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Newspapers for a New Nation

Newspapers for a New Nation


The Newspaper Exchange System. In the early nineteenth century, editors developed an informal but useful system of newspaper exchanges to share news and information both regionally and nationally. To do so they relied, at least in part, on the postal service. Newspaper exchanges developed in part because they were free, a concession the press received over a sometimes reluctant post office. The press rationale was simple: the exchange of news promoted national identity and a sense of unity in the expanding nation. The exchange system allowed the news to travel both east and west. Frontier papers informed the urban dailies about events in the West, and the city papers gave rural editors news from Washington. Even after the spread of the telegraph, in the 1850s, the exchange system remained useful. It was cheaper than the telegraph, and it was not restricted to short, abbreviated messages common on the wires.

Competition and Cooperation . Well before the invention of the telegraph, timely news was an important goal in American journalism. An early advocate of the latest intelligence was A. S. Willington, owner of the Charleston Gazette in South Carolina. In 1813 Willington, rowed by two slaves, began boarding ships in Charleston Harbor in search of news from Europe, a practice that led Willington to publish the first reports of the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812. Soon the practice of meeting incoming ships became a regular practice of papers in Boston, New York, and other Eastern cities. In 1827 both the New York Journal of Commerce and Morning Courier launched speedy sailboats to meet incoming vessels, pick up European papers, and get them back to the newsroom first. The winner was rewarded with bragging rights and a profitable Extra. By 1831 six news boats were operating in New York Harbor, along with a semaphoric telegraphic system used to alert boats to incoming ships and to notify publishers that their boats were returning with the news. One of the most aggressive New York journalists was James Gordon Bennett, the shrewd but outrageous editor of the New York Herald. Bennett went to extraordinary lengths to beat his rivals, employing faster boats, a network of riders, and, for a time, carrier pigeons, an idea first used by a Boston editor. Not to be outdone, Bennett shipped his birds to Boston, where news reports were attached and the birds set free. At one point Bennett offered $500 an hour for each hour that a pigeon arrived ahead of his rivals. This kind of expense prompted more cooperation among New York papers. Even in the 1830s some editors began pooling their resources on news boats, trading a story for lower costs.

The Associated Press . With the emergence of the telegraph in the late 1840s, news-gathering costs quickly became intolerable for individual newspapers. In May 1848 David Hale of the New York Journal of Commerce arranged a meeting of six New York papers. Hale proposed that the rival publishers cooperate, reducing telegraph tolls and securing more-reliable news reports from around the nation. Not all the newsmen were enthusiastic; James Watson Webb of the Courier and Enquirer was Bennetts bitter enemy and at first resisted the plan, but even Webb could see that cooperation on the telegraph offered advantages for all. The new group was called the New York Associated Press (NYAP). Dr. Alexander Jones, a physician with experience in journalism, was hired as the NYAPs first agent. One of Joness first major assignments was the presidential election of 1848. Jones arranged for news from the Whig convention in Philadelphia to be telegraphed to Jersey City, where the linebecause of the expanse of the Hudson Riverended. Jones devised a flag system to complete the transmission to the city. Unfortunately, the boy assigned to look for the flag saw a brokers signal flag and notified the papers that Zachary Taylor had been nominated. Fortunately for the NYAP, Taylor was nominated, but not until the following day. The success of the NYAP prompted other publishers to form similar organizations, and the Philadelphia Associated Press, the Southern Associated Press, and other companies soon began transmitting news to their member papers. During the Civil War years the Western Press Association challenged the dominance of the NYAP, leading to the eventual consolidation of the various cooperatives and the emergence of the modern Associated Press.

The Growth of Newspapers . National expansion meant the founding of new towns and cities, a process that involved the construction of roads, commercial and residential buildings, and other parts of a local economic and political structure. The need for immigrants and the growth of local economies also promoted the growth of newspapers. The press, after all, could be used to boost a town and stimulate the fortunes of its settlers. In short, as more Americans built more towns in the West, the number of newspapers grew as well. In 1800 Americans were publishing 178 weekly newspapers. Only ten years later the figure had doubled to 302. By 1840 there were 1,141 weeklies, and by 1860 the number of weeklies exploded to 3,173. Daily journalism showed similar growth. Only 24 dailies were being published in 1800; they reached 42 in 1820. In 1840, 138 daily papers were being published in American cities, and they tripled to 387 in 1860. Newspapers, it seems clear, were part and parcel of a robust, expanding America.

