newsboys were transforming from impish, urban types, as you put it in your book, into an alarming social problem. The 1850s were, of course, a dismal decade: two economic recessions, the heaviest influx of impoverished immigrants in the nation’s history. And many immigrant children became vagrants, as you point out. They went hungry and came down with diseases such as cholera, typhus, consumption. Some of them became newsboys just to get by. And the voices of most newsboys went unheard, kind of sadly. But one of them – a newsboy named Johnny Morrow – wrote a memoir published in 1860, when he was still in his teens. The book was named A Voice from the Newsboys, and it gives a glimpse into the extreme poverty that newsboys experienced and their strategies for survival. What can you tell us about Johnny Morrow and the lives of newsboys around this time in the 1850s?

Vince DiGirolamo: 05:54 OK. So, really, in my book from the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s, those are three separate chapters. So a lot of things are changing by then. One thing that’s interesting about this particular occupational group is that the image and the myth of the newsboy in some ways preceded the actual occupation in the sense that, you know, Ben Franklin, the stories about Ben Franklin delivering his brother’s newspaper and then his role in the Revolution. And so, so news carriers and post writers, these were seen as sort of revolutionary, patriotic figures. And there were just a handful of them there. You know, there weren’t that many newspapers in the colonial period and the revolutionary period. But when it, by 1833 when there’s lots of immigration, there’s more newspapers and urban life is blooming.

 06:55 These kids are just all over the streets. And so in some ways they become linked with, Oh, they’re doing good work. They’re in the tradition of Ben Franklin. And then in the 1840s, they become symbols of young America itself. You know, they’re, you know, this is a country in its strapping youth and it’s about to take off and beat the world in all kinds of ways. And so these kids become a stereotype. They become promoted by the newspapers that they are distributing as these, as these prototypical Americans doing good work. And so that image is perpetuated not just by newspapers but by novelists and also by genre painters. And we see lots of images of these, positive images of these street kids. The 1850s so we have really two economic downturns and poverty is really wracking the nation.

 07:56 And so then we have these, you know – selling papers is a way of surviving hand to mouth by a lot of people, a lot of immigrants in particular. Johnny Morrow comes originally from Ireland via England. And he is one of many children. His father is sporadically employed. And he becomes in some ways, one of the, kind of the poster boy of the Children’s Aid Society, which really does save him, gives him a place to sleep with the newsboy lodging house that the Charles Loring Brace established in 1854. And so, as he’s writing his autobiography, which in some ways is indebted and shares a lot of similarities with the slave narratives of the same period. Here’s a group that people don’t even think has the intelligence or the ability to write their own story or to understand what’s going on.

 08:59 And Johnny Morrow is speaking back to, to the public and sort of asserting his humanity and his intelligence. And so, so in some ways, street trading in the hard times of the 1850s becomes kind of a solution to poverty that Charles Loring Brace is giving them a little credit and giving them newspapers, tokens to buy their papers and, and shoeshine kits to earn a living on the streets. And so Johnny Morrow really kind of documents that, you know, in some of the sentimental ways that the genre does, does illustrate. But, but so it has to be read with a grain of salt, and he does have help with a local clergyman. But, but it is a rare, at that time, a rare first-person voice of the newsboy.

Nick Hirshon: 09:58 Well, then after the Civil War ended in 1865, newsboys became, in your words, “bastard children of a failing economy and a flourishing press.” The postwar years saw an escalating class war, inflation, rampant crime and corruption, disparities of wealth and poverty. And in the 1870s, you write that newsboys rose up to expose and challenge the social inequities of their time. How did they do this?

Vince DiGirolamo: 10:25 Well, I was just thinking, “Bastard children of a failing economy.” That’s a good sentence, man. Who wrote that?

Nick Hirshon:  You’re a good writer!

Vince DiGirolamo:  So I take them through the Civil War before that and show how they were part of the, of that particular political crisis, North and South serving the front lines as well as the home front. And then that sectional crisis between North and South shifts and, and, and post-Civil War. It’s the class struggle, the class crisis between the haves and have-nots, the plutocrats and the working people. And so newsboys are caught up in that struggle. And they are, they are, interestingly, you know, squarely of the working-class poor. Parents are laborers, manual laborers usually, and so they’re selling papers. Yet the capitalist class is saying, ‘Look it, they’re just like us. They’re young entrepreneurs. They are symbols of not the excesses of capitalism, but the promise of capitalism.’

