The Real History of Fake News: An Interview with Vincent DiGirolamo
Eve M. Kahn Interviews Vincent DiGirolamo
Vincent DiGirolamo has devoted almost 30 years to documenting the lives of American children who hawked newspapers at street corners, earning pittances and cacophonously hollering out snippets of headlines. His new book, Crying the News: A History of America’s Newsboys (Oxford University Press), has received awards from groups including the Organization of American Historians and Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. He portrays these preteen strivers as heart-wrenchingly vulnerable, dodging sexual harassers on trains and bullets on battlefields and raising money to cover colleagues’ funerals. And he explores the big picture of their employers: publishers of various political bents, using ever faster printing presses, attempted to sway public opinion with mixtures of eyewitness reportage and outlandish hoaxes.
Crying thew News: A History of America’s Newsboys. Vincent Digirolamo. Oxford University Press, 2019. pp. 712 $35.00 (hardback)
Orphaned male newsies, just out of toddlerhood, would feign toughness by chain-smoking. Newsgirls dressed in drag to avoid being accused of prostitution while competing for passersby’s pennies. African-American children proffering papers were subjected to vicious verbal and physical abuse on the sidewalks, and Japanese-American newsies on the West Coast were fired en masse during World War II and exiled to scrubland internment camps. Reformers meanwhile tried to keep the young professionals fed, shod, educated, and housed. Journalists and photographers including Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Alice Austen, and Lydia Maria Childs documented the sidewalk scene, and DiGirolamo prodigiously quotes and reproduces their haunting works. There were some happy endings for former newsies, like Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, and Ralph Bunche, and the dubious profession has been heroized in countless films, plays, poems, and paintings, as well as bronze commemorative statues posted outside newsrooms.
DiGirolamo grew up in Monterey, California, in a family of “news criers,” he explains. He heard Great Depression reminiscences from his father and half a dozen uncles “about selling papers and shining shoes” as the family scraped by. He started taking formal notes on newsies in the historical record while studying for his master’s at UC Santa Cruz (1989) and continued while earning his doctorate from Princeton University (1997). His small-bore treasures excavated are as vivid as “an ancient newspaper soaked in bacon grease” which sold for a princely $15 at an 1890s Yukon mining town that “abounded in mud and boredom,” and the gangstress Bonnie Parker’s 1934 ode to starving newsboys longing for more police killings in the headlines so that “we’d make a few dimes” selling papers.
Our hour-long phone conversation in late summer kept returning to the subject of the contemporary resonances of his discoveries about the dissemination of reliable and shaky information in print. The newsies, after all, were shouting out an early form of clickbait.
EK: Why are Americans so fond of newsies? They’re not such a fixture in popular culture elsewhere, you don’t see them in books and movies and art from other countries in such quantity.
VG: It resonates with us as part of our ideology that we can reinvent ourselves, that we’re not bound by what our fathers and grandfathers did, that we can escape those limitations. And from the Founding Fathers onward, we tend to idealize the young person on the way up. We are receptive to that in a way that other cultures aren’t.
EK: Since the original germ of an idea, 30 years ago, you must have gone through so many changes in technology and process, just even in terms of how you stored what you were finding.
VG: A whole sea change came through—I remember going into an archive and not being allowed to bring in a laptop, for fear I would steal something that way, and then eventually only being allowed only to bring in a laptop, no pen and paper, for fear I would steal something that way. I had computers stolen over the years, and fortunately I’d always kept a hard copy of whatever I’d found. My dissertation had been organized thematically, with sections on boys, girls, etc., and it took me a long time to realize I needed a chronological structure to turn this into a book. I also had to fill in huge gaps, like the evolution of newsies’ lives during the Civil War and the role that reformers had played. I’d present chapters at conferences and get constant feedback from colleagues.