New Orleans Picayune, 14 September 1847

George Kendall of the New Orleans Picayune was an important war correspondent during the Mexican War. Kendall, who had been a Mexican prisoner, was an advocate of American expansion in the Southwest:

Another victory, glorious in its results and which has thrown additional luster upon the American arms, has been achieved today by the army under General Scottthe proud capital of Mexico has fallen into the power of a mere handful of men compared with the immense odds arrayed against them, and Santa Anna, instead of shedding his blood as he had promised, is wandering with the remnant of his army no one knows whither.

The apparently impregnable works on Chapultepec, after a desperate struggle, were triumphantly carried; Generals Bravo and Mouterde, besides a host of officers of different grades, taken prisoners; over 1000 noncommissioned officers and privates, all their cannon and ammunition, are in our hands; the fugitives were soon in full flight towards the different works which command the entrances to the city, and our men at once were in hot pursuit.

General Quitman, supported by General Smiths brigade, took the road by the Chapultepec aqueduct toward the Belen gate and the Ciudadela; General Worth, supported by General Cadwaladers brigade, advanced by the San Cosme aqueduct toward the garita of that name. Both routes were cut up by ditches and defended by breastworks, barricades, and strong works of every description known to military science. Yet the daring and impetuosity of our men overcame one defense after another, and by nightfall every work to the citys edge was carried.

Journalism in the West . The newspaper became a standard feature of Western town building. Not every town had a railroad or a mine or a fort or a cattle pen, but virtually all of them had at least one newspaper. Newspapers served several functions in Western towns, some of them crucial to the towns hopes for success. Boosterism and self-promotion were certainly part of this function, and Western editors were fiercely partisan promoters of their own towns. Newspapers served other functions as well, including the social role of creating a local or ethnic identity for a particular community, helping knit together an otherwise loose association of people who happened to live in one place. The vigor of the journalistic urge flourished throughout the West, even in sparsely populated Mexican borderlands of the Southwest. The first newspaper published in present-day New Mexico was established in Taos in 1835, a dozen years before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought the territory under U.S. control. This paper, El Crepusculo, was published in Spanish, as were several other early papers. In the decade between 1840 and 1849, publishers started fifteen more papers in the territory. By the end of the nineteenth century an amazing 651 newspapers had been established in New Mexico, a testament to the power of print in the growth and Americanization of the Southwest.

Kansas . Journalism in Kansas started later, but like New Mexico, newspapers were an important asset in the frontier days. The first newspaper, the Kansas Weekly Herald, was published under an elm tree in 1854. Only in Kansas could a newspaper be published before there was news to print, one Kansas scholar noted. More than 100 other newspapers were established during the states turbulent territorial period from 1854 to 1861. Yet despite the chaos so seemingly endemic in what was called Bleeding Kansas, each town still had at least one newspaper. Not surprising, many of these papers were booster publications that proclaimed the virtues of their town. By the end of the century no fewer than 733 newspapers were being published in the Jayhawk state, more papers per capita than any other state at the time.


Eugene Decker, Preface, in Kansas Newspapers: A Director of Newspaper Holdings in Kansas, edited by Aileen Anderson (Topeka: Kansas Library Network Board, 1984), pp. 3-4;

Oliver Gramling, AP: The Story of News (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1940);

Pearce S. Grove, Becky J. Barnett, and Sandra J. Hansen, eds., New Mexico Newspapers: A Comprehensive Guide to Bibliographic Entries and Locations (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975);

Alfred M. Lee, The Daily Newspaper in America (New York: Macmillan, 1937);

William H. Lyon, The Significance of Newspapers on the American Frontier, Journal of the West, 19 (April 1980): 3-13.

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