History of Journalism

Yona F. Maro

Nov 2, 2006
Spreading the News
Human beings have always been curious about the world around them, and anxious to know about events that will have an impact on their lives. For most of human existence, this curiosity and anxiety were fulfilled by travelers’ tales and gossip. The development of “the news” is the story of how technological advance and the introduction of specialized techniques for gathering and disseminating such information on a regular basis have steadily increased both the scope of news available to us and the speed with which it is transmitted.
Early forms of transmitting news began with word of mouth; news was limited to what someone saw and re-told, and generally was accurate primarily in proportion to the proximity of the events to the site where the news was being told. Other forms of transmitting news included ballads, which often retold stories of events of the day, and -- for those who were literate -- letters.
The opportunity for wider dissemination of news came with the invention of printing by Gutenberg in 1456. Soon after the development of printing, sheets carrying news (broadsides and pamphlets) made their appearance, along with books, in particular the Bible; however, the first newspapers (in the sense of a recurring publication) did not appear in Europe until almost the 17th century:
 Mercurius Gallobelgicus (Cologne, 1592) was the world's first periodical, issued (in Latin) semiannually and distributed at book fairs.
 The Oxford Gazette (1665) was the first regularly published newspaper, begun while the English court was at Oxford to avoid the plague in London. When the court returned to London, the Gazette came with it. An earlier newsbook, The Continuation of Our Weekly News, had been published regularly in London (1623).
American Newspapers in the Colonial Period
In the British colonies, printing was regulated (as it was also in Britain itself) by the Press Restriction Act, which required that the printer's name and place of publication be included on each printed document. The first printer in colonies was Stephen Day at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1638. A 1662 Massachusetts law forbade printing except by license, which contributed to the suppression of the first newspaper in the colonies, Benjamin Harris's Publick Occurences both Foreign and Domestick (1690). This paper was suppressed after one issue because it was not licensed, but also because of its treatment of the French (it published a story that the French king lay with his son's wife).
A second newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, appeared in 1704. It was not suppressed (in fact, it received subsidies from the government) but was also not very good, being late with both local and European news; nevertheless, it survived until 1776. Newspaper publishing moved outside New England for the first time in 1719, with the appearance of Andrew Bradford’s American Weekly Mercury (1719-1746).
However, James Franklin's New England Courant, begun in 1721, is often seen as the first real colonial newspaper. Like many early papers, it was published as a sideline of Franklin's general printing practice and was aligned with party interests -- in this case, often parties opposed to the ruling powers in the colony. Aside from its significance in its own right, it is also known for the first publication of Ben Franklin as Silence Dogood in 1722. Franklin’s paper did not survive long, however; by 1726, James had suspended publication, and his younger brother Ben moved to Philadelphia, where he took over publication of the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729. By 1750, there were 14 weekly papers in the six largest colonies. Some were large enough to enrich their publishers, encouraging more frequent publication began (up to three times/week).
On the eve of the American Revolution, most of the larger communities were served by at least one newspaper; a total of 89 papers in 35 different communities were published during the 1770s (http://www.stockton.edu/~gilmorew/0amnhist/nws-1819.htm) Most papers at the time of the American Revolution were anti-royalist, chiefly because of opposition to the Stamp Act taxing newsprint. Although the act technically was on a commodity, it was widely (and correctly) seen as an indirect way of regulating the press, since newspapers were required to use only paper that had received a stamp indicating the tax had been paid; newspapers could be suppressed by denying the stamp or refusing to sell approved paper to the offending publisher.
Early republican newspapers tended to be very partisan, either for or against the Federalist position, with not much regard for truth or responsibility. Typical was the New York Evening Post, begun Nov. 16, 1801 with plans for "temperate debate"; in the event, there was lots of debate, little temperance. After the Jefferson administration, the newspaper industry trended away from partisan papers to private enterprises, with real editors. However, papers were still often in opposition to the government, so Andrew Jackson started his own paper and funneled government printing to it, forcing the Washington competition out of business. Even in private hands, the press still tended to function as a personal propaganda instrument, with low standards for truth and responsibility.