By the time I was working on the PhD, I’d met a collector, Peter Eckel, who’d worked as a photographer for the Port Authority. He’d amassed all kinds of books, prints, sculptures, badges, and other material related to newsboys, buying from secondhand bookstores. He had some really precious primary sources, like a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings kept by the Newsboys’ Lodging House in lower Manhattan, run by a charity connected to the Children’s Aid Society. And that led me to the society’s archive; when I started looking there, the papers were kept in practically a closet, but they’re now neatly organized at New-York Historical Society. And Peter’s collection, after he died, was acquired by Princeton while I was finishing up there.
EK: The newsies would skim the headlines and come up with some tidbit to call out from the paper, even if it was just a tiny item on maybe some calf born with two heads, or a rumor of a cholera outbreak. Aren’t those the ancestors of clickbait? Would readers be annoyed when they realized that what was cried out wasn’t actually a major story, or was outright hokum?
VG: The newsies figured out how to manipulate the market. They were taking liberties. It was show biz to an extent. It wasn’t seen as a betrayal. It was more the sense that ‘I got gamed, I won’t get gamed again.’ But it’s not like they wouldn’t buy that paper again, after being bamboozled by a kid.
EK: What kinds of information have surfaced since the book came out, and does your teaching this fall connect to the book?
VG: I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people who’d delivered newspapers as a child, and from their children. They’ll tell me, ‘Now I know why my father never talked about it, maybe he encountered bad things on the street.’ You can see the work as a child leaving a permanent imprint on the adult, causing a lifelong disposition of not trusting anybody, not wanting to have a boss, feeling like you have to fight for your rights, having to teach yourself a moral sense to know right from wrong. At times I would feel cynical about the reports of what these unsupervised kids went through—‘they’re trying to jerk my tears’—but there’s a lot of genuine tragedy here. They’re real people, they’re not tropes.
I have two sections of History 1000, with 25 students each, and I’m using my book as the theme. We’ll be looking at American history from the 1830s to the 1930s, with an emphasis on the role of youth and labor. I’m asking the students questions like, what was your first job? Do you think that work builds character? They have their own idea of what history should be, and how it matters and relates to them as individuals, and the story of newsies can connect to all kinds of people.
EK: Were there any facts you couldn’t pin down, any legends about newsies you couldn’t verify?
VG: There’s a lot of mythification and wild claims, and for some things, you just have to leave it as ‘probably apocryphal.’ Every American president since Lincoln was supposedly a newsboy at some point. Fanny Brice was supposedly a newsgirl before Ziegfeld discovered her, but actually her father owned a bar, so she was from a solid, reputable family. Immigrants like that would have let a son sell papers at the corner, but probably not a daughter.
EK: What’s your next project?
VG: I’m working on a grant proposal to write a book about the 19th-century journalist John Swinton. He was a Scotsman who came to New York as a child and lost his father very young. He worked as an editor, writer, orator, and radical politician, advocating for the labor movement and for civil rights. He was friends with Walt Whitman and the bohemian circle at Pfaff’s, and he interviewed Karl Marx. He eventually had his own weekly, John Swinton’s Paper, that was almost like a blog.
EK: I want to state for the record that after reading your book, I will no longer ignore the envelope for tips that comes at Christmastime from the service that delivers my New York Times, even though it’s actually the door guy who brings it up to my apartment from the lobby.
VG: You’ll recognize their labor after this. I still get hard copy of the paper, too, I should interview the guy that brings it to my door. And as in this pandemic, during the Spanish flu outbreak, people were afraid that they could get the flu from the boy who dropped off the paper, just as we’ve been wondering if we should disinfect our mail.
Vincent DiGirolamo is an associate professor of history at Baruch College of the City University of New York, where he specializes in 19th and 20th century U.S. history, with a focus on workers, children, immigrants, city life, and print culture. He currently serves as Baruch chapter chair of the PSC (Professional Staff Congress), the union representing CUNY faculty and staff.
Eve M. Kahn, an independent scholar, was the weekly Antiques Columnist at The New York Times, 2008-2016. Her first book is Forever Seeing New Beauties: The Forgotten Impressionist Mary Rogers Williams, 1857-1907 (Wesleyan University Press, 2019).