The Washington Post’s new slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” might sound like something pulled from the banner of Clark Kent’s Daily Planet, and it is certainly getting its share of eye-rolls and ribs on Twitter, Slate, and even late-night talk shows. But the dramatic motto is actually in keeping with history, not only of the paper itself, but of the industry, in general.
“Newspapers and other products of the printing press were some of the first mass-produced products,” says Mitchell Stephens, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and author of A History of News. “Slogans on the ears of the front page were the most regular and visible way to advertise.”
It’s difficult to say when the first slogan appeared on an American newspaper, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that taglines have been used intermittently since colonial days and the pioneer press. Dean of Medill School of Journalism and journalism historian Brad Hamm says that mottos usually served one or both of two purposes: First, as a mini-mission statement, defining the paper and its goal, or to distinguish itself from its competition. “Many cities had many newspapers,” he says. “You had to establish your brand and your views.”
For instance, in 1775, there were three separate papers in and around Williamsburg that printed under the flag Virginia Gazette. Each carried a different tagline. One claimed to be “Containing the freshest Advices, Foreign and Domestick,” another was “Open to All Parties but Influenced by None,” and the last declared that it was “Always for Liberty and the Publick Good.”
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The newspaper markets of major cities were truly flooded during the newsprint heyday of the late-19th Century. And from that sea of yellow rags emerged what is today, probably the best-known newspaper slogan. In 1896, Adolph Ochs, a Chattanooga newspaperman, bought the (actually) failing New York Times and held a contest for the new slogan. The winning entry was “It Will Not Soil the Breakfast Cloth,” meaning it would not sully the breakfast table with the same salaciousness that was spewing from Ochs’s chief New York rivals—William Randolph Hearst’s Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s World. A year later, Ochs scrapped the dirt-slinging for the cleaner “All The News That’s Fit to Print.”
“The Times slogan was intended to distinguish itself,” says Stephens. “But it was also a call to seriousness, to the higher function of the newspaper.”
While there is a clear parallel between The Gray Lady’s time-tested motto and The Post’s new mantra as the two lead the modern charge against “Fake News,” other papers’ slogans have been typically rooted in more modest, if no less noble, goals. Over the decades, papers have proclaimed a grand vision (Wall Street Journal: “Daily Diary of the American Dream”), boasted (Chicago Tribune: “The World’s Greatest Newspaper”), sold themselves (Mason Valley News (Yerington, Nevada): “The Only Newspaper in the World that Gives a Damn About Yerington”), warned their readers (Aspen (Colorado) Daily News: “If You Don’t Want It Printed, Don’t Let It Happen”), or just made readers laugh (Daily Mail (UK): “A Newspaper Not a Snoozepaper”). Even actual fake news has its own ironic slogan (The Onion: “America’s Finest News Source”).
In that historical context, The Post’s new motto, its mission to do nothing short of shedding life-preserving light onto our democracy, doesn’t seem quite so outlandish.
“[The Post’s slogan] is dramatic and self-important,” says Stephens. “But rightfully so. The Post has already proven its role in our democracy when government most overstepped its bounds, during Watergate. The Post has earned it.”
Tony Rehagen has written for Pacific Standard, GQ, Bloomberg, and ESPN The Magazine. He is based in St. Louis and is on Twitter @trehagen.