Newspaper Industry, History of

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The creation of movable type marked the beginning of mass production of the written word and thus was essential to the newspaper industry's development. In general, this accomplishment is credited to Johannes Gutenberg, who was working in Mainz, Germany, in the mid-1400s. Other printing techniques existed prior to that time, including a form of movable type in Egypt and other areas of the Mediterranean. In 1295, Marco Polo brought Europe word of advanced printing techniques that were being used in Chinese. Furthermore, the Aztecs of South America hung colored banners in their main public squares to spread the "news" without the use of Gutenberg's or anyone else's "modern" technology. Still, when Gutenberg produced his movable type, the process of information dissemination underwent a revolution.

What, specifically, was Gutenberg's revolutionary invention? Gutenberg had used woodcuts to print pictures and came up with the idea of carving letters in wood and moving them around to create words that, when coated with ink, could be used to print. A worker whom Gutenberg hired suggested that wood would produce blurry letters and that using metal letters might work better. The rest, to use a cliche, is history. Using this new process, Gutenberg printed the Mazarin Bible, which is believed to be the first full book to be published. Without the ability to mass produce the written word, the process of disseminating the news would not have been able to become an "industry." Centuries later, the basics of the movable type that Gutenberg had created were still in use in England's North American colonies.

Colonial America

Public Occurrences, published by Benjamin Harris in 1690, is recognized as the first newspaper in what later became the United States. Although Harris intended the newspaper to be a monthly, it was published only one time. Harris failed to submit his newspaper for government censorship, so it was shut down. The first newspaper to be published on a regular basis in the colonies was the Boston Newsletter, which appeared from 1704 to 1719. It was a weekly and its editor was also the local postmaster, John Campbell.

The survival of a newspaper in the American colonies was contingent upon the government. The editors almost always were printers first—the concept of journalism as it is known today did not develop until much later. Printers had to import their presses from England or Germany because none were made in the colonies. In addition, the patronage system existed where the printers relied not on money from advertising and circulation but rather on money from the government in order to print messages to the citizenry. Because their principal income was provided by the government, printers had little incentive to print dissenting opinions or to take on political issues. The early newspapers also served the needs of commerce. Goods being shipped from England to the colonies were important, so newspapers would print information about what was going to arrive and when. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were the areas that served as the centers for commerce, politics, and education during this period, so they were also the primary locations in which printers lived and worked. The paid circulation, even of the largest newspapers, during the colonial period was only in the hundreds—with a large number of people reading a single copy that was from one person to another. About 70 percent of the males in the colonies in the early 1700s were literate, but even the illiterate people could benefit from newspapers if they gathered in public places to hear a literate person read the newspaper aloud. Along with schools and churches, newspapers and books were the main educational tools and entertainment in the colonies.

Some history books emphasize the conflicts between the colonists and the English government—and obviously that conflict eventually led to the independence of the colonies—but the majority of printers during the colonial period were very timid. They were afraid of the potential financial ramifications of losing the work that was involved in printing government announcements, and they were afraid, in the worst case scenario, of losing their official licenses to publish. James Franklin's New England Courant (1720) was one of the first newspapers in the colonies to criticize the government while operating without a license. Franklin challenged the government's program of forcing citizens to get inoculated against smallpox. It was not that Franklin was adamantly against inoculation; it was more about Franklin struggling for authority and freedom in an effort to gain power. He was jailed on contempt charges but resumed his activities upon his release from incarceration. He was forbidden from ever printing the Courant again without a license, but when the government pressed its case, a grand jury would not endorse the charges (i.e., indict him). As a result, the law that required printers in the colonies to purchase licenses remained on the books, but it no longer could be enforced. Thus began the principal of no prior restraint by the government.

While the licensing of newspapers became all but ignored, laws that pertained to seditious libel remained. The most often cited case that led to the concepts of freedom of the press and freedom of speech involved John Peter Zenger, the printer/editor of the New York Weekly Journal. Zenger started the Journal in 1733, and in 1735, he was charged with seditious libel. Zenger wrote that the colonial governor William Cosby was corrupt, greedy, and tyrannical, among other things. Zenger's attorney, Andrew Hamilton, did not dispute the nature of the charges; instead, he argued for the freedom of the colonies. After only ten minutes of deliberations, the jury found Zenger not guilty. Although the seditious libel law remained on the books, the government shied away from prosecuting such cases.

