For a time, Sherman gave Gauvreau the freedom to chase his own stories. He was especially pleased with his discovery of an aging woman who had been a doyenne of Chicago society but who now was living the life of a hermit. The writing reflected the journalistic sensibilities of the era—long, elaborate, baroque, but which Gauvreau also imbued with elegance and heart.
There is an atmosphere of gloom about this old house of the one-time philanthropist. It seems to have withdrawn quietly from the blare of mechanical music and tinsel show of the pleasure resort, seeking protection amid the long, thin trees of the hull. The blinds are shut, the paint has long since faded from the house, and the building to all appearance is vacant. The only noise on the premises is that of the creaking hinges of the blinds.
But Sherman had bigger plans for him, plans that, in hindsight, suggest a boss looking not for a star but for a successor. Gauvreau was working, by his estimation, thirteen-hour days, and despite his youth was taking on the tasks of a manager. Sherman had been running the newsroom for twenty-two years, reporting to a proud and aging owner and editor, Charles Clark, in whom Gauvreau saw the centurion standing in the path of change.
“The age of rugged, personal journalism was dying,” he wrote. “The streamlined march of newspaper progress, as it was called, was merciless and we had to keep up with it .”
Clark did not trouble himself with circulation, and seemed at turns oblivious or hostile to the great societal changes taking place around him. Gauvreau and the paper’s business editor, meanwhile, products of the Jazz Age, began searching for ways to lure readers—comics, joke columns, syndicated features. Gauvreau launched the region’s first newsroom radio station and set off for a trip across the country, to see what other papers were doing to boost their readership. When Clark spotted a copy of the nation’s first tabloid, the New York Daily News, on Gauvreau’s desk, he snorted, “that sheet is a hopeless venture. Readers will never be satisfied with a paper that throws its news out to print pictures.”
But they were satisfied. and not because the Daily News had thrown out its news, but rather because the paper had succeeded in redefining news to suit its purposes. The paper’s founders—Joseph Patterson and his cousin, Robert McCormick, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune—had modeled the Daily News after Lord Northcliffe’s London Daily Mirror, one of the world’s first tabloids; the name of this species was derived from medicine that now came not in powdered form, but in little tablets. At the Daily News, news meant lots of photos. It meant “society news” on page six, five-dollar “stranger than fiction” stories from readers (“no attention will be paid to literary style”), advice columns (“Keep Kids Well”), and all sorts of contests—“Bright Sayings,” “My Funniest Motor Experience,” neither of which proved a keeper, and “Most Beautiful Girl,” which did.
The idea was to make the experience fun. But something far more significant was taking place than merely choosing “Gasoline Alley” as a comic strip. The business side of the News had dispatched to Manhattan’s Lower East Side a scout—enter into the journalistic hall of fame the name Sinclair Dakin—who returned with news akin to the true discovery of the Lost City of Gold: a vast and untapped market of readers. The neighborhood, she reported, was no longer the downtrodden immigrant district of the past. There were fewer immigrants, but those immigrants who remained had, over the past twenty years, steadily ascended the income ladder. They had money to spend. And they had had children who emulated them in the race to assimilate. They worked. And they read.
They read at home and they read on the subway—where the tabloid was far easier to negotiate than a broadsheet—and when they were done, they left the paper on their seats for another reader to pick up. Word of mouth: the marketer’s dream.
That reader had a name: Sweeney. And at the paper, a guiding maxim evolved: “Tell it to Sweeney.” In its early years, the Daily News tried all sorts of ways to please Sweeney. It made stories shorter. It gave him newsier photos. It provided him with help wanted ads. And, perhaps most importantly, it gave him a voice—from the “Vox Pop” column to the “Love Story Plot Contest.”