Bennett, James Gordon

views updated May 29 2018


James Gordon Bennett (17951872), in many ways the father of modern journalism, shaped the American newspaper as it is today. At the time of the American Civil War (18611865), Bennett's newspaper, the New York Herald, had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world and it wielded great national influence. Reportedly the only paper that President Abraham Lincoln (186165) read daily, the Herald made Bennett one of the wealthiest men in America.

Bennett was the first newspaper publisher to exploit rail and steamboat transportation and use the telegraph to speed the delivery of news. He joined Horace Greeley (18111872) and Charles Dana (18191897) to become one of the three giants of journalism and publishing in America in the nineteenth century.

Born and raised in Scotland, Bennett grew up in a devout Catholic family in a overwhelmingly Presbyterian community. He received a classical education in a local school and later at a Catholic seminary in Aberdeen. In 1817, at age 24, he sailed to America, landing in Nova Scotia with just five pounds sterling in his pocket. By the time he reached Boston, he was penniless and actually went two days without food until he found a job as a clerk with a book selling and publishing firm. After working for the firm as a proofreader and learning many of the details of the publishing business, Bennett moved on to New York where he sought work as a freelancer.

Bennett's next important job was with the very influential Charleston, South Carolina, Courier. Its editor, Aaron Smith Wellington, was ahead of his time in believing that speed and timeliness were crucial to a newspaper's success. For example, Wellington scooped the rest of the country with the first news of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 (18121814). Bennett's job at the Courier was to translate articles from French and Spanish newspapers that were brought by ships into Charleston's busy seaport. Although he learned the tenets of deadline journalism in Charleston, Bennett's poor social skills hampered his ability to participate in the city's active social life. At the end of ten months he returned to New York.

For the next few years, until 1827, Bennett supported himself precariously as a lecturer and freelance writer. In 1827 he was hired by the New York Enquirer and became the first Washington correspondent in history. Over the next few years he worked for a series of newspapers as a reporter. Twice he tried to start his own paper and both times he failed.

Finally, in 1835, with $500 in capital, he founded the New York Herald. The newspaper's offices were in a cellar furnished with planks and barrels and Bennett was its publisher, reporter, and advertising and circulation manager. At the time New Yorkers already had a choice of more than a dozen daily newspapers, and the Herald 's chances for success were poor.

But in the next 37 years Bennett built the Herald into the newspaper with the largest circulation in the world. He accomplished this by introducing several enduring innovations. Among them were listing the closing prices of stocks traded each day on the New York Stock Exchange, hiring as many as 63 correspondents to cover the battles of the Civil War, printing the first illustration accompanying a news story, establishing correspondents in Europe, and introducing a society column. Bennett was the first newspaper publisher to use the telegraph to obtain a full report of a major political speech and was also the first to narrate a sensational murder in great detail.

Whatever resources were demanded, Bennett was determined to cover stories ahead his rivals. Speed in newsgathering became his watchword. Even the most successful of his competitors were sometimes forced to copy stories from the Herald. He early realized and exploited the communications potential opened up by the telegraph, the ever-faster steamships crossing the Atlantic from Europe, and the new railroads which began to connect American cities. During the Mexican War and the Civil War, the Herald usually received stories from the battlefield days ahead of the dispatches that were sent to the War Department in Washington.

The Herald in the mid-nineteenth century was among the most profitable newspapers in the world. Bennett's salary of about $400,000 a year made him one of the wealthiest Americans of his time. Politically independent, reported on deadline, and aimed at the widest possible audience, the New York Herald was the first mass circulation newspaper that was essential reading for the country's opinion makers and political leaders.


Carlson, Oliver. The Man Who Made News: James Gordon Bennett. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1942.

Crouthamel, James L. Bennett's New York Herald and the Rise of the Popular Press. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1989.

Gordon, John Steele. "The man who invented mass media." St. Louis Journalism Review, March, 1996.

Herd, Harold. Seven Editors. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Stewart, Kenneth, and John Tebbell. Makers of Modern Journalism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1952.

Tebbell, John and Sarah Miles Watts. The Press and the Presidency. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

James Gordon Bennett Jr

views updated Jun 27 2018

James Gordon Bennett Jr.

James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (1841-1918), American newspaper owner and editor, contributed to journalistic innovations and created a legend of personal authority and enterprise.

On May 10, 1841, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., was born in New York City. He was raised in Europe to avoid the stigma his father's bold editing of the New York Herald newspaper attracted to the family. Young Bennett served in 1861-1862 in the Civil War without distinction. In 1866 he climaxed several years dedicated to entertainment and sports by winning a grueling transatlantic yachting contest. The tall, straight, firm-jawed "Commodore" (so named by the New York Yacht Club) retained an interest in sailing and other diversions but now turned seriously to mastering newspaper work.

In 1867 his father made Bennett head of the Herald's editorial department. That year the young man launched the Evening Telegram, which exploited sensational news. He was an editorial autocrat who hired and fired many brilliant and remarkable writers and editors. Bennett early projected his goal of making as well as reporting news. As in his scoop on the Custer massacre in 1876, he followed his father's goal of energetic news gathering.

Bennett's newspaper firsts were many, resulting from his bold planning and indifference to expense. Most famous was his 1869 assignment to Henry M. Stanley to find Dr. David Livingstone in Africa—a successful mission that won world acclaim. Other exploits included efforts to reach the North Pole and to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. Bennett published the distinguished reports of J.A. MacGahan, providing evidence of Bulgarian atrocities that helped spark the Russo-Turkish War of 1871. Notable, too, was Bennett's duel with financier Jay Gould, whose telegraph and cable systems taxed Bennett and others heavily. Acting with the mine owner John W. Mackay, Bennett set up rival systems which by 1887 had lowered the prices of messages drastically and created freer international exchange.