As the unrest in the colonies increased in the latter part of the 1700s, the colonial press changed. Newspapers emerged as the most important forum for information exchange. There were around thirty-five newspapers in existence prior to the American Revolution, and there were around thirty-five operating after the war—although they were not the same newspapers; some had gone out of business, and others had sprung up to take their place. The debate, between 1765 and 1775, over what direction the colonies should take was carried out in large part through newspapers. Unlike the objectivity ideal that surfaced in the late 1800s and early 1900s, neutrality was not accepted. The so-called Patriots (or Sons of Liberty) tolerated neither neutrality nor pro-English stances by newspapers. With the Tories pledged to continue loyalty to the British Crown and the Whigs upset over British economic sanctions, the Patriots' goal was to win over the Whigs. Therefore, the war had certainly started with words—largely published in newspapers—long before the first shot was fired.

Sam Adams was essentially the Patriots' propaganda minister. Adams published an account of the Boston Massacre, where six colonists were killed in an exchange with the British, in the Boston Gazette. His account painted a picture of British thugs and criminals slaughtering innocent citizens. Other publications, which technically cannot be described as newspapers, also helped in creating dissidence in the colonies.

Post-Revolutionary Partisanship and Technological Advancement

Historian James Mott has described the years following the American Revolution, specifically from 1789 to 1814, as the "Dark Ages of American Journalism." Mostly, Mott abhorred the fact that the partisan press was allowed to exist after the revolution. Others see the period as an extremely exciting time for newspapers and the country. The great debate between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists (or Jeffersonians) about what kind of government would be best for the fledgling country eventually led to the passage of the Bill of Rights, but the debate did not end there. Most historians agree that much of what was printed in the way of political debate during this period was mean spirited and that neutrality still was not tolerated. Editors would often walk the streets with canes, and some were known at times to beat on rival editors because they had alleged printed lies.

Meanwhile, until 1832, no political conventions were held; instead, candidates were nominated through the newspapers and spoke through the newspapers. The newspapers wielded an amount of political power that they had never had before and have never had since. From 1789 to 1850, the newspaper was virtually inseparable from the political system. By 1840, some separation was occurring. For example, William Henry Harrison became the first presidential candidate to make a public address. Still, for the most part, candidates made their statements through newspapers.

Meanwhile, technological advances allowed newspapers to be produced cheaper and more easily. In the 1820s, printers made a discovery that wood pulp could be used to create paper. In the 1850s, some of the larger newspapers adopted a new stereotyping process that allowed multiple copies of the same page to be printed at the same time. By 1861, R. Hoe Company designed a rotary press that took advantage of the stereotyping process and made the printing process even faster. In addition, the company's later "web perfecting press" was able to deliver thirty thousand copies of an eight-page newspaper in one hour. The "web" referred to the continuous roll of paper, and "perfecting" referred to printing on both sides of one sheet of paper at the same time.

The distribution of newspapers also benefited from advanced technology. In the beginning, newspapers could only be delivered over short distances. However, in 1875, the Pennsylvania Railroad started operating, which allowed newspapers from New York and Philadelphia to be distributed as far west as Chicago. Further, the telegraph was introduced in 1841, which allowed quick communication between distant cities, and in 1878, the first telephone exchange was created in New Haven, Connecticut. Because the telegraph had instantly become popular with newspapers, the change to using telephones was not considered to be necessary. Therefore, the telephone did not supplant the telegraph for use in newsgathering activities until several years after it had already become popular with the public.

The Penny Press

In 1833, a dramatic shift began in the newspaper industry caused by new technology and the changing world. Benjamin Day's printing business was on the decline, so he decided to put together a newspaper that concentrated on local happenings and news of violence. He decided that the newspaper would be sold on a per-issue basis and financed with advertising. The result was the New York Sun, which became the first of the so-called Penny Press newspapers. After the first six months of publication, the Sun had a circulation of eight thousand, and by 1837, the circulation had risen to thirty thousand, which was more than the total of all other New York newspapers combined. The Penny Press was quite different from anything that had existed before. Many historians see the Penny Press as the birth of the modern newspaper. They were sold for one penny per issue (giving them their name), directed toward the common person, hawked by street vendors (i.e., newsboys), financed through advertising (many of which made fantastic claims about patent medicines), and written by local reporters who were paid to provide news. Editors were no longer printers who simply published newspapers as a side business; editors were fully dedicated to the newspaper business. In addition, editors became more concerned about delivering the news rather than opinion—a decided shift from earlier years.

