Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Adolph Ochs

Every year, when Americans celebrate New Year's Eve, many imagine what it would be like to take in the new year at Times Square in New York City. Hundreds of thousands make the trip every year to experience the magic of New York on New Year's.

To commemorate New Year's, I've selected the man responsible as today's hero of capitalism. The Times Square tradition began when the publisher of the New York Times, Adolph Ochs, held a fireworks display in 1904 to help bring in the new year and to celebrate the opening of the newspaper's new offices nearby. After city officials banned fireworks, Ochs in 1907 began the tradition of having a decorated, lighted ball drop to mark midnight. The celebration has continued uninterrupted since (though the ball was not lighted during WWII because of government-imposed "dimout" of lights at night).

In addition to helping to create a lasting New Year's tradition, Ochs was a successful publisher as well. He had been born to African-Jewish immigrant parents in Cincinnati in 1858. At the age of eleven, he began working his way up from an apprentice at local newspapers until the age of 19, when he bought a share of the Chattanooga Times, then becoming its publisher.

In 1896, he borrowed money to purchase a struggling paper in the Big Apple, the New York Times. Ochs insisted that the paper and its editors focus on objective reporting (at a time when most American newspapers still adopted openly partisan or sensationalist stances) and he reduced prices. In a further effort to establish the strict separation of editorial opinion from straight news reporting, he also refused contracts with governments and dubious (i.e., fraudulent) advertisements.

He stated at the time that "It will be my earnest aim that the New York Times give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form." He would later adopt the masthead slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print." Competing against eight other daily New York papers, including those of sensationalists Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, Ochs built the Times's readership from 9,000 to 780,000 in just twenty years, thereby winning it a permanent place in American journalism.

Ochs also pioneered the idea of a "newspaper of record" when he began publishing the New York Times Index, a comprehensive cross-referenced guide to almost every article, name, and news item that had appeared in the paper. Long before modern search engines gave people the ability to search old newspapers, Ochs created a researcher's dream tool and published it for a profit. (Other newspapers kept internal index files for reporters and editors, but none considered publishing and selling it until Ochs.)

We celebrate Ochs today as an innovator in the newspaper business as well as a visionary in how to mark (and market) the celebration of a new year.

Sources:
Profile on Jewish Virtual Library
Wikipedia profile of Ochs
Official NYT obituary of Ochs
History of Times Square New Year's Eve party

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