 11:39 So both, both parties are trying to claim newsboys as a sort of emblematic of the changes that need be made, the injustices that have to be corrected or the promise of capitalism. Interestingly, Horatio Alger’s novels are popular during this period and he shows them in this, in this bootstrap sort of way in that they are, they are lifting themselves up from poverty with great character. And that is one of the ideologies that prevails. Yet the newsboys themselves are radicalized and they become socialist. They become trade unionists. They are criticizing the capitalist system as much as, as anyone else because they are caught up in – with these great strikes. And the 1877 national strike and the economic downturn throughout the 1870s, even in the 1880s, 1890s. A kid couldn’t be born any time during this second half of the nineteenth century without escaping a serious depression or recession. And so newsboys are feeling these privations and they are not just sort of working harder and trying to work to be successful individually, but they’re engaging in all kinds of collective actions as they see around them. So that’s why I say they’re sort of – they expose the rifts in society and they’re helping to address them.

Nick Hirshon: 13:35 And if we could fast-forward here to the 1890s. You call this an extraordinary time for America’s newsboys. Sixty hundred fifty-seven new daily papers emerged across the country, for a total of more than 2,100. We’ve been using the term newsboys so far in our conversation, and that is indeed the term in the title of your book. But you mention in this part of your book that there were actually girls and women who were forced to peddle papers, often after dark, blurring the line between business people and beggars. And you have a quote from a New York police captain at the time who said, “Girls who begin with selling newspapers usually end with selling themselves.” What can you tell us about these newsgirls, as it were?

Vince DiGirolamo: 14:16 Newsgirls? Well, I mention one here, one there in the 1850s, a couple in the 1870s, but, but here in the 1890s, they become much more prevalent and they become a social problem in the sense that various reformers, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in particular, focuses on, on them. See, one of the interesting things about newsboys is that, you know, people didn’t really look at them as exploited labor. They were just part of the urban furniture. They were part of the blabber of the pave. And, and, and so they were just taken for granted. And not everybody thought that they should be put in school and swept off the streets. But when girls started to appear, then people started to worry about their sexual vulnerability.

 15:14 And here we have Italian, German, Jewish girls primarily in the northeast, but also in Salt Lake City, Utah, and, and throughout the country. And so they become a much more concern. And the reformers, those few who have been trying to call attention to the exploitation of newsboys, they’re able to, you know, they’re able to get people’s attention when they focus on girls. And this is true of Jane Addams and Hull House and Florence Kelley, and they’re able to make girls on the street into a social problem and pass laws. The age laws and girls have to be eighteen to sell on the streets in some cities. And, and so these are efforts to, to define their labor, not as labor, but as, you know, kind of a preparation for a life of sin and crime.

Nick Hirshon: 16:22 And getting now to one of the depictions of newsboys that probably our listeners are most familiar with. At the end of the 1890s, there’s a famous tussle between the newsboys and two titans of New York journalism, Joseph Pulitzer of the Evening World and William Randolph Hearst of the Evening Journal. I was interested to learn in your book that the tensions began on a July day in 1899 in my hometown, Queens in New York City, when a group of boys tipped over the wagon of an Evening Journal deliveryman and carried off armloads of papers. A lot of our listeners may be familiar with this period from the 1992 Disney movie Newsies. You mention that in your book. It was later adapted into a Broadway musical. Can you take us through this newsboy strike and maybe some of the myths or some of the things that you were surprised to learn about?

Vince DiGirolamo: 17:08 Yes. One of the, I guess, primary myths about the strike is that it was this one-off event, that children in this period for some reason decided to make a stand against the pinching ways of the millionaire publishers Hearst and Pulitzer in particular where as I said, I find newsboys are engaging in strikes and boycotts in the 1840s in New York, throughout the West in Goldfield, Nevada, throughout the 1880s and ’90s. Also part of this, the Haymarket Strike and the, and these major strikes, they are also forming unions, sometimes affiliating with the Knights of Labor. There was something called the Junior Knights of Labor that they were a part of. They also got affiliations with the American Federation of Labor in some cities in the West.

 18:06 The Industrial Workers of the World had newsboy locals. And so the tradition of newsboy militancy and newsboy labor organization really precedes that 1899 strike. But it was a big strike. It lasted two weeks. It was against these major, major publishers, and the other newspapers loved it. They would run stories and illustrations for the entire about two weeks that it lasted. And so it, and so other papers across the country would run those stories as well. And, and kids in those, in other parts of the country would also say, ‘Yeah, we got it bad, too.’ And they would – they would join. So David Nasaw, who really first discovered this strike and wrote about it, he talks about it as sort of almost coming to be the equal of a, of a children’s general strike, which is a little exaggerated.

 19:03 But, but it was not a major event. I think it – but it was a, you know, a good human interest story and it had a David and Goliath quality. And so, so yes, it’s what lots of people know about the newsboys. And newsboys were most prevalent. I mean, John Reid the journalist, he said the streets boiled over with children when he was writing during this period, talking particularly about New York. And so there are, there are huge numbers of children and there’s streetcar strikes. And so they’re – they’re sort of militant. They learn their tactics in some ways by watching the street car drivers and conductors who are on strike. And this becomes a – a big story for those two weeks.