While it was not the first Penny Press newspaper, James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald (first published in 1835) certainly became the most innovative Penny Press newspaper. Bennett relied on crime stories and sensationalism, and he had no equal in this area. Bennett pushed the envelope more than anyone else did at the time. For example, he arrived at murder scenes and wrote vivid descriptions of the corpses. As a result, he became a kind of social outcast, and in the 1840s, what is described as a "moral war" was waged against him. Bennett did not hesitate to use terms such as "pants," "shirts," "legs"—all of which were socially unacceptable terms to put in print at the time. People boycotted his newspaper and asked hotels to dispose of it, but Bennett won out; people kept buying and reading.

It would be unfair to characterize Bennett strictly as a "tabloid" journalist. He was innovative and created many journalistic practices that continue to be used. He opened a Washington, D.C., bureau for his newspaper in 1841. He created the country's finest financial page for business people. He created a "letters" column, printed comments from readers, carried a review column, and published society news. Bennett eventually offered sports news and religious news in his newspaper. He even hired news correspondents to cover Europe, Mexico, and Canada. As a result of his sensationalist style, Bennett dealt with an increasing number of libel suits, but he was still feared by politicians and businessmen because the newspaper's popularity provided Bennett with a considerable amount of power.

The Penny Press expanded quickly to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and many other cities, but the most significant expansion was to the west. Horace Greeley, who owned the New York Tribune (first published in 1841), rejected sensationalism, and, as a result, his newspaper was always behind the Sun and the Herald in terms of circulation numbers. However, it was his weekly edition of the Tribune that essentially became the first national newspaper—circulated to the western frontier. Greeley considered his newspaper to be an intellectual publication for the non-elite, and he was ahead of his time in believing that all people—white and black—could share in the prosperity of the country. He is often credited with the phrase "Go West, young man, go West." As in the old colonial press days, newspapers in the western frontier needed to publish notices and information about new laws that had been passed by the government. Greeley recognized the growing literacy in the population and took seriously these people's need to know what was going on, as well as their need for entertainment. He became known as the "father" of the editorial, promoting various political or partisan points of view, much as had been done in the years previous to the creation of the Penny Press. Further, Greeley practiced the art of boosterism, singing the praises of the city, town, or state in which the newspaper was going to be circulated.

During the peak of the Penny Press era, Henry J. Raymond started The New York Times (first published in 1851), which would become arguably the best newspaper in the United States. This newspaper was more expensive to produce than the Penny Press newspapers, and it served a higher calling. Raymond considered the newspaper to be an outlet for social concerns, a watchdog over business and government, and he focused on specialized coverage of society, arts, religion, and international news. The Times highlighted decency in reporting and has continued to maintain that theme.


Technological advancements in the 1800s allowed for some dramatic changes in the way in which newspapers looked and marketed themselves. Linotypes (typesetting machines) and faster presses, striking typography and layout, color printing, cartoons, and photographs all allowed for editors to make a more vivid, eye-catching newspaper. One of the most important developments occurred in the area of photography. In 1837, Louis Daguerre invented positive photographic plates that allowed, for the first time, the creation of readily usable photography. However, the process required twenty to thirty minutes of exposure time, and no copies could be made. William Henry Talbot and Sir John Herschel, between 1837 and 1840, developed the Collotype Process, which allowed for multiple prints under a positive-negative process. In 1851, Frederick Archer created the Collodion Wet Process, which used glass negatives and required a much shorter exposure time of twelve minutes. In 1871, Richard L. Maddox created the Dry Plate Process, which cut exposure times to seconds. This series of developments, among other refinements in photography, made it easier for photographs to be taken and reproduced.

