COMMENTARY – Charles Sheldon’s great experiment

By Chris Clegg

I doubt any of you have ever heard of Dr. Charles Sheldon. He was born in 1857 and eventually became a clergyman at age 29. Later, he became involved in one of the most unusual and dramatic experiments in the history of journalism.
Sheldon had an idea, a very simple idea. What if a newspaper published only positive news? More precisely, what would a newspaper look like if Jesus Christ was editor?
Sheldon argued his readers were not thirsty for sensationalism and gossip. He believed they preferred decency and goodwill. He believed circulation would rise, not fall.
His hometown newspaper, the Topeka Capital in Kansas, took the challenge. From Tuesday, March 13, 1900 to Saturday, March 17, he was granted full editorial control. By this time, the entire world was watching. The Capital and Sheldon were in fact a major news story themselves attracting 19 newsmen from around North America to cover the event.
The first thing the Capital noticed was thousands of advance subscriptions poured into the office. Curiosity had struck from around the world from as far as South Africa. What would the Topeka clergyman do?
Sheldon tried to put himself in Christ’s shoes. He realized Jesus never saw a car, a motion picture, train, printing press, phone, radio, electric light or printed book.
First thing Sheldon did was play down crime, violence, scandal and vice. He did not ignore it but pushed it to the back pages. Society page news was condensed to almost nothing. Theatre news was dropped. Virtue and goodwill became front page news.
Sheldon moved editorials to the front page. Each was signed. He viewed lack of a byline on opinion as sheer cowardice. Take that, Edmonton Sun! Every front page news story was followed by balanced editorial comment.
A famine in India prompted Sheldon to ask for donations. Over $1 million in food and aid was raised.
In keeping with religion, the Sunday edition was dropped in favour of a special Saturday night edition.
Even the reporters were affected. No more smoking, drinking or swearing in the newsroom.
Certain ads were banned such as tobacco, patent medicines, electric belts, drunk cures and alcohol. Special sales were banned because Sheldon did not have time to verify values. Ads with corsets, ladies’ hosiery and underwear were too suggestive and banned. So were sporting and theatre ads.
However, local businesses cheered a decision to ban advertising from the big stores in Kansas City. All this cost the newspaper thousands of dollars in advertising revenue.
But something else happened. Call it curiosity, call it a fad, call it what you want, but circulation rose to 362,684 from a measly 11,223. Local presses could not handle the demand. The Capital was also printed in Chicago, New York and London.
Was Sheldon’s great experiment a success? Did it prove anything?
It’s difficult to tell. A week’s sampling is certainly not enough.
Many newspapers are criticized for being too negative and giving too much play to violence, crime, and accidents. Take a look at the people reading them. A market must exist.
It is interesting to note no one has taken Sheldon’s great experiment to an extreme. No one has tried to publish a newspaper as Sheldon did. Would it survive? Would it flourish?
We won’t know until someone tries.

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