James Gordon Bennett

Innovative Editor of the New York Herald

Photographic portrait of James Gordon Bennett
James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald. Photo by Mathew Brady/Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

James Gordon Bennett was a Scottish immigrant who became the successful and controversial publisher of the New York Herald, a hugely popular newspaper of the 19th century.

Bennett’s thoughts on how a newspaper should operate became highly influential, and some of his innovations became standard practices in American journalism.

Fast Facts: James Gordon Bennett

Born: September 1, 1795, in Scotland.

Died: June 1, 1872, in New York City.

Accomplishments: Founder and publisher of the New York Herald, often credited as being the inventor of the modern newspaper.

Known for: An eccentric with obvious flaws whose devotion to putting out the best newspaper he could led to many innovations now common in journalism.

A combative character, Bennett gleefully mocked rival publishers and editors including Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune and Henry J. Raymond of the New York Times. Despite his many quirks, he was respected for the level of quality he brought to his journalistic endeavors.

Before founding the New York Herald in 1835, Bennett spent years as an enterprising reporter, and he is credited as being the first Washington correspondent from a New York City newspaper. During his years operating the Herald he adapted to such innovations as the telegraph and high-speed printing presses. And he was constantly seeking better and faster ways to collect and distribute the news.

Bennett became wealthy from publishing the Herald, but he possessed little interest in pursuing a social life. He lived quietly with his family, and was obsessed with his work. He could usually be found in the newsroom of the Herald, diligently working at a desk he had made with planks of wood placed atop two barrels.

Early Life

James Gordon Bennett was born September 1, 1795 in Scotland. He grew up in a Roman Catholic family in a predominantly Presbyterian society, which no doubt gave him a sense of being an outsider.

Bennett received a classical education, and he studied at a Catholic seminary in Aberdeen, Scotland. Though he considered joining the priesthood, he chose to emigrate in 1817, at the age of 24.

After landing in Nova Scotia, he eventually made his way to Boston. Penniless, he found a job working as a clerk for a bookseller and printer. He was able to learn the fundamentals of the publishing business while also working as a proofreader.

In the mid-1820s Bennett moved on to New York City, where he found work as a freelancer in the newspaper business. He then took a job in Charleston, South Carolina, where he absorbed important lessons about the newspapers from his employer, Aaron Smith Wellington of the Charleston Courier.

Something of a perpetual outsider anyway, Bennett definitely did not fit in with the social life of Charleston. And he returned to New York City after less than a year. Following a period of scrambling to survive, he found a job with the New York Enquirer in a pioneering role: he was sent to be the first Washington correspondent for a New York City newspaper.

The idea of a newspaper having reporters stationed in distant places was innovative. American newspapers up to that point generally just reprinted news from the papers published in other cities. Bennett recognized the value of reporters gathering facts and sending dispatches (at the time by handwritten letter) instead of relying on the work of people who were essentially competitors.

Bennett Founded the New York Herald

Following his foray into Washington reporting, Bennett returned to New York and tried twice, and failed twice, to launch his own newspaper. Finally, in 1835, Bennett raised about $500 and founded the New York Herald.

In its earliest days, the Herald operated out of a dilapidated basement office and faced competition from about a dozen other news publications in New York. The chance of success was not great.

Yet over the course of the next three decades Bennett turned the Herald into the newspaper with the largest circulation in America. What made the Herald different than all the other papers was its editor's relentless drive for innovation.

Many things we consider ordinary were first instituted by Bennett, such as the posting of the day’s final stock prices on Wall Street. Bennett also invested in talent, hiring reporters and sending them out to gather news. He was also keenly interested in new technology, and when the telegraph came along in the 1840s he made sure the Herald was quickly receiving and printing news from other cities.

Political Role of The Herald

One of Bennett’s greatest innovations in journalism was to create a newspaper that was not attached to any political faction. That probably had to do with Bennett’s own streak of independence and his acceptance of being an outsider in American society.

Bennett was known to write scathing editorials denouncing political figures, and at times he was attacked in the streets and even publicly beaten because of his strident opinions. He was never dissuaded from speaking out, and the public tended to regard him as an honest voice.

Legacy of James Gordon Bennett

Before Bennett’s publishing of the Herald, most newspapers consisted of political opinions and letters written by correspondents which often had obvious and pronounced partisan slant. Bennett, though often considered a sensationalist, actually instilled a sense of values in the news business which endured.

The Herald was very profitable. And while Bennett became personally wealthy, he also put profits back into the newspaper, hiring reporters and investing in technological advances such as increasingly advanced printing presses.

At the height of the Civil War, Bennett was employing more than 60 reporters. And he pushed his staff to make sure the Herald published dispatches from the battlefield before anyone else.

He knew members of the public might purchase only one newspaper a day, and would naturally be drawn to the paper that was the first with the news. And that desire to be the first to break news, of course, became the standard in journalism.

After Bennett’s death, on June 1, 1872, in New York City, the Herald was operated by his son James Gordon Bennett, Jr. The newspaper continued to be very successful. Herald Square in New York City is named for the newspaper, which had been based there in the late 1800s.

Controversy has followed Bennett many decades after his death. For many years the New York City Fire Department has awarded a medal for heroism named for James Gordon Bennett. The publisher, with his son, had set up a fund to award the medal to heroic firefighters in 1869.

In 2017 one of the recipients of the medal issued a public call to rename the medal in light of the elder Bennett's history of racist comments.

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McNamara, Robert. "James Gordon Bennett." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/james-gordon-bennett-1773663. McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). James Gordon Bennett. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/james-gordon-bennett-1773663 McNamara, Robert. "James Gordon Bennett." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/james-gordon-bennett-1773663 (accessed February 6, 2023).