The U.S. Civil War is recognized as the first war to be thoroughly covered with the use of photographs. Mathew Brady is credited with chronicling the war through pictures. Brady had been a portrait photographer in New York, but in July 1861, he received permission from Union commanders to accompany the troops at his own expense. Brady put together traveling darkrooms that consisted of photographic plates, plate holders, negative boxes, tripods, and cameras. As a result, Brady is credited with bringing the "terrible reality" of the war to the country's "dooryard." Although there was no demand for his photographs after the war and Brady died in poverty, the thirty-five hundred photographs that he and his crew produced are now considered to be a national treasure.

Twentieth-century developments in photography made the use of photographs in newspapers easier and more economical. In 1912, faster film was developed for use in the Speed Graphic camera, which was also smaller. The Speed Graphic, which used 4-inch by 5-inch film, became the standard for newspaper photography for nearly fifty years. The 35-mm camera first appeared in the 1920s, but it was initially less reliable and more difficult to use effectively than the Speed Graphic. On the positive side, the 35-mm camera had a faster lens and used more sensitive film, both of which eliminated the need to have subjects pose and allowed for the creation of informal, realistic, nonintrusive photographs.

Yellow Journalism

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a form of journalism known as "yellow journalism" (or "new journalism") emerged. This new form of journalism was typified by unethical and unprofessional tactics that were used primarily to boost circulation. The newspapers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were the most prominent practitioners of this style. Pulitzer left the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1883 to move to New York and take over the New York World. Borrowing from the advances that had been made by Day and Bennett, Pulitzer added the innovations of short news clips, columns, large headlines, and the use of a worldwide news service. Pulitzer managed to reinvent himself before his death (lending his name to the most prestigious journalism award in the country—the Pulitzer Prize), but early on he led the way in sensationalized irresponsible journalism. For example, eleven people were trampled to death on a pedestrian walkway next to the Brooklyn Bridge in May 1883. Keeping in mind the newness of the bridge, the headline on Pulitzer's newspaper read, "Baptized in Blood." In 1895, Hearst took over the New York Journal and raided Pulitzer's staff. One of the most sensational quotes to be attributed to Hearst during this period had to do with the Spanish-American War. In 1897, Frederic Remington was serving as a correspondent in Cuba, but he wanted to return home because it did not look like there was going to be a war. Hearst reportedly sent a telegram to Remington saying, "You provide the pictures; I'll provide the war." Unlike Pulitzer, Hearst was never able to reinvent his public image in order to distance himself from his early days of sensationalism. The term "yellow journalism" comes from the Yellow Kid, a comic strip character that was created by Richard Felton Outcault. Pulitzer was the first to publish Outcault's character, but the artist was later lured away to work for Hearst. This event only served to escalate the battle between the two publishers.

While Hearst and Pulitzer squared off, The New York Times was rescued from bankruptcy and did not give in to the temptations of the day. In 1896, Adolph Ochs bought the newspaper and rebuilt it. His hiring of top-class editors and reporters set the tone for The Times and maintained the original intent of its founder.

Changing Formats and Increasing Objectivity

As the twentieth century began, newspapers reached a saturation point. There were more than twenty-two hundred daily newspapers in the country; there were twenty-nine dailies in New York City alone. Newspapers were facing a changing world, and never again would they be as dominant a medium as in the late 1800s. As the 1920s began, there was disillusionment with Democrats because of World War I, radio was on its way to becoming the new dominant medium (until television), and business was king. The silent film industry was thriving, magazines were becoming more sophisticated with quality color printing, and cities were getting larger (i.e., the mostly rural country was becoming a more urban country).

Newspapers, at least many of them, adapted to the environment. The reaction was the creation of the tabloid. Compared to newspapers, tabloids were more visually pleasing, smaller, and more compact (in order to be easier to handle when riding on a streetcar or in a subway). Short punchy stories were more common as magazines and films cornered the market on good storytelling. Further, responding to the radio commentators, political columnists became more prevalent in publications. The New York Daily News, first published by Joseph Medill Patterson in 1919, is a good example of the new newspapers of this period. Patterson aimed his newspaper at the lowest literate class of people in New York, and he patterned it after successful New England publications. The New York Evening Graphic, which was first published in 1924, used a tabloid format, but it also used "yellow journalism" tactics. This newspaper pioneered the doctoring of photographs (e.g., taking people from two different photographs and creating a composite photograph to make it look as if they appeared together).

