• HISTORY: The Penny Press

As usual, Benjamin Franklin was far ahead of his time.

Franklin had conceived of a newspaper that mixed editorial content and advertising and thus could be self-sustaining. Most of the newspapers of Franklin’s time – the 1740s and 1750s – were organs of a party or political faction and dependent on that party for financial support.

Franklin’s newspapers reflected his editorial-advertising model, but that model took a long time to catch on elser. In fact, it wasn’t until 40 years after Franklin’s death in 1790 that the Franklin model of newspaper revenue took hold.

A number of things happened in the first 30 years of the 19th century to make it so:

• The population grew enormously, and literacy rates expanded. Reading and writing among even the poorest people were becoming more prevalent, and a system of free public schools was aiding in that.

• Businesses were expanding. America was developing, manufacturing and consuming its own products. Such an expanding economic system is built on information, and newspapers were positioned to provide it.

• Technology was making the gathering and especially the distributing of news much easier. Enormous printing presses could turn out thousands of copies of newspapers every day. And the cost of doing this was decreasing.

• Women were becoming more important in the economic life of the country and were gaining some measure of independence (though they were still a long way from the independence they gained in the 20th century).

• Working class Americans, not just political elites, needed a voice in public affairs, and many newspapers eskewed political parties and claimed to give them that voice.

• Leisure – time away from work – was increasing.

All of these things came together in the 1830s and manifested themselves in a new kind of newspaper called the Penny Press. These newspapers, which sold for a penny, offered information, entertainment and advertising for a growing caste of working class people who were interested in what was going on around them.

These newspapers – beginning with papers like the New York Sun, which started publication in 1833 – pledged that they would not serve the interest of a political party but would simply be answerable to their readers. This was a new concept that had not been tried on a wide scale before. The Sun and the papers that followed were more interested in attracting advertisers than in impressing politicians, and to do that, they needed to attract readers.

They did so by expanding the definition of news.

News could be whatever people were interested in. Whereas, up to this time, politics was the main area of concentration for many newspapers, now they were paying attention to crime, business, everyday life, heroic personal stories and sports. Anything that people were talking about could wind up in the newspaper.

And vice versa. If it was in the newspaper, people would likely start talking about it.

Most cities and towns had more than one newspaper. Places like New York City might have a dozen or more. These newspapers competed fiercely with each other for readers and advertisers.

One of the results of this competition was a new concept for the information that was being gathered: timeliness. Newspapers tried to get the news to their readers as quickly as they could – before their competitors could get it. A newspaper with a reputation for timeliness was morely likely to attract more readers because people wanted to know what was happening first. And more readers meant more advertising.

One of the most successful publishers at the timeliness game was James Gordon Bennett. He was the publisher of the New York Herald, and he was thoroughly hated by his fellow publishers in New York. Bennett did not let convention, propriety or sometimes even facts stand in the way of a good story. He did not mind cricitizing politicians, police, other publishers, clergy, doctors, lawyers, merchants or anyone else whom he felt did not have the interest of his readers at heart.

Bennett went to extraordinary lengths to get the news to Herald readers first. In the days before the telegraph, he would hire boats to sail out to meet ships coming from Europe in order to get the news from that continent. When other newspapers did the same thing, he would send carrier pigeons with his boats so they could fly back with the news ahead of the competing boats.

Bennett and his fellow publishers gave us the modern concept of news as the latest information available.

By the 1840s, two technological innovations took place that completely changed the way people acted and thought about the world.

One was the development of the telegraph. The other was the invention of photography.

Can you imagine why these two things would have changed the lives of Americans so profoundly?

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