The sinking of the Titanic on April 15 in 1912 was the biggest news story of its day. But people on land had only the barest facts about the tragedy at sea until almost three days later, when more than 700 survivors reached New York on the steamer Carpathia. What followed was an unprecedented media frenzy.
The Carpathia had wireless communication with the shore but on its way to New York had sent only a trickle of news. After a couple of days, it was known that most of the passengers and crew on the Titanic had died — but not much beyond that.
A theory for the near-news blackout is that the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic, was trying to manage the story by shutting out the media.
For example, newspaperman Carlos Hurd, who worked for a Hearst paper in St. Louis, happened to be on the Carpathia. Hearst editors in New York sent frantic messages to him begging for news but the ship's crew intercepted them.
That left the public was frothing for details of the disaster. By the time the Carpathia arrived in the New York harbor on April 18 around 9:15 P.M., thousands of people were standing outside Pier 54 at West 13th Street on the Hudson River.
Many were family members of passengers who didn't know if their relatives were dead or alive. Reporters waded in and worked the crowd, interviewing relatives while waiting to catch survivors coming off the ship and record their memories while they were still visceral.
Meanwhile, out in the harbor, more than 50 tugboats jammed with journalists met the Carpathia in lower New York harbor. Reporters with megaphones yelled up at the ship, offering $50 or $100 for eyewitness accounts. Photographers' cameras lit up the side of the ship with flashes of magnesium powder.
This was before the rise of radio and movie reels, when newspapers ruled. It was also a Darwinian moment in the history of American journalism.
Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism at NYU and author of The History of the News, says there were dozens of papers in multiple languages coming out three times a day in New York, with 'Extra' editions. "It was cutthroat competition between these newspapers for stories and to be first on the streets with stories,” he said. “So the streets were full of newspapers being hawked all day long."
Stephens added that the U.S. also had the highest per capita newspaper circulation in the world in the early 20th century. The fight was on to feed that audience. "Races for news were nothing new and packs of journalists were already starting to develop," he said.
Two of the heavyweights in the city were William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal and the up-and-coming New York Times.
Carr Van Anda was the editor of The Times in 1912. He rented out the top floor of the Strand Hotel, now called the Liberty Inn, and set up a temporary newsroom to better cover the disaster. The hotel was just a block from Pier 54. Then Van Anda set his sites on interviewing the Titanic’s 22-year-old wireless operator, Harold Bride. He even paid Bride’s employer, Guglielmo Marconi, who was the inventor of the wireless, to make sure he got an exclusive interview.
Marconi sent a message to Bride on the Carpathia that read, “Stop. Say nothing. Hold your story for dollars in four figures.”
When Harold Bride got to New York, a Times reporter met him onboard and took down his istory. He then reported what he'd heard: that the band played on while the ship went down and that a stoker had broken into the wireless room and tried to steal Bride's lifejacket as the Titanic was sinking, forcing the operator to beat the stoker senseless.
As for Hearst man Carlos Hurd, he spent his trip on the Carpathia interviewing Titanic survivors and hiding his notes from the crew.
He wrote up his stories and put them in a cigar box rigged with Champagne corks as floats. When the ship reached the harbor, Hurd spotted a Hearst editor in a tugboat and hurled the cigar box into the water. The editor fished it out and rushed it back to the newsroom in Lower Manhttan. Before the Carpathia had docked, an 'Extra' edition of The New York World was on the street with the banner headline:
"Titanic Boilers Blew Up, Breaking Her In Two After Striking Berg."
Not quite as fast as the Internet, but fast. And accurate. And heartbreaking.