Friday, December 11, 2009

Newspaper readers made iconic Christmas editorial enduring

One of American Journalism's most familiar editorials remains so popular that Macy's is again using it for its holiday advertising and CBS-TV is running an animated prime-time special about the girl who sparked the response by the New York Sun in 1897. However, it was less editors than readers who were responsible for its enduring impact.

“Is There A Santa Claus?” was a response to 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon's letter to the editor asking, "Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?" And American University Journalism professor W. Joseph Campbell says it was reader demand that caused the Sun to start reprinting it annually in the 1920s,

“Before then, it was reprinted only sporadically,” Campbell said. “Newspaper editors are not always as perceptive as their readers in identifying and calling attention to journalism of significance and lasting value."

The piece (read it online here -- ) was written is a few hours by Francis Pharacellus Church.

Its popularity continues, according to Campbell, because
• It offers a connection to another, distant time. It is reassuring to know that what was appealing in 1897 remains appealing today.
• It is a cheery, reaffirming story: one without villains or sinister elements.
• The editorial reminds adults about Christmases past and a time when they, too, were believers.
• It has been a way over the years for parents to address children’s skepticism about Santa Claus without having to fib. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question.

Campbell, author of Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (Praeger, 2001), says dismissing that era of Journalism as worthless sensationalism is a distortion of Journalism's value.