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1878-1899: Communications: Overview

1878-1899: Communications: Overview

Communications Links. A revolution in transporation and communications accompanied ever-growing industrialization of the United States that followed the Civil War. A national system of railroads, a rapid all-weather transportation so vital to the emergence of modern business, completed during the last two decades of the nineteenth century also provided the routes for telegraph and telephone lines. In fact many of the first telegraph companies were subsidiaries of railroads, providing cruciai information on the location and progress of trains. The railroads also made possible a vastly ex-panded postal system and transformed the economies of rural life. Furthermore, improvements in transportation helped create two monopoly enterprises, Western Union Telegraph Company (1866) and American Telephone and Telegraph (1885), that greatly facilitated the modernization of American business by providing quick and efficient means of exchanging information.

Urban Culture. Between 1877 and 1899 a racially, ethnically, and religiously mixed urban society developed in the United States, standing in sharp contrast to the more homogenous, rural, small-town American culture of the early nineteenth century. Industrial growth lured rural Americans to the cities, and unprecedented emigration from southern and eastern Europe transformed the ethnic and religious makeup of the American population. The concentration of people in cities created markets for goods and amusements. New technologies brought about cheap manufacturing, wide distribution of products, and fast communication. Indeed traditional modes of communication were transformed. Paperboys delivered newspapers to doorsteps or cried the headlines on busy city sidewalks. Nearly every urban Street corner had a small wooden newsstand. Meanwhile the change in communications also affected rural areas where most Americans still lived. During the late nineteenth century farmers acquired something that many city dwellers had already taken for grantedfree delivery of the mail. A revamped postal system made possible mail subscriptions of journals and magazines. In 1883 the U.S. Post Office reduced the rate on first-class mail from three cents to two cents for each half ounce.

Technological Horizons. A host of new technologies in the printing industry sped and amplified the written word. Innovations in typesetting, printing, and distribution made it possible to print millions of copies of daily newspapers for the ever-growing urban populations. The spread of both the telegraph and the telephone aided the speedy gathering of news and began to alter the traditional role of the newspaper as the first source for news. Advances in color printing brought about the invention of the glossy illustrated magazine, which created markets of readers among women and children. As Americans in-creasingly perceived the family as a haven from the tumult of modern life, a host of new publications guided husbands and wives in the creation of the perfect modern home.

The New journalism. In the last decades of the nineteenth century American newspapers evolved from a partisan forum for expressing political opinion to a source of news, stories, and entertainment. Many major papers severed their ties to political parties and causes, and while still retaining their political slants, took on a more businesslike independence. Journalism became recognized as a legitimate profession, no longer as a means to aggrandize politicians. The Associated Press (1848) and its splinter group, the United Press (1882), engaged in cooperative news gathering while associations such as the McClure Newspaper Syndicate (1884) supplied articles and short stories to newspapers. The New Journalism of publisher Joseph Pulitzer claimed to serve the democratic masses. The average American city dweller, interested in the latest gossip, controversies, and sports scores, found his or her way of life described and enlivened in the pages of the urban daily. Battles with Indians, the arrival of the Statue of Liberty in the United States (1886), reporter Nellie Blys exploits around the world (1890), and the conflict with Spain (1898), are just some of the stories that enthralled readers. Meanwhile the greatest news story of the daythe emergence of city lifewas given riveting expression in the New Journalism.

The Seamy Side. The loosening of social boundaries that inevitably accompanied the new urban lifestyle also brought with it an increased tolerance for sensational stories about the seamy side of life. In part a business strategy to sell more copies, in part a defiant intoxication with shocking facts, modern sensationalism was born in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The combination of titillating revelation, pseudoscience, and horrorshow aesthetics so familiar to twentieth-century tabloid readers made its debut in the circulation wars of the 1890s in New York. Printers tested a new fast-drying ink on the nightdress of a jug-eared cartoon character named the Yellow Kid who became the emblem of the sensationalistic Yellow Journalism. The Yellow Kid appeared in Pulitzers New York World and provided witty commentary on political and social issues of the day. But while Pulitzers World and William Randolph Hearsts Journal descended to new depths in creating astonishing headlines, these papers also printed serious stories about politics and life on the streets. Like the nation it served, the journalism of the last decades of the nineteenth century was big, vibrant, and always reinventing itself.

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