History of Newspapers In America

The Press Expanded in the 1800s and Grew Into a Potent Force in Society

Old Style Printing Press
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The history of the newspaper in America begins in 1619, at roughly the same time as the tradition began in England, and a few decades after the notion of a publicly distributed summary of news began in the Netherlands and Germany. In England, "The Weekly Newes," written by Thomas Archer and Nicholas Bourne and published by Nathan Butter (d. 1664), was a collection of news items printed in a quarto format and distributed to their clients, wealthy English landowners who lived in London for 4–5 months out of the year and spent the rest of the time in the country and needed to be kept up to date.

First American Newspapers (1619–1780s)

John Pory (1572–1636), an English colonist living in the Virginia colony of Jamestown, beat Archer and Bourne by a few years, submitting an account of the activities in the colony—the health of the colonists and their crops—to the English ambassador to the Netherlands, Dudley Carleton (1573–1932).

By the 1680s, one-off broadsides were commonly published to correct rumors. The earliest surviving of these was "The Present State of the New-English Affairs," published in 1689 by Samuel Green (1614–1702). It included an extract from a letter by the Puritan clergyman Increase Mather (1639–1723) then in Kent, to the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The first regularly produced paper was "Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick," first published by Benjamin Harris (1673–1716) in Boston on September 25, 1690. The governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony did not approve of the opinions expressed by Harris and it was quickly shut down.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, notices of current events or opinions were hand-written and posted in public taverns and local churches, who subscribed to gazettes from Europe, or from other colonies, such as "The Plain-Dealer," posted in Matthew Potter's Bar in Bridgeton, New Jersey. In churches, the news was read from the pulpit and posted on the church walls. Another common news outlet was the public crier.

After Harris's suppression, it would not be until 1704 that Boston's postmaster John Campbell (1653–1728) found himself employing the printing press to publicly publish his news of the day: "The Boston News-Letter" appeared April 24, 1704. It was published continuously under different names and editors for 72 years, with its last known issue published Feb. 22, 1776.

The Partisan Era, 1780s–1830s

In the early years of the United States, newspapers tended to have small circulation for several reasons. Printing was slow and tedious, so for technical reasons no one publisher could generate enormous numbers of issues. The price of newspapers tended to exclude many common people. And while Americans tended to be literate, there simply weren't the large number of readers that would come later in the century.

Despite all that, newspapers were felt to have a profound influence on the early years of the federal government. The main reason was that newspapers were often the organs of political factions, with articles and essays essentially making the cases for political action. Some politicians were known to be connected with specific newspapers. For instance, Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) was a founder of the "New York Post" (which still exists today, after changing ownership and direction many times during more than two centuries).

In 1783, eight years before Hamilton founded the Post, Noah Webster (1758–1843), who would later publish the first American dictionary, began publishing the first daily newspaper in New York City, "The American Minerva." Webster's newspaper was essentially an organ of the Federalist Party. The paper only operated for a few years, but it was influential and inspired other newspapers that followed.

Through the 1820s the publication of newspapers generally had some political affiliation. The newspaper was the way politicians communicated with constituents and voters. And while the newspapers carried accounts of newsworthy events, the pages were often filled with letters expressing opinions.

The highly partisan era of newspapers continued well into the 1820s when campaigns waged by candidates John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson played out on the pages of newspapers. Vicious attacks, such as in the controversial presidential elections of 1824 and 1828, were carried in newspapers which were essentially controlled by candidates.

The Rise of City Newspapers, 1830s–1850s

In the 1830s newspapers transformed into publications devoted more to news of current events than outright partisanship. As printing technology allowed faster printing, newspapers could expand beyond the traditional four-page folio. And to fill the newer eight-page newspapers, content expanded beyond letters from travelers and political essays to more reporting (and the hiring of writers whose job was to go about the city and report on the news).

A major innovation of the 1830s was simply lowering the price of a newspaper: when most daily newspapers cost a few cents, working people and especially new immigrants tended not to buy them. But an enterprising New York City printer, Benjamin Day, began publishing a newspaper, The Sun, for a penny. Suddenly anyone could afford a newspaper, and reading the paper every morning became a routine in many parts of America.

And the newspaper industry got a huge boost from technology when the telegraph began to be used in the mid-1840s.

