Emile Gauvreau wanted his million readers. Or, in the parlance of the moment, all those eyeballs. Only after he did everything he could to woo them did he see that he had been playing a loser’s game all along.
My Last Million Readers begins deceptively; its early pages suggest a tale that will do for journalism what Horatio Alger did for free enterprise: the story of a young man of modest means and low self-regard who finds a home in a newsroom, and by dint of his wit, enterprise, and piranha-like pursuit of a story, works his way up the career ladder, landing in the big city at the precise moment when the newspaper business was undergoing a revolution that, in its time, rivaled the one taking place today.
Gauvreau grew up poor, the son of a French-Canadian father whose forebears had fought for the British, thereby making young Gauvreau an outsider by birthright. His condition was exacerbated by a childhood leg injury that nearly crippled him and, by chance, made him a young devotee of Macfadden’s muscle-building regimens. His itinerant family finally settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where his bookish, opinionated father found work in a gun factory. Gauvreau was sixteen and training to become a musician—he played the flute—when money at home became so tight that he was forced to leave high school after two years, and, with an introduction from his disappointed music teacher, take a job at New Haven’s Journal-Courier.
There he discovered in his editor a man who “opened a door through which I was to pass to see the best and worst of what may be absorbed in a lifetime,” he wrote; “from darkest Russia to the jungles of Nicaragua; from Presidents to paupers; from high idealism to the lowest depths into which humanity can crawl.”
It was 1909 and the newsroom was a mix of aging men learning to type after careers spent writing in longhand and an annual influx of Yale undergrads, among them Sinclair Lewis. Gauvreau focused his considerable energy into extricating himself from the tedium of covering funerals and sermons, so that he could chase stories of his own, the splashier the better. He graduated from obit editor to police reporter and his editor did not stop him from trying his hand at solving the ones that vexed the local cops, among them the slaying of a local merchant at the hands of a failed playwright who, it turned out—fulfilling the darkest wish of every reporter who grew up on the chilly periphery of the smart set—had been a childhood tormentor. Gauvreau watched him hang. “When I left the prison to write my story,” he wrote, “I found out why newspapermen drank and I had my first half tumbler of cognac.”
He was making a name for himself. He exposed the local politician who pocketed $25 for every prostitute he bailed out. “I was no longer interested in printing surface facts,” he wrote. His boss, however, rewarded his enterprise with ever more desk work—sports editor, business editor, automobile editor, real estate editor, and, with the outbreak of World War I and the need for someone to plow through 100,000 daily words of dispatches from the fronts, telegraph editor: a pre-historic aggregator.
But the promotions, and better pay, brought him only limited joy: “I had to be a reporter again.” The managing editor of the Hartford Courant, Clifton Sherman, had been impressed with Gauvreau’s sleuthing and told him a reporting job at his paper was his when he wanted it. He headed to Hartford, pausing only long enough to marry the Journal-Courier’s young society editor who had left Mount Holyoke College for journalism, and who, much to her eventual regret, would leave journalism for him.
The Courant claimed the mantle of the nation’s oldest paper—a battle it maintains to this day with, of all places, the New York Post. It ran the Declaration of Independence as a news story and counted George Washington as a subscriber. But that history, Gauvreau would soon come to believe, had entombed the Courant in the antediluvian notion that it existed to serve the needs of the select few in what, its editor in chief liked to remind his staff, was known as “the land of steady habits.”