Early newspapers fostered the growth of democracy and promoted citizen participation in national, state, and local governments. Over time, they continued to create interest in society’s concerns, and their use of advertising not only furthered their own financial profits but also affected the profits of other businesses.
Newspapers are daily and weekly publications sold to the public that convey information about current events. Their avowed reason for being is to impart news. However, they have also become important sources of information about products and services, thanks to the relatively large amount of advertising they contain.
A Boston printer named Benjamin Harris of Boston published the first American newspaper in 1690. A single-page newssheet called Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick, it reported on Indian raids, fever and flu outbreaks, and a scandal about France’s Louis XIV. Harris’s first issue, however, was also his last, as two ministers, Increase Mather and Cotton Mather, suppressed the paper’s publication because Harris had failed to obtain a publishing license.
Three other American newspapers were publishing by 1730: The Boston Newsletter, begun in 1704, and for fifteen years the only paper in the colonies; The Boston Gazette, started in 1719; and The New England Courant, started in 1721 by Benjamin Franklin’s half brother. These papers carried mostly news about arrival and departure times for ships traveling the Atlantic, three-month-old news from England, and simple advertisements for lost, found, or for-sale items. Each copy, bought mainly through subscription by the more prosperous colonists, was read by as many as twenty people, passed from person to person eager to receive European and colonial news or read aloud in a coffee shop or on someone’s porch. Printing these newspapers involved a slow, laborious process, as each issue was produced with a manually operated hand press, using hand-inked, hand-set type on flat sheets of paper.
When the colonies’ rebellion started, the newspapers carried opinions about revolution and letters to the editors with reactions to those views. By the 1730’s, some newspapers had been openly or covertly subsidized by political officials desiring a way to present their “official” versions of public affairs. The papers, often atrociously printed with old-fashioned type, contained hearsay items; short obituaries of upper-class colonists or foreign royalty; notices of rewards for runaway apprentices, servants, and slaves; and even excerpts from books or European periodicals as space fillers. The actual reporting of news along the model of modern journalism was unheard of. The printer of the newspaper was the editor, publisher, and writer.
When the colonies became the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution established freedom of the press in 1791, guaranteeing the press the right to print information and opinions without prior government restraint. A trial in 1735 against John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, confirmed that critical comments published in a newspaper are not libelous if they are true.
Newspaper circulation increased to a few thousand readers during the nineteenth century as a result of faster printing presses and mechanical typesetting.
The telegraph and the telephone made it possible to compile far-ranging news in a more timely manner; more and fresher news increased circulation. Costs for publishing newspapers fell as circulation increased. Circulation increased as the newspaper publishers printed more news of interest to “lower stratum” readers, who bought papers to read courtroom news, stories advocating social reform, or crime or human interest stories. This growing interest in news led to the use of newsboys and newsgirls hawking one-cent-a-copy papers on city streets for readers on their way to work or shopping.
Whereas early newspapers were available mostly by subscription, newspapers such as The New York Tribune, founded by Horace Greeley in 1841; The New York Sun, Benjamin Davis’s paper founded in 1833; and The New York Morning Herald, later The Herald, founded by George Gordon Bennett in 1835, were among the 715 American newspapers being sold to a wider readership, on the streets as well as by subscription. The West Coast was able to receive East Coast and European news much faster. Before the telegraph was invented, it took three months for news to travel by ship around Cape Horn to the West Coast; the new technology brought it in a matter of days.
As the U.S.
The cost of the new technologies could not be recovered by subscriptions and street sales alone. The newer presses, paper, and workers’ wages required a constant outlay of money that cut into profits. Consequently,
Another innovation during this era was the use of correspondents who did on-the-spot reporting. As far back as 1849, newspapers had relied on a news-gathering agency, the Associated Press, to supply reports of what was happening around the nation and the world. When the Civil War began, many newspapers realized they could send their own reporters to battle sites for firsthand stories. The Confederate States’ newspapers, however, did not have sufficient individual reporters, so they started the Press Association of the Confederate States of America, an agency that gathered war news for dissemination among the Confederate newspapers. The Confederate States’ papers also had another problem: Nearly all American paper mills were located in the North, so there was a severe shortage of newsprint. The shortage became so severe that many of the southern newspapers had to cease publication altogether, while those remaining in operation used any paper they could find, including wrapping paper and even wallpaper.