 19:59 And it involves, it involves, you know, the other thing that the book really shows is that although a girl, the African Americans are not part of this sort of newsboy myth of upward mobility, that they’re part of these work occupation. They’re part of the trade, particularly African Americans who sometimes find it hard to enter other trades where you have to get sort of formerly hired. This you can buy, you can buy papers and just work on your own, on your own hook. And so they, they get driven off the streets and some places. And sometimes, but they’re also coexisting and making common cause in various strikes throughout the 19th century and here in 1899, too. There’s lots of African Americans. No girls are joining though the women, the news women there, there tend to be opposed to the boys because the women want to see these boys go to school so they could have the entire business to themselves.

 20:59 So there’s a lot of violence. There’s a lot of violence. I mean, the Newsies, the movie and the play, which I saw recently, again in Carmel, California. You know, it sort of romanticizes the story, the story, but there were, you know, people, you know, one guy had a gun put down his throat and threatened, you know, ‘You better leave, you better leave this corner.’ And so there was, there was real, you know, real violence in trying to enforce this strike and not let Hearst and Pulitzer hire adults and hire people to work as scabs. So yeah. So I tried to bring a couple of new – that’s a point about the strike in terms of its scale, its scope, its participation and in particular its ending – that people, people, I’ll feel, how did it end? You know, was it a victory? Was it not? And so I bring some new evidence to bear on those questions.

Nick Hirshon: 22:02 Certainly. And I know Disney+ has just come out. It has Newsies. I was able to watch it right after going through your book. Of course, as you mentioned, it’s probably not the most accurate. It is a dramatized version of events. However, it does help us understand how newsies have gone down in the public consciousness. And then that’s a great jumping off point for historians like you to come in, correct the record, and give us all that information. So moving on now to another crucial decade in the history of newsboys, the Roaring ‘20s. Newspaper circulation soared to an all-time high of 43 million. The treasury secretary of the United States called the newsboy “America’s leading citizen of tomorrow.” And they personified the era in many ways. For example, newsboys in Chicago spread jazz records along with newspapers in a time that would come to be known as the Jazz Age. What stands out to you about this juncture in newsboy history, the Roaring ‘20s?

Vince DiGirolamo: 22:59 The Roaring ‘20s? Well, you know, this is the period, another period of great sensationalism as the yellow press period of the 1890s that we just talked about. And so we have tabloid journalism. We have, we have also what’s called muscle journalism in that these newspapers are quite ruthless in competing with each other and driving each other off the streets. And so there are newspaper wars in Chicago and other cities where gangsters are hired. And these are, some of these are household names: Al Capone, for example. They’re hired to support their newspapers, say the Chicago Tribune against other newspapers and to, to actually literally, literally raid the, the stands and beat up the vendors and children get implicated in this kind of struggle as well.

 24:02 So the ‘20s is really marked by a lot of violence. It’s also marked – we see earlier in this Progressive Era we sort of skipped talking about there, the early 1900s where reformers came in, but in order to combat then that kind of regulation and, and laws, newspaper editors and circulation managers became much more involved in what they called newsboy welfare work. And so they were establishing all kinds of outings and excursions and banquets and little sporting events. And here in the 1920s, we have a little sporting event, a little newsboys boxing. It blossoms into the Golden Gloves boxing tournament. There was newsboy league baseball in the 1880s, teams are barnstorming the country teams of newsboys playing baseball with each other.

 24:59 And so the 1920s is also an age of sports in the age of celebrity. It’s the age of which the Republicans have the control of the White House. And capitalism is deemed the, you know, everybody’s best system. And, and radicals are jailed and they have a hard time. And so newsboys become, again, prototypical symbols of corporate capitalism during this time. Strikes are few and far between. But there are, there are examples. It was also seen as the road to the White House. We had various presidents, even Herbert Hoover was a former newsboy. So the press is celebrating these kinds of these kinds of, these kinds of connections. And also the African-American press is also rising. The Chicago Defender enters, becomes a very prominent newspaper. And their newsboy band is also quite famous. Lots of famous jazz musicians come out of that. So the 1920s is a great lively period of violence and celebrity.

Nick Hirshon: 26:21 The era of the newsboy has all but come to a close today. You write that beginning in 1980, the number of carriers under 18 declined at a rate of 10,000 per year. There were a few reasons for this decrease. Lots of newsboys were replaced by retirees who needed to supplement fixed incomes and adult immigrants who saw the news trade as a way up, just like those original newsboys kind of did. Some news outlets did not want to risk being fined for using underage boys. And of course expanded public access to the internet severely diminished demand for newspapers, as we well know. What do you think has been lost when newsboys leave the streets?