In 1887 Bennett started the Paris Herald, which over the years gratified American tourists abroad and enjoyed its own journalistic distinctions. It ran at a loss (as did the London edition, 1889-1891, which failed entirely) but helped explicate the American image abroad. The competition of publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in the 1890s harmed the Herald's prestige, but the paper revived during the Spanish-American War (1898), when Bennett's resourcefulness and knowledge of ships resulted in creative reporting. Bennett moved from notoriety to fame, and back again. For example, in 1907 he was required to pay a total of $31,000 in fines for having permitted publication of immoral advertisements.

Bennett's new Herald building in New York was long a showplace for its architectural charm. During the 1900s the Herald lost status as a journalistic leader, and Bennett, who was said to have spent some $30 million from Herald revenues, gave up the lavish gestures and bold experiments which had made him an international legend. A bachelor until the age of 73, he married a widow in 1914. Convinced that he would die on his seventy-seventh birthday, he actually sank into a coma in Paris on May 10, 1918, and died 4 days later. He was buried at Passy, France.

Further Reading

Bennett has been treated as a phenomenon rather than as a noted journalistic figure. The initial tone was struck in Albert Stevens Crockett, When James Gordon Bennett Was Caliph of Bagdad (1926). Don C. Seitz, The James Gordon Bennetts: Father and Son, Proprietors of the New York Herald (1928), emphasizes the journalism of father and son. More anecdotal is Richard O'Connor, The Scandalous Mr. Bennett (1962). A succinct statement is in Oswald Garrison Villard, Some Newspapers and Newspaper-Men (1923; rev. ed. 1926). See also Al Laney, Paris Herald: The Incredible Newspaper (1947). □

James Gordon Bennett

views updated May 29 2018

James Gordon Bennett

The Scottish-born American journalist James Gordon Bennett (1795-1872) developed editorial techniques that promoted readership and freed the press of its need for financial support from political parties and other special-interest groups.

James Gordon Bennett was born near Keith, Banffshire, Scotland, on Sept. 1, 1795. In his early 20s he migrated to Nova Scotia, where he taught briefly before going to the United States to work for a Boston book publisher. Bennett went to New York City, then Charleston, S.C., where he worked as a translator for the newspaper Courier. He soon returned north and worked for the New York Courier. Twice Bennett tried to launch a paper of his own, but each time his paper failed for lack of political support. These rejections caused him to turn his back on political patronage as being too uncertain and demeaning.

In 1835, at the age of 40, with $500 as working capital, Bennett launched the New York Herald, the paper that made him famous. An excessively egotistical man, he wanted to be the Shakespeare of journalism. By five each morning he was at his desk—a plank supported by two barrels. Brilliant but brassy, he issued a saucy, informative sheet and used sensational techniques, particularly in the Robinson-Jewett murder case, which was a sordid affair.

Bennett, who had a compulsion to be first with the news, initiated daily Wall Street reports, sent small boats out to intercept oceangoing vessels for news, initiated the society page, and was the first to use the telegraph extensively for news coverage. He insisted that advertisers change their ads frequently, a policy that skyrocketed consumer sales and caused merchants seeking similar results to flock to the Herald. He collected in advance.

Bennett's pugnacious writing and his flair for self-promotion frequently got him into trouble. He suffered severe beatings in the streets for inglorious references to his enemies. Twice he was mauled and caned by a former employer, and a few years later a Wall Street broker used a horsewhip on him. In 1850 a defeated political candidate and his two brothers knocked Bennett down and beat him as his wife watched helplessly. Finally Mrs. Bennett could no longer bear the pressures and the street indignities, and she fled to Europe with the three Bennett children.

In 1867 Bennett turned over the operation of the Herald to his son, James Gordon Bennett, Jr. The elder Bennett visited the office frequently, then kept in touch by direct telegraph wire until June 1, 1872, when he died in his sleep.

Though so abrasive in life that he was a social outcast, Bennett was praised after death. His old opponent Horace Greeley said that Bennett's success was due to personal journalism. The New York Sun more shrewdly remarked that Bennett emancipated the press "from the domination of sects, parties, and cliques…."

Further Reading

Biographies of Bennett include Don C. Seitz, The James Gordon Bennetts: Father and Son, Proprietors of the New York Herald (1928), and Oliver Carlson, The Man Who Made News: James Gordon Bennett (1942). Interesting aspects are treated in Richard O'Connor, The Scandalous Mr. Bennett (1962). Other helpful works are Oswald Garrison Villard, Some Newspapers and Newspaper-Men (1923; rev. ed. 1926); Willard Grosvenor Bleyer, Main Currents in the History of American Journalism (1927); and Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism (1941; 3d ed. 1962), which offers a concise account of Bennett.

Additional Sources

Fermer, Douglas, James Gordon Bennett and the New York herald: a study of editorial opinion in the Civil War era, 1854-1867, London: Royal Historical Society; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Herd, Harold, Seven editors, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Seitz, Don Carlos, The James Gordon Bennetts: father & son, proprietors of the New York Herald, New York, Beekman Publishers, 1974. □

About this article

James Gordon Bennett (1795-1872)

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic