The Vare-ied history of the Daily News
The People Paper celebrates its 90th birthday today.
WILLIAM Scott Vare was a vote-stealer and a boodler. It seemed unlikely that his bid for a U.S. Senate seat would win the endorsement of any of Philadelphia's five daily newspapers. So he started his own.
The International News Service announced its March 31, 1925, birth this way: "The first edition of the 'Philadelphia Daily News,' a pictorial tabloid paper, made its appearance on the streets here at noon. A forty page paper was the initial offering of the Philadelphia Tabloid Publishing Company, publishers of the paper. Lee Ellmaker, who has been associated with a number of the leading dailies in the east is the publisher and manager of the company."
Vare's name was not mentioned, although it was his money - millions from the contracting business - that bankrolled the paper. Vare ran the city's Republican machine, which held most of the elected offices. That was good for business as the growing city always had a need for contractors. He also had an arrangement with Waxey Gordon and Lucky Luciano that kept them out of jail in exchange for Vare's veto power over their operations. This was also good for business.
The new tabloid was printed by the Jewish World on 5th Street near Locust — it didn't have its own presses yet — and its mix of crime, sex, celebrities, sports, politics and big photos made it an immediate hit. Readers didn't seem much bothered by the paper's odd fixation on the heroics of William Scott Vare.
The 1926 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania was a donnybrook among Vare, incumbent George Wharton Pepper (founder of the Pepper Hamilton law firm) and Gov. Gifford Pinchot. Pepper and Pinchot (a Teddy Roosevelt progressive) split the good-government vote, while Vare and his machine paid for and manufactured many thousands of votes in Philly, a winning combination. Vare won again in November, but Gov. Pinchot refused to certify the election.
The Senate, after an investigation into vote fraud, refused to seat him. Having no further need for the Daily News, Vare sold it to Bernarr MacFadden, a health-faddist and marketing genius who founded both his own religion and a media empire. MacFadden sold out to Ellmaker in 1934. Ellmaker died in 1954 and his family sold to Matthew McCloskey, a contractor who was boss of the new Democratic machine that ran the city, thus bringing the paper full circle.
McCloskey was good at politics but bad at newspapering, and in December 1956 he laid off 90 percent of the staff. The next year he sold to Walter Annenberg, who owned the Inquirer and thought the Daily News would be a good hedge against the Evening Bulletin. Thus began a 60-year Cain-and-Abel relationship between the noisy tabloid and the broadsheet that continued even as the company passed through the hands of six more owners, including five in the past nine years.
The writing at the Daily News got better, the reporting more professional and the prizes more frequent.
These included three Pulitzers, national recognition for the sports section and, in the past two years, Keystone sweepstakes awards from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, the top honor among the state's largest newspapers. Not to mention a stream of iconic cover pages and headlines: "Bruno Slain," "Rizzo Lied, Tests Show," "Stinko de Flyo."
Along the way, the paper has had more near-death experiences than a crack addict wandering Interstate 95 at 2 a.m. on New Year's Day. It barely survived the Depression. McCloskey threatened to kill it in the 1950s if the union didn't agree to pay and staff cuts; Annenberg did the same a few years later. So did corporate master Knight Ridder in the mid-'90s. Stresses on the entire industry once again are sapping staff and resources.
Yet the People Paper survives, with more readers than ever thanks to the Philly.com platform (the all-time nondigital newspaper record was 379,866 copies sold when the 76ers won the NBA championship in 1983).
Frank Dougherty, who enjoyed a 39-year career at the paper, has a story that sums things up.
About a week before his job interview in June 1961, he recalls, "I was telling my Uncle Dewey (a/k/a Joseph Donnelly, my mother's brother) about the prospect of working for the Daily News.
"'Franny, you don't want to go to the Daily News,' he warned. 'That paper is about ready to fold. You'll be out on the street before the end of the year. Get a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad. That's a job for life with good pay and a pension.'"
When Dougherty protested that he'd always dreamed of working for a newspaper, Uncle Dewey had another suggestion: "Get a copy-boy job with the Bulletin. As long as there is a city named Philadelphia, there will always be an Evening Bulletin!"
Happy 90th birthday, Daily News.
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