Penny Press

Cutting the Price of Newspapers to a Penny Was a Startling Innovation

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Penny Press was the term used to describe the revolutionary business tactic of producing newspapers which sold for one cent. The Penny Press is generally considered to have started in 1833, when Benjamin Day founded The Sun, a New York City newspaper.

Day, who had been working in the printing business, started a newspaper as a way to salvage his business after setbacks which began during a local financial panic caused by the cholera epidemic of 1832.

His idea of selling a newspaper for a penny seemed radical at a time when most newspapers sold for six cents.

He reasoned that many working class people were literate, but were not newspaper customers simply because no one had published a newspaper targeted to them. By launching The Sun, Day was taking a gamble. But it proved successful.

Besides making the newspaper very affordable, Day instituted another innovation, the newsboy. By hiring boys to hawk copies on street corners, The Sun was both affordable and readily available. People wouldn’t even have to step into a shop to buy it.

Influence of The Sun

Day did not have much of a background in journalism, and The Sun had fairly loose journalistic standards. In 1834 it published the notorious “Moon Hoax,” in which the newspaper claimed scientists had found life on the moon. The story was outrageous and proven false, but the public found it entertaining.

Instead of being discredited, The Sun became more popular.

The success of The Sun encouraged James Gordon Bennett, who had serious journalistic experience, to found The Herald, another newspaper priced at one cent. Other papers, including the New York Tribune and the New York Times, also began publication as penny papers.

By marketing a newspaper to the public the way he had, Benjamin Day inadvertently kicked off a very competitive era in American journalism.