Era of Great Editors, the 1850s

By the 1850s the American newspaper industry came to be dominated by legendary editors, who battled for supremacy in New York, including Horace Greeley (1811–1872) of the "New-York Tribune," James Gordon Bennett (1795–1872) of the "New York Herald," and William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) of the "New York Evening Post." In 1851, an editor who had worked for Greeley, Henry J. Raymond, began publishing the New York Times, which was seen as an upstart without any strong political direction. 

The 1850s was a critical decade in American history, and the major cities and many large towns began to boast high-quality newspapers. A rising politician, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), recognized the value of newspapers. When he came to New York City to deliver his address at Cooper Union in early 1860, he knew the speech could put him on the road to the White House. And he made sure that his words got into the newspapers, even reportedly visiting the office of the "New York Tribune" after delivering his speech.

The Civil War

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the newspapers, especially in the North, responded quickly. Writers were hired to follow the Union troops, following a precedent set in the Crimean War by a British citizen considered the first war correspondent, William Howard Russell (1820–1907).

A staple of Civil War-era newspapers, and perhaps the most vital public service, was the publication of casualty lists. After every major action newspapers would publish many columns listing the soldiers who had been killed or wounded.

In one famous instance, the poet Walt Whitman (1818–1892) saw his brother's name on a casualty list published in a New York newspaper following the Battle of Fredericksburg. Whitman hurried to Virginia to find his brother, who turned out to be only slightly wounded. The experience of being in the army camps led Whitman to become a volunteer nurse in Washington, D.C., and to write occasional newspaper dispatches on war news.

The Calm Following the Civil War

The decades following the Civil War were relatively calm for the newspaper business. The great editors of earlier eras were replaced by editors who tended to be very professional but did not generate the fireworks that earlier newspaper reader had come to expect.

The popularity of athletics in the late 1800s meant newspapers began having pages devoted to sports coverage. And the laying of undersea telegraph cables meant that news from very distant places could be seen by newspaper readers with shocking speed.

For instance, when the distant volcanic island of Krakatoa exploded in 1883, news traveled by undersea cable to the Asian mainland, then to Europe, and then via transatlantic cable to New York City. Readers of New York's newspapers were seeing reports of the massive disaster with a day, and even more detailed reports of the devastation appeared in the following days.

The Arrival of the Linotype

Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854–1899) was the German-born inventor of the linotype machine, an innovative printing system that revolutionized the newspaper industry in the late 19th century. Before Mergenthaler's invention, printers had to set type one character at a time in a laborious and time-consuming process. The linotype, so-called because it set a "line of type" at once, greatly sped up the printing process, and let daily newspapers make changes more easily.

Mergenthaler's machine-made multiple editions easier to routinely produce editions of 12 or 16 pages. With extra space available in daily editions, innovative publishers could pack their papers with large amounts of news which previously may have gone unreported.

The Great Circulation Wars

In the late 1880s, the newspaper business received a jolt when Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911), who had been publishing a successful newspaper in St. Louis, bought a paper in New York City. Pulitzer suddenly transformed the news business by focusing on news that he thought would appeal to common people. Crime stories and other sensational subjects were the focus of his "New York World." And vivid headlines, written by a staff of specialized editors, pulled in readers.

Pulitzer's newspaper was a great success in New York, and by the mid-1890s he suddenly got a competitor when William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951), who had spent money from his family's mining fortune on a San Francisco newspaper a few years earlier, moved to New York City and bought the "New York Journal." A spectacular circulation war broke out between Pulitzer and Hearst. There had been competitive publishers before, of course, but nothing like this. The sensationalism of the competition became known as Yellow Journalism.

The high point of Yellow Journalism became the headlines and exaggerated stories which encouraged the American public to support the Spanish-American War.

At Century's End

As the 19th century ended, the newspaper business had grown enormously since the days when one-man newspapers printed hundreds, or at most thousands, of issues. Americans became a nation addicted to newspapers, and in the era before broadcast journalism, newspapers were a considerable force in public life.

By the end of the 19th century, after a period of slow yet steady growth, the newspaper industry was suddenly energized by the tactics of two dueling editors, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The two men, engaging in what became known as Yellow Journalism, fought a circulation war that made newspapers a vital part of everyday American life.

As the 20th century dawned, newspapers were read in nearly all American homes, and, without the competition from radio and television, enjoyed a period of great business success.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Lee, James Melvin. "History of American Journalism." Garden City, NY: Garden City Press, 1923. 
  • Shaaber, Matthias A. "The History of the First English Newspaper." Studies in Philology 29.4 (1932): 551-87. Print.
  • Wallace, A. "Newspapers and the Making of Modern America: A History." Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005