Newspaper’s death premature?

On Armistice Day this year, a story appeared in The Christian Science Monitor titled “Is the Death of Newspapers the End of Good Citizenship?” In a subhead, the editors wrote: “The death of newspapers – by cutbacks, outright disappearance, or morphing into lean websites – means a reduction of watchdog reporting and less local information.”

If this is indeed the death knell of print journalism, it’s time to look at the long and often volatile history of the medium.

In another post, we will look at what hope there is for watchdog reporting and how it will be done.

The first medium in America

is changing rapidly in today’s digital environment.

Development of the American Newspaper

1st century:   Romans post news sheets in town squares.


16th century: Italians sell printed news sheets for a coin called a gazetta.


17th century: Corantos (forerunners of newspapers) begin in Germany.


1665 Oxford Gazette founded: first English-language newspaper.

Before the 1700s

Most publishing was official and approved by the colonial/British government.
Printers used their presses after hours to print bits of information they collected from various sources ‚ not from reporters.

The printer sold them inside the shop or outside by children.

1670-1735 Colonial Newspapers

Small, grayish, few ads, most classifieds, no headlines, circulation 300-600. Few people paid, even though they depended on paper and equipment from abroad some challenged authority.

1690 Colonial Press (1690-1735)

The first newspaper in the colonies in 1690 was Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, published in Boston by Ben Harris. It lasted only one day because it offended the authoritarian government.

The first newspaper appearing with regularity was the Boston News-Letter in 1704. The publisher, John Campbell, was the postmaster; thus he not only had government approval but he could distribute the paper through the mail. Because the newspaper was “approved,” it never gained widespread popularity.

Information contained in these newspapers included essays, opinion pieces, columns and exposÈs like those enjoyed today by viewers of “60 Minutes.”

One example of a colonial publisher was John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal. Zenger was arrested Nov. 17, 1734 and not released until Aug. 4, 1735 when he was acquitted of libeling the royal governor, William Cosby. He was defended in court by Andrew Hamilton and his acquittal allowed TRUTH as a defense for libel.

Probably the greatest contribution of colonial newspapers was the forum they provided for discussion of important issues that seeded the revolution. The “Federalist Papers” of John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were printed in many newspapers. It would be misleading to call colonial newspapers a true mass medium because they circulated primarily to the literate populace who had leisure time and money to spend on publications.


Click here for “The First 10 Newspapers in America.”

1721 New England Courant of James and Ben Franklin. Bold, published without authority of “the Crown.” Included Ben’s essays.

1735 John Peter Zenger, publisher of NY Weekly Journal, jailed for nine months, then acquitted of libeling the governor of New York, William Cosby. Truth used as a defense for libel for the first time.


1736-1783 Revolutionary Press

Click here for discussion of the first political cartoons in America.

Promoted revolution: rebelled against “Taxation without representation” especially the Stamp Act taxes on documents and the Townshend Acts, taxes on paint, coffee, tea, etc.,

This was a period of rapid expansion as 2,120 newspapers were founded between 1690 and 1820. This was possible for two important reasons: better transportation and more education. Also, the population increased.

Coverage of the pre-revolution and Revolutionary War was popular and newspapers were used for propaganda and for the revolutionary prose of political essayists such as Thomas Paine.


1783-1801 Party Press

The “Federalist Papers” by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were printed in many newspapers; they urged ratification of the Constitution.

1791 Bill of Rights ratified; First Amendment gives press protection from censorship.

During this period, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Press chronicled the fight for a free press. Newspapers replaced pamphlets, preachers and politicians in influencing public opinion.

Federalists were led by Alexander Hamilton, and the anti-Federalists were led by Thomas Jefferson.


Popular Press

1833-1859 New York Sun founded. First penny press”; newspapers began to reach the general public. Sensational. Circulation reached 30,000.

The influences of the time were the Industrial Revolution, better transportation, improved education, increased population centered in urban areas and the Emergence of the Common Man.

1841 New York Tribune founded by Horace Greeley; introduced the editorial page, attacked slavery, said “Go West, young man, go west.”

Another leader of the Penny Press era was James Gordon Bennett, with the New York Herald. Bennett introduced the financial section, society reporting, gossip reporting and sensational reporting of unknown persons.

New technology (steam, then electricity) could print 100,000 copies per hour.

1846 Associated Press (AP) founded; first news wire service; used telegraph.

In 1851, Henry J. Raymolnd founded the New York Times and copied the London Times in supplying foreign correspondents, in-depth reporting and serious-minded editorials. The Times continues today as the leader in American journalism.


