Tag Archives: Lord Northcliffe

‘Dog Bites a Man’ Is Not News. ‘Man Bites a Dog’ Is News

John B. Bogart? Charles A. Dana? Amos Cummings? Horace Greeley? Jesse Lynch Williams? Billy Woods? Doc Wood? Alfred Harmsworth? Lord Northcliffe? Joseph Pulitzer? Anonymous?

dana04Dear Quote Investigator: Would you please explore one of the most famous maxims in the news business? Legend states that a neophyte reporter asked a sage editor to define “news”, and he received this reply:

When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.

This saying has been credited to several newspaper people including: John B. Bogart, Amos Cummings, and Charles A. Dana who all worked at the New York Sun. The British press baron Alfred Harmsworth who became Lord Northcliffe has also been named as the originator.

Quote Investigator: The earliest written evidence located by QI appeared in a book titled “The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories” by Jesse Lynch Williams in 1899. The adage was spoken by a fictional character named “Billy Woods” in a chapter called “The Old Reporter”. Woods was considered a repository of knowledge and wisdom by fellow reporters though his lack of a college education sometimes made him self-conscious. In the following passage Woods entertained young reporters and explained his concept of newsworthiness. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Then he would open up, put them at their ease, discourse interestingly about the traditions of the office, and fascinate them, as he could anyone, man or woman, who came in his way.

“No wonder Senators at the Fifth Avenue Hotel like to have Mr. Woods come up and slap them on the back!” “No wonder he can make anybody talk about everything,” thought the new reporters, while the old one went on in his rapid style, “You’ll soon assimilate the idea. Now, for instance, ‘A dog bites a man’—that’s a story; ‘A man bites a dog’—that’s a good story,” etc., until in a lull there came the question—inevitable from very recent graduates:

“What college are you from Mr. Woods?”
Billy always felt better when this was over.

The author Jesse Lynch Williams went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. QI speculates that Williams was trying to achieve verisimilitude in his novel by relaying an anonymous witty remark he had heard from within the newspaper business.

By August 1902 a version of the adage was being credited to the prominent newspaper editor Charles Anderson Dana. Here is a short item from a paper in Omaha, Nebraska that reprinted information from a paper in Buffalo, New York: 2

The Buffalo Commercial relates that Richard Harding Davis once asked Charles A. Dana: “What constitutes news?” “If you should see a dog biting a man,” replied Dana, “don’t write it up. But if you should see a man biting a dog, spare not money, men nor telegraph tolls to get the details to the Sun office.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1899, The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories by Jesse Lynch Williams, Chapter: The Old Reporter, Start Page 215, Quote Page 223, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1902 August 3, Omaha Daily Bee, Personal and General, (Paragraph size news item), Quote Page 14, Column 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (Chronicling America)

News Is What Somebody Does Not Want You To Print. All the Rest Is Advertising

George Orwell? Alfred Harmsworth? William Randolph Hearst? L. E. Edwardson? Robert W. Sawyer? Mark Rhea Byers? Brian R. Roberts? Malcolm Muggeridge? Katharine Graham? Lord Rothermere? Lord Northcliffe? Anonymous?

hearstmore02Dear Quote Investigator:  I have been trying to trace a popular saying about journalism which can be expressed in several ways. Here are four examples to show the core of the statement:

1) News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.

2) News is something which somebody wants suppressed: all the rest is advertising

3) News is anything anybody wants to suppress; everything else is public relations.

4) Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.

These remarks do differ, but I think it makes sense to group them all together. Press baron William Randolph Hearst and renowned author George Orwell have both been credited with originating this saying. Could you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strongly matching expression found by QI was published in 1918 in a New York periodical called “The Fourth Estate: A Newspaper for the Makers of Newspapers”. The words were printed on a sign at a journalist’s desk, and no precise attribution was given. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising; whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news,” is the sentiment expressed in a little framed placard on the desk of L. E. Edwardson, day city editor of the Chicago Herald and Examiner.

In the following decades the saying evolved and instances were employed by or attributed to a wide variety of prominent news people including William Randolph Hearst, Alfred Harmsworth, Brian R. Roberts, and Katharine Graham.

This entry was improved with the help of top researcher Barry Popik who adroitly explored this topic and shared the results at his website “The Big Apple”. 2

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1918 November 30, The Fourth Estate: A Newspaper for the Makers of Newspapers, (Filler item), Quote Page 18, Column 4, Publisher Ernest F, Birmingham, Fourth Estate Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “If you want something in the paper, that’s advertising; you want something kept out, that’s news”, Date on website: July 11, 2014, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik on January 10, 2015) link