Evolution of News: Phase 1

After a week in India, I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Forcibly ejected from the media circus that fans the country’s collective temper, I found brief redemption in history this evening. Drawing from the Discovery of News, in the next few posts, I explore the idea of journalism through its evolution, occasionally finding comfort in familiarity. I leave the reader to draw her own parallels with the characters, events, and trends today.

This series of posts also helps me think about how news is delivered and consumed in the U.S. today. I’m a fan of Twitter, and have thoughts about the product’s strengths and weaknesses, but first, some legwork…

Phase 1: The Penny Papers

Humble Beginnings

The first penny paper, the New York Sun, was first published on September 3, 1833. It grew to command the largest circulation in the city within a few months. By January 1834, it claimed a circulation of 5,000. Within two years, it was selling 15,000 copies a day. James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, followed on May 6, 1835. By June 1835, the combined circulation of the top three penny papers was 44,000. Before the Sun began, the combined circulation of all the city’s dailies had been 26,500.

A New Business Model

Every penny paper sought a large circulation, and the advertising it attracted, instead of relying on subscription fees and subsidies from political parties. Funding from social and political affiliations was replaced by market-driven income from advertising and sales.

The penny press established equal rights for all advertisers, including abortion nurses and betting agents, to employ the public press as long as the advertiser paid up.  The penny papers self-righteously defended this position of “passing no moral judgment” in advertising as consistent with their self-interest. As such, only the penny press could be free press because it was subservient to none of its readers, who were anonymous as far as it was concerned.

A New Product

Until the 1830s, newspapers had been the mouthpiece of political parties or provided information to the shipping and mercantile classes, and sold for six pennies a copy. These incumbents responded to the new penny papers with charges of sensationalism. In this case, it was a matter of substance, not style, which included no sensational photos, cartoons or large headlines. Their objection was towards the printing of material that we understand as “news” today. It was common for penny papers to cover a murder trial by printing the verbatim transcript of the trial on its front page. The six-penny papers resented the “morality” of reporting the murder trial at all.

The penny papers didn’t just print the news, they sought out the news, employing paid correspondents as far as Europe to collect and deliver it faster. The notion of paid reporting, in fact, was a shocking development to some. Till the late 1820s, members of the Congress occasionally wrote for their home papers. Former President, John Adams, wrote with disgust in his diary in 1842 that President Tyler’s sons had divulged his cabinet’s secrets to hired men from the Herald.

Advertising too became more timely and efficient. Starting Jan 1, 1848, all ads in the Herald were required to be resubmitted every day. Frederic Hudson, Bennett’s managing editor, wrote, “…advertisements form the most interesting and practical city news. They are the hopes, the thoughts, the joys, the plans, the shames, the losses, the mishaps, the fortunes of the people. Each advertiser is therefore a reporter… What a picture of the metropolis one day’s advertisements in the Herald presents to mankind!”

The penny-papers not only invented attributes such as timeliness, they created a genre that developed the momentous sense of everyday life. In reporting the local every day incidents, they made the familiar look extraordinary, and in writing about the social elite, they made the exotic look achievable.

The Timing

The New York Stock Exchange, founded in 1817, signified the democratization of economic interest. Economic development was distributed among many rather than a few. The Western Railroad in Massachusetts was financed in 1835 by 2,800 individual stockholders; the largest shareholder held just 200 shares, and the top 100 shareholders held less than 40% of the stock. This distributed creation of wealth led to growing consumption of manufactured goods and services, which could now be purchased affordably instead of being made at home. The penny papers extended these markets through advertisements, and through their own pricing, brought themselves within reach of a large section of the growing middle class.

Property qualification for voting died out by the late 1820s, and brought all white men within the fold of political patronage, engaging many in the political party machinery. Political awareness and economic prosperity did not lift the common mason or immigrant out of poverty, but it provided mobility to the skilled professionals as well as small and large merchants who developed new institutions and a new consciousness that would require scaling of information networks.

Competition and Differentiation

As the crop of penny papers grew, Bennett developed a middle road for the Herald, more professional and responsible than the penny press, and more lively than the Wall Street papers. It published a series of articles on the “History of Banking”, representing the interests of the wealthy, repeating what it had done with its coverage of Washington politics – turning facts into an analysis of events.

In the 1860s, coverage of the Civil War allowed newspapers to record battles, and enter national consciousness like never before, although the age of the reporter was yet to dawn. As their incomes rose through the 1880s, reporters began to develop a sense of calling that translated into popular personal styles and story-telling. This idea of telling a story instead of delivering a pile of facts set the stage for the next round of “sensationalism”.

Next – Phase 2: The Rise of the Times

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