With media, Munsey meant business


July 13, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Sharp-eyed passers-by along Calvert Street may have noticed that it's not the "unsey Building" undergoing renovation by Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, but the landmark Munsey Building.

Designed by the famed New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, the building has graced the southeastern quadrant of Monument Square since 1909.

One hopes the missing "M," which may have been stolen or damaged and removed during construction work, will be replaced.

An article in The Sun last week about the conversion of the 18-story neo-classical Munsey Building at Calvert and Fayette streets into apartments said the building was named for a "New York businessman."

Often, the identities of individuals for whom anything is named are simply lost with time, and perhaps that's what has happened to Frank A. Munsey, who had substantial publishing interests in Baltimore for nearly a decade.

Munsey, depending on your view, was one of the country's most celebrated, hated or imaginative newspaper and magazine publishers ever. Today's counterparts to Munsey would most likely be Rupert Murdoch and Mort Zuckerman.

Munsey loomed large over the publishing landscape in the early 20th century. He regularly bought, merged, sold and terminated publications with a calculated ruthlessness that was intent always on the bottom line. And he took an almost perverse thrill in his latest triumphs, trumpeting them in bawdy front-page announcements.

"They were full of a kind of greasy righteousness, like a man praying over a friend whose throat he had just cut. Such an announcement meant simply that the plant had been sold and the men needn't come to work [the] next day; that their jobs were gone, their incomes were no more and they and their families could rot," said The Evening Sun. "You might say that if this were humorous, then so was the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve."

Munsey, born on a hardscrabble farm in Mercer, Maine, in 1854, quit his job as a telegraph operator in 1882 and moved to New York. There he founded and published Golden Argosy, a children's magazine.

In 1889, he established Munsey's Magazine, and after he cut the price from 25 cents to 10 cents, it became a national success.

Explaining his approach to business, Munsey said, "I bought paper on time. I bought everything I could on time. The very audacity of it all gave me credit and more and more credit all the while. But merciful heavens! Then the bills fell due!"

In the 1890s, Munsey renamed Golden Argosy and switched its editorial content to adult material. It, too, became successful.

The magazine, printed on inexpensive pulp paper, spawned an entire genre of publications that became known not only for their paper stock but their somewhat racy content. "Pulp fiction" ranged from love, detective, western, war to railroad stories.

Shaking off criticism of his use of cheap pulp paper, Munsey said, "The story is more important than the paper it's printed on."

As president and sole owner of the Frank A. Munsey Co., he created other magazines and gobbled up newspapers. His far-flung empire included the Boston Journal, New York Daily News, New York Press, New York Herald, New York Sun and Washington Times.

Other business interests included the Mohican Co., which owned and operated groceries throughout New England, Pennsylvania and New York. He also owned the Munsey Trust Co. and the Mohican Hotel in New London, Conn.

In 1908, he acquired the Baltimore Evening News, and in 1920 the Baltimore Star and Baltimore American from Gen. Felix Agnus. He later merged the Star with the News and in 1923 sold the News and American to William Randolph Hearst.

Munsey's News became such a potent force in Baltimore that the A.S. Abell Co., publishers of The Sun, established The Evening Sun in 1910 in an effort to stem eroding circulation.

Munsey's empire crested with the ownership of 18 newspapers, and he once exclaimed that the Baltimore News "was the best-paying paper I ever owned."

A Yankee eccentric, Munsey ruled his properties with an iron fist. He detested the overweight and old. He was against smoking and paper-strewn floors. Broken furniture and ink-stained desks enraged him.

If entering a city room and encountering an obese staff member, no matter if he was the paper's star reporter or editor, he'd turn to a manager and bellow, "Fire him, he's too fat!"

In 1925, Munsey died in New York's Lenox Hill Hospital, leaving most of his $40 million fortune to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also remembered an old sweetheart from his youth to whom he left $2,000.

William Allen White, the noted editor, wrote what has become one of the most celebrated editorials in journalism history.

"Frank Munsey contributed to the journalism of his day the talent of a meat packer, the morals of a money changer and the manner of an undertaker. He and his kind have about succeeded in transforming a once-noble profession into an 8 percent security. May he rest in trust."

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