This month marks the 120th anniversary of the New York City newsboys’ strike. Its repercussions were felt in Santa Barbara almost a half-century later, when the city’s own newsboys revolted.
In July 1899, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World raised from 50 to 60 cents the price its newsboys paid for 100 papers. The young newsboys organized a strike. Pulitzer fought back, employing strike breakers, but the public backed the boys. Within two weeks, the World’s circulation had dropped 65 percent, and Pulitzer capitulated.
The audacious newsboys’ strike was widely reported throughout the nation. Locally, it came to the attention of a 22-year-old cub reporter for the Santa Barbara Daily News named Thomas M. Storke. Two years later, Storke borrowed money to buy the Santa Barbara Daily Independent, and in 1932 he formed the Santa Barbara News-Press, which he published for 24 years.
In 1948, with the News-Press flourishing, Thomas Storke was at the height of his newspaper publishing career. It was then that he faced his own newsboy revolt. He was 72 years old. His adversary was 10.
Raul Navarro had begun selling the News-Press at age 8. His father was blind, and he turned half his earnings over to his mother to buy groceries. Raul was below the legal age for newsboys, and when that was discovered, he had to quit.
At age 10, Raul was back with the News-Press, earning two and one-half cents for each paper he sold for five. He and eight or 10 other boys, all age 10 to 12, worked State Street from the Arlington Theatre to Cabrillo Boulevard. The group included Joe Vasquez, Gilbert Calles and Gilbert Velazquez, all still area residents.
The newsboys would gather to receive the noon edition outside the News-Press building on De la Guerra Plaza. They waited for their corpulent, cigar-chewing supervisor, “Happy” Atlas, to bring bundles of newspapers from the building, drop them onto the hood of his sedan, then dole them out to his charges.
One afternoon, Happy told the boys the Los Angeles Herald, which was also hawked on State Street, was raising the price of its daily from five to seven cents, and the News-Press would do the same. “How much more will we get for each paper?” Raul asked. Nothing more, Happy told them.
That afternoon, the newsboys gathered for a meeting, and Raul argued for a strike. It wasn’t right, he told them, not to share the increased profits. Raul was elected to seek a meeting with Santa Barbara News-Press publisher and editor Thomas M. Storke.
The following day, Raul told Happy the boys wanted more money, and would strike if they didn’t get it. “Let me talk to Mr. Storke. I want to meet him,” he asked. Happy said he would try to schedule a meeting.
The next day, Raul went upstairs at the News-Press, unheard of for a newsboy. Happy Atlas led him past the elderly secretary who guarded the publisher’s privacy, and into his office. Thomas M. Storke was an intimidating presence, seated in a high-backed chair behind a large desk. A heavy, full-faced man with white hair, he was a wealthy, seventh-generation Californian who had served as a United States senator ? perhaps the most powerful man in Santa Barbara.
Raul was nervous, unsure he could speak. But Thomas Storke was smiling. “Well, what do we have here?” he asked. “This is Raul Navarro,” Happy Atlas replied. “He thinks the newsboys have a problem with their pay.”
“What’s the problem, son?” Storke inquired. Raul swallowed and found his voice. “Sir, we think we should get a raise, since the paper will sell for seven cents.”
The publisher considered his alternatives. Happy had told him the newsboys were threatening to strike. Storke was either impressed by the audacity of the 10-year-old sitting across the desk, or worried about a newsboy strike. Or perhaps both. Raul held his breath.
“Suppose we raise your share to three cents a paper?” Storke finally asked. Raul took a deep breath. The newsboys had won. “If that’s the best you can do, sir, then we accept,” he replied.
Within a year, the Los Angeles Herald raised its price again, now to 10 cents, and the Santa Barbara News-Press followed. This time, without the threat of a strike or even a request, Thomas Storke increased the newsboys’ share from three to five cents. After all, these were “his” newsboys.
Storke would publish the Santa Barbara News-Press until he was 88. In 1962, he was awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize for journalism, established by the same New York World publisher who had faced the 1899 newsboy strike in New York City.
Raul Navarro, now 81, retired after a 40-year building contracting career in Santa Barbara. He served as a head usher at the Old Mission for 32 years, and as president of the Santa Barbara-Puerta Vallarta Sister City Committee. Mr. Navarro still subscribes to the newspaper that he threatened to strike 71 years ago.