The film was an initial box office bomb and received negative reviews at the time of its release, but later gained a cult following on home video. It was later adapted into a successful stage adaptation on Broadway that was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning two.
In 1899, 17-year-old Jack "Cowboy" Kelly is one of many struggling newspaper hawkers in New York City, selling copies of the New York World on the streets of Manhattan. When David Jacobs and his younger brother Les join the "newsies", Jack notices David's intelligence and Les' marketable cuteness and self-servingly takes them under his wing. Jack is invited to the Jacobs' home, becomes enamored of their sister Sarah, and sings of his desire to escape to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Attempting to outdo his business rival William Randolph Hearst, New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer raises the prices that the newsies must pay to buy newspapers from his distribution centers. Angered, Jack and David galvanize the other Manhattan newsies to go on strike. While the others spread the word to newsies in New York's other boroughs, Jack and Les confront Pulitzer and are thrown out of his office. Bryan Denton, a reporter for The Sun, takes an interest in the boys' story. Jack and David take their cause to the Brooklyn newsies, but their leader "Spot" Conlon is reluctant to join the strike. This dejects the Manhattan newsies, but David riles them up until they ambush the distribution center and destroy all of the newspapers. Disabled newsie "Crutchy" is captured by Pulitzer's enforcers the Delancey brothers and placed in an orphanage called the Refuge, run by the sketchy Warden Snyder, who neglects the orphans so he can embezzle money given to him by the city for their care.
The newsies try to ward off strikebreakers, but the struggle turns violent and turns out to be a trap set by the Delanceys. Just as the newsies are about to be arrested, Spot Conlon arrives with the Brooklyn newsies and the two groups unite to repel the police. Denton puts the story on the front page of The Sun, and the newsies plan to hold a rally. Snyder informs Pulitzer that Jack is an escapee from the Refuge, giving Pulitzer legal cause to have him arrested. Jack has breakfast with Sarah on the roof of the Jacobs' apartment building; he tells her of his desire to flee to Santa Fe, and wonders if she would miss him.
The police break up the rally and arrest the newsies, but Denton steps in to pay their legal fines. Snyder testifies against Jack and reveals to the others that Jack's real name is Francis Sullivan; his mother is deceased and his father incarcerated. Jack is sentenced to four years of rehabilitation in the Refuge. Denton is reassigned as a war correspondent and can no longer report on the strike. Jack is taken to see Pulitzer, who offers to waive his sentence and pay him a salary if he will work as a strikebreaker. When Pulitzer threatens to have the other newsies thrown into the Refuge, Jack complies. The boys attempt to rescue Jack, but he tells them to leave.
The newsies are shocked and dismayed to see Jack report for work the next day. When the Delanceys attack the Jacobs children, Jack steps in to save them, knowing this will break his deal with Pulitzer. The newsies learn from Denton that their strike has had little effect on public opinion, since the city thrives on child labor and Pulitzer has ordered newspapers not to report on the strike. Using an old printing press of Pulitzer's, they publish a "Newsie Banner" which they distribute to child workers citywide. Denton shares the paper with Governor Theodore Roosevelt, exposing the mistreatment of children at the Refuge. Numerous child laborers join the strike, bringing the city's workforce to a standstill. Jack and David confront Pulitzer, who finally gives in to their demands.
Roosevelt has Snyder arrested, releases the children from the Refuge, and thanks Jack for alerting him to the situation. He offers Jack a ride, and Jack asks to be taken to the train yards so he can head to Santa Fe. The newsies are disheartened by this, but Jack returns shortly, having been convinced by Roosevelt that he still has things to accomplish in New York. As the newsies celebrate his return, Sarah and Jack kiss and Spot gets a ride back to Brooklyn from Roosevelt.
- Christian Bale as Jack "Cowboy" Kelly aka Francis Sullivan
- David Moscow as David Jacobs
- Bill Pullman as Bryan Denton
- Robert Duvall as Joseph "Jo" Pulitzer
- Ann-Margret as Medda Larkson
- Luke Edwards as Les Jacobs
- Ele Keats as Sarah Jacobs
- Aaron Lohr as Mush Meyers
- Max Casella as Racetrack Higgins
- Michael A. Goorjian as Skittery
- Gabriel Damon as Spot Conlon
- Marty Belafsky as Crutchy
- Jeffrey DeMunn as Mayer Jacobs
- Deborra-Lee Furness as Esther Jacobs
- Kevin Tighe as Mister Snyder
- Michael Lerner as Weasel
- Shon Greenblatt as Oscar Delancey
- David Sheinkopf as Morris Delancey
- Charles Cioffi as Don Seitz
- William Boyett as Judge Monahan
- Marc Lawrence as Mr. Kloppman
- Arvie Lowe, Jr. as Boots Arbus
- Dominic Lucero as Bumlets
- Kevin Stea as Swifty "The Rake"
- RJ Harrington as Flip Top Wilson
- Dee Caspary as Snitch
- Trey Parker as Kid Blink
- Mathew Fields as Snipeshooter
- Kevin Michaels as Ten-Pin
- David James Alexander as Governor Theodore Roosevelt
- Robert Feeney as Snoddy
- Joseph Conrad as Jake
- Ivan Dudynsky as Dutchy
- Dominic Maldonado as Itey
- Julia Bax as Mattie Conrad
- Mark David as Specs
- David Sidoni as Pie Eater