It would be irresponsible to avoid addressing the issue of objectivity when talking about the newspaper industry. Some historians trace the journalistic ideal of objectivity—the idea of reporting information fair and accurately without personal bias leaking into the news—as far back as the Penny Press. Compared to the opinion-laden newspapers that were published before, during, and soon after the American Revolution, the newspapers of the Penny Press were certainly more fact driven. Another group of historians believes that objectivity took root about the time that the Associated Press started disseminating news nationwide in the mid-1800s. Because the news was used in all areas of the country, it had to be reported as fairly as possible in order to guarantee that it did not offend anyone. In addition, the evolution of photography lent itself to the idea of objectivity because photographs were considered to be little pictures of "reality." A final group of historians believes that objectivity as a journalistic ideal did not start until the 1920s and 1930s. The rise in public relations (which was often considered to be "creating" the news) and the failure of big business (with the Great Depression) caused journalists to look for a scientific approach to newsgathering. Things such as identification of news sources, creation of nonpartisan research councils, and the professionalism of journalism all occurred in response to dissatisfaction with the existing system. Several of the most famous journalism schools started during this time, and the Society of Professional Journalists (Sigma Delta Chi) adopted objectivity as part of its code of ethics, declaring, "We honor those who achieve it."

Modern Technological Innovations

In the period between 1945 and 1974, another revolution led by technology hit the newspaper industry. One of the major developments was the Teletypesetter system of the 1950s. Used in conjunction with the old Linotype machines, the Teletypesetter helped to create a trend toward uniformity in the newspaper industry. It was easier for an editor to print a national wire service story than to assign a local reporter to go through the entire process of production. The Teletypesetter had a set type of punctuation, abbreviations and capitalization styles to which the Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service all agreed to adhere. Photocomposition and offset printing were other major technological breakthroughs that occurred in the decades immediately after World War II. The old Gutenberg raised type had been the standard for centuries, but photo-composition produced type by photographic processes. Offset printing, a form of lithography, used a photographic process to produce the plate for printing, which all but eliminated the large and noisy linotype machines by the end of the 1960s. The computer started taking over the newsroom in the 1980s. This new process was aptly called "desktop publishing," and it included the use of laser printers, personal computers, and software that created both text and graphics. By 1987, half of the newspapers in the United States had already converted to desktop publishing.

The number of daily newspapers declined steadily during the twentieth century. Other than the creation of USA Today by the Gannett Company in 1982, virtually no new major newspapers have surfaced since the mid-1970s. Instead, many cities have undergone a joining of two newspapers into one or the loss of one or more newspapers. USA Today, which is second only to the Wall Street Journal in circulation, was the first modern-day national newspaper. Initially, USA Today was damned by most of the newspaper establishment, who said that it was television in print. Still, when it became both popular and profitable, local newspapers all over the country suddenly started to copy it.

In the 1990s, newspapers, by and large, joined the new media arena. Most of the daily newspapers in the United States established some kind of Internet presence, even though there was little or no evidence that a website would prove to be profitable. If the estimates that indicate that there are more than eight thousand online newspapers in existence are correct, then the number of online newspapers has already surpassed the number of traditional print newspapers.

See also:Bennett, James Gordon; Bly, Nellie; Greeley, Horace; Gutenberg, Johannes; Hearst, William Randolph; Internet and the World Wide Web; Journalism, History of; Journalism, Professionalization of; News Effects; Newspaper Industry; Newspaper Industry, Careers in; News Production Theories; Printing, History and Methods of; Pulitzer, Joseph.


Boyce, George; Curran, James; and Wingate, Pauline. (1978). Newspaper History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Emery, Edwin; Roberts, Nancy L.; and Emory, Michael C. (1999). The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Folkerts, Jean, and Teeter, Dwight L. (1997). Voices of a Nation: A History of the Media in the United States. New York: Macmillan.

Sloan, William David, and Startt, James D. (1996). The Media in America: A History. Northport, AL: Vision Press.

Lawrence N. Strout