Pop culture has taught us that "newsies" were charming fellows who happily yelled out headlines from street corners and burst into song and dance at the drop of a hat. It turns out that they were less like young Christian Bale's character in Newsies and more like adult Christian Bale's character in, well, everything else.
The reality is that children selling newspapers at the turn of the 20th century were tough little bastards -- they had to be, since they were often homeless, and selling papers was the only way they made enough money to eat. Newsies paid the newspaper distributors out of their own pockets and then resold the papers to make a whopping 26 cents a day. Still, 26 cents' worth of gruel and stale bread was way better than 0 cents' worth of starvation, so when a newspaper boy found a profitable corner, he fought off his rivals to hold it (presumably the newspaper strings doubled as whips).
Library of Congress
Most papers were bought out of sheer terror.
Also, it was common for the kids to work late hours, and some literally slept on their newspapers. The one thing the Disney musical got right is that newsies did go on strike on 1899 when the two major New York papers raised distribution prices, but there was far less singing and dancing in the streets than we were told. In fact, we've mentioned before how this group of half-starved homeless kids and their eye-patch-wearing leader, Kid Blink, took on Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst and won, bringing the entire city to a standstill in the process.
The New York Times
Headline: "NEWSIES ON STRIKE!" Sub-headline: "WAIT, s**t."