Vince DiGirolamo: 27:04 Well, what’s been lost? I don’t know. I guess the sound of the city is different without newsboys shouting their news. People are now looking at their phones, and their eyebrows would go up or something, but it’s a different sort of aural quality of life. I suppose we’ve lost also, you know, generations of kids who didn’t finish school and were more independent. And for better or for worse, usually, usually for worse, I think, you know, I was talking about the skills that, that children learn on the streets at one talk and, you know, and there they’d have to become savvy about different dangers, whether they’re sexual predators or cheats or what have you. And that they learn, they learn about power, they learn about their role in society.

 28:02 They have a really close connection to the breaking events. And so that’s, that’s changed as well. But one person said, ‘Hey, would you want your child doing this? Do you want your child working on the streets at midnight approaching strangers for this, for this business transaction?’ And, and the answer is no. Most of us don’t want our children on the streets doing this. So in that sense, we can’t become too romantic and say, ‘Oh, we’ve lost, we’ve lost this traditional occupation that is that, that really built character and built the greatest generation.’ My last chapter is really on the 1930s, the last full chapter. And that’s when, you know, adults come into the trade, but this generation did go through the – if my father’s, my uncle’s generation did support their families through working on the streets.

 28:54 And, and so that kind of economic responsibility that children have early – and it does create a certain independence and a certain self-sufficiency. So that’s lost. But as all those, all those factors that you mentioned, the changing nature of the industry, changing attitudes about children and where they should be, changing labor markets, right? We have fast food was a way in which that becomes the sort of typical job for a teenager growing up. And you know, the sort of rash of kidnappings in the 1980s and the decline of the newspaper industry, yeah, means that this occupation, it’s declining. It’s certainly declining in terms of the role of children. But you know, I’ve been in some of these news depots in the middle of the night and, and people still get their papers delivered and it’s still by poor, generally poor people, mainly immigrants.

 30:02 A lot of languages are spoken in these, in these news depots. And they’re still somewhat exploited in the sense they’re not wage earners. They’re independent contractors. This is how many newsboys escaped regulation and in the newspaper industry benefited from this cheap labor source for years because they were exempt from New Deal labor laws and many other labor laws as well because they are not technically employees. And the people who deliver, the adults who deliver papers today are in this same sort of sort of gig worker economy where there exists sort of on the margins of the comfort really.

Nick Hirshon: 30:49 And obviously we have limited time here, but your book is so comprehensive. I encourage our listeners to check it out. Again, the title is Crying the News: A History of America’s Newsboys, published by the Oxford University Press. I was going to tease you and say the only problem I have with the book, it was so heavy, my hands would get a little tired when I was holding it, which is obviously just a testament to all of the incredible work that you’ve done that you’ve been able to put together this amazing volume that is so tightly written and we thank you for that contribution. One last question that we have for you: Before we let our guests leave on this podcast, we always ask, why do you think journalism history matters?

Vince DiGirolamo: 31:32 Why journalism history matters? Well, it matters for a lot of reasons. One is that we just cannot accept the news and the stories and the information that we get as sort of unfiltered. We have to see where it came from. We have to see it’s a product of institutions. It’s a product of economic assistance. It’s a product of government and laws. And so journalism and newspapers and the media broadly defined is a reflection, a cultural reflection of society at large. And it sheds light on not just the movers and shakers of the country, but on the little people, on the children, on the workers, on the consumers, on immigration, on all of these social factors. So I think to overlook journalism history is to, is to just take your sources for granted in a way that no historian should do so. In some ways, all historians should be journalism historians to the degree that they rely on press accounts.

Nick Hirshon: 32:37 Certainly. Well, well said. And thank you so much again for writing this terrific book that we can benefit from. And thank you, Vince, for joining us on the Journalism History podcast.

Vince DiGirolamo: 32:46 OK. Thank you for having me.

Nick Hirshon: 32:51 Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History podcast, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences at Baruch College of the City University of New York. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off the words of Edward R. Murrow, ‘Good night, and good luck.’

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for an excellent interview. Great questions asked. Fascinating, informative answers. Vince DiGirolamo’s book, “Crying the News: A History of America’s Newsboys” is superb. The author’s attention to detail is unrivaled. Historical photos, color plates, and illustrations are annotated, and of the highest quality. Both Subject and Name indexes make research easy. The narration never glosses over outworn myths of the newsboy’s success, or the self-flattering notions “of national character” that continue to skew our memory of these children. This masterpiece by Vincent DiGirolamo is a must-read for anyone teaching or studying American History.


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