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.”
By 1924, when Macfadden and Gauvreau launched the tabloid they had renamed the New York Evening Graphic, they were not so much competing for readers as they were intruding on a relationship six years in the making. They were, in essence, trying to lure readers away with the promise of even more fun, and sensation. As Gauvreau was to learn, gimmicks can seduce for a day or so. But they do not necessarily buy loyalty.
The lesson was slow in coming.
Perhaps it might have had a chance had it been competing against only one tab; Macfadden, after all, had a loyal core of fitness buffs who presumably found a reassuring voice in the paper’s screeds against physicians, high-heeled shoes, and hats; “Air the hair” was a Macfadden credo. But three months before the Graphic’s maiden edition, William Randolph Hearst, uncustomarily late to the game, had launched the New York Daily Mirror. The tabloid war was on, and Gauvreau soon began hearing of stacks of the Graphic being dumped in the East River.
By his fifth year at the Graphic, while not necessarily wincing at what he had done in service of Macfadden’s dream, Gauvreau could certainly look back and mark the toll that chasing the Daily News had taken on his system. He was only in his mid-thirties, he wrote, but “five years of tabloidia turned my hair iron gray .” Hewing to Macfadden’s proven magazine formula of letting real people tell real stories, the Graphic’s early pages featured such headlines as “I Murdered My Wife Because She Cooked Fishballs For Dinner.” Readers’ early curiosity, however, gave way to a quick drop in sales, which only spurred Gauvreau on.
He stole like mad. The Graphic offered contests, reader confessionals, and the odd scandal, but was still panting in its pursuit of the News. The paper might enjoy a bump of 200,000 readers vying for the $5,000 first prize in its crossword puzzle contest. But the numbers faded with the end of the contest, and the Graphic had no choice but to raise the stakes to $25,000, which Hearst then bested with a prize of $30,000.
Much as he would have loved a big story—the sort of story that had made his name in Connecticut—Gauvreau now saw that he could no longer rely on events alone to draw readers. “Circulation,” he wrote, “had to be kept up by making news.”