By the end of the nineteenth century, innovative machines brought newspaper publishing to a new zenith. Aside from the machine that mechanically folded the papers, there was the Linotype machine, developed by Ottmar
In 1870, there were 5,091 newspapers operating in the United States. The Washington Post was started in 1877, with a circulation of ten thousand and a cost of 3 cents per copy. Other great American newspapers were established before the end of the century. Joseph
The New York Times, started by Adolph
After World War II, even faster machines and potentially damaging labor concerns stirred up the newspaper business as never before. Photocomposition machines again changed the printing process, setting type six times faster than earlier machines and using 25 percent less ink than before. The highly trained, unionized Linotype operators believed, rightfully, that the new technology would eliminate their jobs, because the new machines could be operated by anyone with decent motor skills. To resolve their concerns and forestall damaging labor strikes, newspaper publishers, seeking ways to reduce costs and increase profits, and the workers, seeking mainly to hold on to their jobs, negotiated until a satisfactory agreement was reached and progress continued. The newspapers improved: More color pictures and photographs were used, and more copies were printed faster–the new presses could print eighty-five thousand copies of a sixty-four-page paper in about an hour.
Many Americans headed for the suburbs during the 1940’s and 1950’s, and readership of daily papers dropped. However, more Sunday papers were read, and during the 1980’s, an innovative national daily, USA Today, featuring a mix of national news and other items of interest, soon became the second-most-read daily in the country, after The New York Times. Radio and television began cutting into newspaper advertising revenues, however. Serious decreases began in the twenty-first century, although certain factors in 1990 already predicted a slide in revenue. These included a weakening national economy, changes in the industry, and slumps in the markets that purchased advertising. Some newspapers, such as The San Francisco Chronicle, suffered serious financial losses of as much as $1 million per week. Advertising revenue records showed a 10 percent drop between 2006 and 2007. Circulation revenue, newspapers’ second-largest source of revenue after advertising, grew some 5.5 times between 1975 and 2005. During this time, circulation revenue reached 31 cents to every dollar of advertising revenue. By 2005, it had dropped to 24 cents.
In spite of the industry’s problems, about 51 million people continued to buy newspapers during the early twenty-first century; at least 124 million read them. The industry, acutely aware of a decrease in interest in its print versions, sought new ways to keep its customers and attract new ones. They began to experiment with different revenue models based on online journalism, an extremely popular source of information for millions of Americans, but one that users expected to be free.
Blau, Judith R., and Cheryl Elman. “The Institutionalization of U.S. Political Parties: Patronage Newspapers.” Sociological Inquiry 72, no. 4 (Fall, 2002): 576-599. Examines the implications of the emergence of federal political parties and the establishment of newspapers in Washington, D.C. Douglas, George H. The Golden Age of the Newspaper. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Discusses newspaper history from early penny papers through tabloids. Fink, Stanley. Sentinel Under Siege: The Triumphs and Trouble of America’s Free Press. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997. An examination of freedom of the press and media criticism’s endeavors to create a greater sense of responsibility among the press. Horn, Maurice. One Hundred Years of American Newspaper Comics. New York: Gramercy, 1996. An illustrated history of significant American comic strips. Useful in spite of some factual inaccuracies. Madigan, Charles M., ed. The Collapse of the Great American Newspaper. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007. A series of essays and articles theorizing about the decline of the newspaper industry. Meyer, Philip. The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004. Discusses ways to reverse the growing failure of the newspaper business by addressing the factors affecting it and incorporating the changing technologies that could help save it.
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