Birth of the Penny Press Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The birth of the penny press in New York City launched a revolution in journalism that began the proliferation of mass-circulation newspapers that popularized new technologies and consumerism.

Summary of Event

In the Western world of the early nineteenth century, literacy was a sign of privilege, denied to many by the restrictions of tradition, custom, and economics. Even in the United States, ostensibly the most egalitarian and democratic nation of the Western community, free public education was merely a dream in many sections and communities, and only limited reading materials existed for literate citizens who could not afford to own personal libraries. Free public libraries were to a large extent unavailable, and even newspapers were generally priced beyond the means of middle- and lower-class purchasers. In fact, the wealthy believed that because they were leaders of society, the press should cater to their interests. A subscription to a newspaper was a sign of status that was associated with the fine clothing, gracious dwellings, expensive carriages, and other appurtenances of the upper class. Penny press Journalism;penny press New York City;penny press New York Sun [kw]Birth of the Penny Press (Sept. 3, 1833) [kw]Penny Press, Birth of the (Sept. 3, 1833) [kw]Press, Birth of the Penny (Sept. 3, 1833) Penny press Journalism;penny press New York City;penny press New York Sun [g]United States;Sept. 3, 1833: Birth of the Penny Press[1810] [c]Journalism;Sept. 3, 1833: Birth of the Penny Press[1810] Day, Benjamin Henry Bennett, James Gordon New York Herald

The newspapers that served upper-class readers naturally catered to their interests and pretensions. Mercantile and political topics took up most of the papers’ space; in fact, many of the journals were devoted exclusively to one or the other of these subjects. However, in both mercantile and political areas, the United States was in the throes of change by the early 1830’s. The economic world was being revolutionized through rapid technological change. Bringing about improved communication, transportation, and manufacturing technologies, the Industrial Revolution Industrial Revolution;and journalism[Journalism] was also spawning a new laboring class that was becoming conscious of its group identity and eager for institutions and leaders that would serve and reflect its interests. In the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson, many laborers believed that they had found a defender. However, although both the Whigs and the Democrats had newspapers that endorsed their general positions, no journals catered to the interests of the working class, whose literacy rate was steadily rising.

James Gordon Bennett.

(Library of Congress)

It was not only the workers themselves who were aware of this deficiency. The Industrial Revolution had vastly increased the scale of business and manufacturing operations. By 1830 it had precipitated a considerable shift from an individualistic, handicraft, self-sufficient economy toward one in which the individual was dependent upon specialized producers for many of the staples of life. These producers in turn were increasingly aware of their need to reach potential consumers through advertising. Newspapers offered an obvious solution. However, during the early 1830’s, the average circulation of the eleven six-cent dailies published in New York was only about seventeen hundred copies each. These low circulation figures are not surprising, as each of these journals charged between six and ten dollars per year in advance for a subscription—more money than most skilled workers earned in a week. It should thus be clear that a large, untapped audience for aggressive advertisers existed. What was needed was newspapers priced for working-class readers. Industrial Revolution;and journalism[Journalism]

Into this vacuum stepped Benjamin Henry Day Day, Benjamin Henry , a former employee of Massachusetts’s Springfield Republican and compositor for the New York Evening Post. New York Evening Post On September 3, 1833, he launched the New York Sun, New York Sun the harbinger of a new era of journalism. Priced at only one cent per copy, the Sun was the first truly successful penny newspaper in the United States. However, it was not the initial venture along these lines. The Illustrated Penny Magazine, published in London, had sold in large quantities in America since 1830, and several efforts to found penny papers in Philadelphia, Philadelphia;penny press New York, and Boston Boston;penny press had failed earlier. Benjamin Day’s Sun appropriated the techniques utilized by these earlier journals. It was smaller, both in length and in actual page size, than most older newspapers; it cost only one cent per copy; and readers could get it without having to buy subscriptions. The Sun was sold on the sidewalks of New York by newsboys, despite the indignation of citizens and rivals who charged that the lads were being led into lives of vice and degradation.

The Sun’s innovations were not, however, simply in the areas of merchandising, size, or even price. Day Day, Benjamin Henry brought a new style to journalism. His newspaper was breezy, even flippant, and it ignored politics and purely mercantile concerns in order to concentrate on local color, human-interest stories, and sensationalism. Finally, it carried a large volume of advertising, particularly of the “help wanted” variety. Indeed, the rise of advertising coincided with the rise of wide-circulation newspapers. The formula proved most effective. By 1836, the Sun had a circulation of some thirty thousand copies a day, making it by far the largest-selling newspaper in the United States.