1860-1865 Civil War Period

Inverted pyramid style of reporting used; less editorializing because of shared news from the wire service. In the rise of war correspondents for major newspapers, the summary lead and inverted pyramid form of news writing were developed. The value of telegraphic wire services with speedy war information spurred readership and circulation. Matthew Brady (right) was an important figure in this period.  Following the war, Westward expansion led to the development of regional newspapers such as the St. Louis Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette.

Other developments in newspapers included fresh, sprightly news designed to please the people, human interest stories, college-trained reporters who earned better salaries, editorial wit and the interview story. Greeley’s interview with Brigham Young in 1859 was criticized as an invasion of privacy.

Woodcuts and photos based on Mathew Brady’s work used.


1865-1872 Reconstruction

By 1900, the U.S. doubled its population and was characterized by industrialization, mechanization and urbanization. Workers looked to the press to protect them from abuses.

Politicians courted newspaper support, and as newspapers emphasized news more, they became more neutral. There was far greater freedom to criticize party leaders.

By the late 1890s, the technology had developed to introduce photos into newspapers. Wire transmission of photos was not possible until 1924 and it was 1935 before AP established a regular wirephoto network.

During this period, newspaper editors and reporters became more professional with training in writing and editing, and they became servants of the people rather than the party.

Crusades during this time developed, such as the New York Times vs. the Boss Tweed Ring. The muckraking crusades were intended to correct local abuses and promote social welfare. The cartoons of Thomas Nast (right) in “Let us prey”) served to bring attention to the graft and corruption of the time.

This was the purpose of the Press: “To comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

1883 New York World of  Joseph Pulitzer


1892-1914 Yellow Journalism

Named for the Yellow Kid, a comic strip (left) by Richard Outcault.

1894 William Randolph Hearst buys New York Journal. Begins circulation war with Pulitzer.

Click here for discussion of Hearst and Pulitzer’s impact on the Spanish-American War. (See image from the time at right which aroused public opinion)

Pulitzer bought the New York World in 1883 and introduced lively human interest news, emphasis on gossip, scandal and sensation. Circulation went from 20,000 to 100,000 in two years and eventually rose to 250,000.
Emphasis on gimmicks and stunts: Nelly Bly, a woman reporter, feigned insanity to get into asylum and wrote an exposé, raising money for the Statue of Liberty pedestal after Congress failed to appropriate money, contest to see how long it would take to travel around the world.

Pulitzer’s editorial page sided with labor.
  Increased sensationalism with detailed treatment of crime, disasters, sex scandals and human monstrosities. 
Hearst’s New York Journal, a paper once owned by Pulitzer (left), played up scandals and sensational stories such as the Buldensuppe mystery, a man found headless, armless and legless. Story after story appeared as one piece of corpse after another was found.
The Spanish-American War was whipped up with pre-war campaign with stories of Spanish atrocities in Cuba; actions against Americans involved in Cuban War for Independence and the sinking of the battleship Maine.
 A cable sent from Havana, Cuba, by an illustrator named Frederic Remington to Hearst (right) said: “Everything is quiet. No trouble here. There will be no war. Wish to return. Remington.”
Answer from Hearst said: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war. Hearst.”
Several new tabloids appeared in New York City, each trying to outdo the other with crime stories, lurid photos, coverage of scandals of the rich and famous and sex escapades. The period became known as the era of jazz journalism because it seemed to be in tune with the raucous music of the time.

1896 New York Times bought by Adolph Ochs, began “objective journalism.” A newspaper of record.

1907 United Press (UP) begun by E.W. Scripps. His papers, among them The Cleveland Press, were less sensational than Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s.

1909 International News Service started by Hearst. In 1958 it merged UPI.

Did Yellow Press Journalism cause the Spanish-American War? Click here for the debate.


1920s Jazz Journalism

During the “Roaring ’20s” a rebirth of  sensationalism bold headlines and photos and stunts to sell papers.

The New York Daily News introduced (a tabloid) by Joseph Patterson. One infamous photo which appeared on the front page of the Daily News was of Ruth Snyder, a woman executed in 1928 in the electric chair (left) for the murder of her husband. The grisly photograph caused such a stir that it was run again the next day.

1923 Society of Newspaper Editors adopts Canons of Journalism, concept of social responsibility.

A link suggested by a student about the Great Depression.  Thanks.

This video is humorous, but it does describe how the newspaper was organized.

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