Joseph Medill Patterson (January 6, 1879 – May 26, 1946) was an American journalist and publisher, the grandson of publisher Joseph Medill. He was the older brother of fellow publisher Cissy Patterson and the father of Alicia Patterson, founder and editor of New York’s Newsday. He was also the cousin of Robert Rutherford McCormick, with whom he worked for many years as editor of the Chicago Tribune. As founder of the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Daily News, Patterson emerged as one of the dominant newspaper publishers in the United States.
Coming from a successful newspaper family, Patterson inherited wealth, experience, and the ability to succeed in the business. However, he was sharply critical of the world of affluence in which he grew up. As a young man he espoused Socialism for a time, but was disappointed by the lack of success of the socialist political party. He served as in the First World War, first as a war correspondent and then in the US army as an officer. During his time in Europe, he read British tabloid newspapers, and on his return to the US he used the same style in the New York Daily News. In his later years he became rather conservative, espousing anti-Communist and Isolationist positions, and speaking out against American involvement in the Second World War. Although his family continued to be successful in the newspaper industry, Patterson did not really accomplish the great things he hoped for. In fact, his greatest legacy lies in the comic strips that he ran his papers, including Gasoline Alley and Dick Tracy, which have entertained readers and viewers for decades.
Joseph Medill Patterson was born on January 6, 1879, in Chicago, Illinois. His father, Robert W. Patterson Jr. had risen to a position of prominence at the Chicago Tribune and married the owner's daughter, Nellie. Patterson was groomed from birth to follow in the footsteps of his famous grandfather. His mother and his aunt, Kate, both named their firstborn sons after their famous father, aware of the importance of creating a family dynasty.
Patterson enjoyed an affluent upbringing, attending the exclusive Groton preparatory school during his youth. Patterson postponed his entry into college to live as a cowboy in Wyoming before attending Yale in 1897. Following his graduation from Yale, Patterson began working for his father at the Chicago Tribune where he covered the police beat and wrote editorials. However he eventually resigned over a disagreement with his father.
In 1902 Patterson married socialite Alice Higgenbotham, the daughter of a partner in the Marshall Field department store. To Patterson’s disappointment, the couple had three daughters. However his second daughter, Alicia, would act as a surrogate son, accompanying her father fishing, hunting, and riding and following in his footsteps as founder and editor of New York's Newsday. In 1903 Patterson was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, and would later serve as the commissioner of public works under Mayor Edward Dunne. A staunch socialist, Patterson condemned the lifestyles of the rich and resigned from office in 1906 to pursue farming.
In 1908 Patterson helped to run the presidential campaign of socialist Eugene V. Debs while publishing various socialist novels and plays including A Little Brother of the Rich in 1908 and The Fourth Estate in 1909. Discouraged by the lack of change brought about by socialism, however, Patterson returned to the Tribune after the death of his father in 1910.
After serving in World War I in London, he established the New York Daily News, the first successful tabloid in the United States. Though he denounced the United States’ entry into World War II, Patterson remained a loyal soldier. He again volunteered for service at the outbreak of the war, but he was denied reentry due to his age of 62.
Joseph Medill Patterson died in New York in 1946. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery alongside his second wife, Mary King Patterson.
After his father’s death, Patterson took over the management of the Chicago Tribune where he began experimenting with the content of the front page by featuring more crime news. At the outbreak of World War I, Patterson left the Tribune to serve for the U.S. Army. While in London, Patterson began reading the flashy British tabloids, and believed that American readers would respond favorably to similar publications. In 1917, Patterson met with Alfred Harmsworth, Viscount Northcliffe, publisher of London’s Daily Mirror, and was quickly impressed by the advantages of a tabloid.
After the end of the war, Patterson returned to the United States. In 1919, leaving the Tribune in the hands of his cousin, Robert Rutherford McCormick, Patterson moved to New York to found the Illustrated Daily News. However, the New York Daily News was not an immediate success; its emphasis on sensational news, violence, and sex scandals quickly earned it a reputation for vulgarity and illusory reporting. By August 1919 the paper’s circulation had dropped to a mere 26,000. However, due to its convenient tabloid form, much of the New York workforce found the newspaper an interesting and easy read on their daily commutes, and by June of 1920, the paper’s circulation soared past 100,000. With its large photos and exciting stories, by 1925 the paper’s circulation had reached one million.
In 1924 Patterson launched Liberty Magazine with his cousin Robert Rutherford McCormick. Aimed at an opulent public, the magazine was edited by Patterson in New York, and published out of Chicago. Despite various financial troubles, the magazine’s circulation reached 2.7 million in 1927, before being sold to Bernarr Macfadden in 1931.
Seeking to expand the operations of the New York Daily News, Patterson eventually relinquished his holdings in the Chicago Tribune in 1925. With Patterson as editor, the Daily News continued to gain widespread popularity, winning it’s first Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1937, followed by a second for editorial writing in 1941. By the early 1940s, the newspaper’s circulation had surpassed two million.
One of Patterson’s most lasting contributions to the publishing industry is the personal hand he took in managing the various comic strip properties he ran in his papers. It was at his suggestion that the lead character of Gasoline Alley adopt a foundling child who became a central character in the strip. Another famous strip he influenced was Dick Tracy, suggesting the preliminary title to be changed from Plainclothes Tracy and generally supporting its creator, Chester Gould, who insisted on a technical, grotesque and extremely violent style of storytelling. Patterson was also responsible for the idea of a comic strip about the orient, a suggestion that would lead to the creation of the strip, Terry and the Pirates.
Throughout the Great Depression, Patterson and the New York Daily News remained staunchly supportive of President Franklin D. Roosevelt despite ruthless attacks on the democratic president by the Chicago Daily Tribune. However in 1940, Patterson’s rigid isolationist viewpoint caused him to attack the president after he proposed a bill which allowed the U.S. to provide war supplies to England during World War II. Turning on Roosevelt with a vengeance, Patterson launched relentless attacks against the President and made it a dying, and public wish to outlive him. Though he remained both the editor and publisher of the Daily News, Patterson descended into a spiral of alcohol abuse until his death in New York in 1946.
Throughout his career, Joseph Medill Patterson often condemned the world in which he was raised and surrounded. As a young supporter of the socialist party, Patterson withdrew from hereditary riches to pursue political interests, though he would later become disappointed in the party's political impact. For a series of editorials supporting the presidential campaign of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Patterson received a Pulitzer Prize. In his later years, Patterson emerged as a staunch isolationist and anticommunist, maintaining this position throughout his newspaper. As founder, editor and publisher of the first U.S. tabloid, Patterson laid the foundation for the dynasty that would become the New York Daily News, emerging as one of the most dominant newspaper publishers in history.
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