The sensationalism in the Sun provoked criticism, but it sold newspapers and inspired many imitators. Undoubtedly the most significant of these was the project of James Gordon Bennett Bennett, James Gordon , who launched the New York Herald New York Herald on May 6, 1835. Some scholars regard the Herald as the first truly modern newspaper. Like the Sun, Bennett’s Herald sold for a penny and attracted a mass audience through a heady combination of sensationalism, trivia, local gossip and news, advertisements, and even vulgarity. The Herald was, however, more broadly based. As it gained circulation, it also began to publish political essays, foreign commentaries and news, and commercial and financial information. Thus, in a sense, Bennett united the coverage and approach of the penny press with the specialized functions of the older “class,” party, and mercantile newspapers.

By the 1840’s, the Herald New York Herald was the most aggressive and comprehensive of American journals. On the eve of the Civil War (1861-1865), it had a daily circulation of some sixty thousand, outstripping even the Sun and leading its other American competitors as well. Furthermore, while it was fashionable to regard Bennett Bennett, James Gordon as the enfant terrible of American journalism, his influence on other newspapers was profound, since they either aped the Herald or consciously reacted against it stylistically.

Significance

The Sun, the Herald New York Herald , and their many imitators wrought profound changes in American journalism and in the lives of countless American citizens as well. They took the newspaper out of the hands of the privileged few and brought the news and entertainment to an entire social and economic class which the older six-cent daily newspapers had scarcely touched. This was in itself a democratic force, as common workers were now able to receive information at first hand, instead of getting news after it filtered down through the mercantile and educated classes.

Politicians and parties could no longer limit themselves to expressions through the “party press.” Thus, the penny papers made them more responsive to their lower- and middle-class constituents. Furthermore, they broadened the concept of news through a greater emphasis on sensational items, such as sex and crime, increased local coverage, and the inclusion of feature and human-interest stories. Finally, as they achieved size and power, the penny newspapers fought viciously for circulation, and in the course of their intense competition greatly speeded up the gathering and publication of news items. In their efforts to scoop competitors, the new newspapers used and glamorized steamboats, railroads, the telegraph, and other devices that so significantly altered American development. The penny press gave the United States its first genuinely popular journalism and illuminated the path to the future in many areas of American life.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergmann, Hans. God in the Street: New York Writing from the Penny Press to Melville. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995. A history of American writing and intellectual life during the early nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carlson, Oliver. The Man Who Made the News: James Gordon Bennett. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1942. A detailed account of the journalistic story of the New York Herald, as well as of Bennett’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crouthamel, James L. Bennett’s “New York Herald” and the Rise of the Popular Press. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1989. Study of the journalistic methods that Bennett used to make the New York Herald the largest and most prosperous newspaper in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emery, Edwin. The Press and America: An Interpretive History of Journalism. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Contains three well-written chapters on the background and development of the penny press and popular journalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, James Melvin. History of American Journalism. Rev. ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1923. Although old, this volume contains some interesting information in a chapter titled “Beginnings of the Penny Press.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mott, Frank L. American Journalism: A History, 1690-1960. 3d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1962. This standard history of American journalism contains an excellent chapter on the penny press of the 1830’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nevins, Allan. The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism. 1922. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968. This history of one of the new penny newspapers’ older six-cent rivals has an excellent section on the Sun, the Herald, and the influence of Bennett.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Brien, Frank M. The Story of the “Sun,” New York, 1833-1928. 1928. Reprint. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968. A rare account of the Sun’s establishment, full of anecdotes and trivia, if short on analysis of the paper’s importance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Payne, George Henry. History of Journalism in the United States. New York: D. Appleton, 1920. An old text, but its chapters titled “Penny Papers and the New York Sun” and “James Gordon Bennett and the Herald” are still valuable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trimble, Vance H. The Astonishing Mr. Scripps: The Turbulent Life of America’s Penny Press Lord. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1992. A biography of Edward Wyllis Scripps (1854-1926), of the famous Scripps publishing family, which founded numerous newspapers and newspaper leagues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, Hy B. When Giants Ruled: The Story of Park Row, New York’s Great Newspaper Street. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999. History of journalism in New York City that concentrates on the century during which the Herald and other newspapers were located on Park Row.

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