Penny Press

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

Illustration of a Hoe printing press of the mid-1800s.
A Hoe printing press like those used by the New York Times in the 1850s. Kean Collection/Getty Images

The 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. He had nearly gone broke after losing much of his business 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. And though Day merely saw it as a business strategy to salvage his business, his analysis touched upon a class divide in society. Newspapers that sold for six cents were simply beyond the reach of many readers.

Day 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 to be utterly false. But instead of the ridiculous stunt discrediting The Sun, the reading public found it entertaining. The Sun became even 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. Bennett was quickly successful and before long he could charge two cents for a single copy of his paper.

Subsequent newspapers, including the New York Tribune of Horace Greeley and the New York Times of Henry J. Raymond, also began publication as penny papers. But by the time of the Civil War, the standard price of a New York City newspaper was two cents.

By marketing a newspaper to the widest possible public, Benjamin Day inadvertently kicked off a very competitive era in American journalism. As new immigrants came to America, the penny press provided very economical reading material. And the case could be made that by coming up with a scheme to save his failing printing business, Benjamin Day had a lasting impact on American society.

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McNamara, Robert. "Penny Press." ThoughtCo, Sep. 18, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, September 18). Penny Press. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Penny Press." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).