The rise of the great newspapers
In the middle of the 19th century, the typical pattern of newspaper publication was weekly or semi-weekly. Newspapers were short and typically aligned with one or another political interest. Other than local news, much of the reporting was simply copied from other newspapers, sometimes verbatim. In addition to news stories, there might be poetry or fiction, or (especially late in the century) humorous columns.
Technology, along with innovations in newsgathering and disseminating, was opening the door to a different kind of newspaper, however. In the 1850s, massive presses that could print thousands of copies of a newspaper every hour increased potential circulation, while the emergence of “illustrated” newspapers (still mostly the weeklies) suggested the possibility of merging articles with images.
The New York Herald (1835), under James Gordon Bennett, began the modern concept of the newspaper -- the press as a capitalist institution, free of government or party control. The Herald begun as penny paper (vs. the usual 6 cents) and topped 40,000 circulation within 15 months. It was the first paper organized in a modern pattern, with city staff covering regular beats and spot news, and more coverage of Wall Street and business. In 1838, Bennett organized the first foreign correspondent staff (six men in Europe) and placed domestic correspondents in key cities -- including the first Capitol staff covering Congress. He also employed fast offshore boats to rush foreign news from incoming ships.
The New York Tribune (1841), edited by Horace Greeley was the first paper with a national influence; by the eve of the Civil War, the Tribune was shipping thousands of copies daily to other large cities - 6,000 to Chicago alone. Other Eastern newspapers published weekly editions for shipment to other cities, thereby developing an editorial influence beyond the local market. Greeley was a liberal reformer who organized a top news staff (Karl Marx was briefly his London correspondent) and mounted frequent crusades for his pet ideas (unionism, abstinence, abolition of capital punishment and polygamy, westward expansion). In 1886, the Tribune took the lead in technology development by becoming the first newspaper to use Ottmar Mergenthaler's linotype machine, rapidly increasing the speed and accuracy with which type could be set.
The New York Times, founded in 1851 by Henry Raymond and George Jones, established the principle of balanced reportage with high-level writing. The Times was never the giant it is now until late in 20th century, and some of its significant features (e.g., the lack of a comics page) reflected a comparatively low circulation and tighter budget.
The wire services originated in 1848, with the creation by six large New York papers of a news cooperative to provide coverage of Europe for all of the papers together. The chief movers in the scheme were David Hale, publisher of the Journal of Commerce, and the Herald’s James Gordon Bennett. Ten years later, the news cooperative (the Associated Press) received the first-ever cable transmission of European news through the transatlantic cable.
Developments in the Rest of the Country
Outside of New York and some other large, mostly Eastern cities, however, newspapers in the middle of the 19th century tended to publish weekly rather than daily. By late in the century, that trend had changed, and even a relatively small city like Aberdeen had a daily paper (the Aberdeen Daily News, forerunner to today's American News) and several weeklies, including the Saturday Pioneer, remembered today because of its publisher, L. Frank Baum, who was later to write The Wizard of Oz. (For Baum's controversial editorials calling for the extermination of the Sioux people, go to the website.)
The Civil War influenced newspapers more than any other event of the century. The extensive competition to report the war news led newspapers to introduce war correspondents ("specials") who were generally freer to cover events than in modern wars. Still, there were conflicts between government and the press and efforts at censorship. To get the news back to readers in the north, correspondents made extensive use of the railway and the telegraph to report news; the telegraph, in particular, led to a more concise journalistic style (more readable and less rambling) because of the need to economize.
After the war, James Bennett Jr took over the New York Herald and began to make news happen. He sent Henry Stanley to look for David Livingstone in Africa, and as one journalism historian notes: "Other papers had carried lengthy stories about Livingstone's disappearance; it was Bennett's idea to send a reporter to find him." Stanley's stories were very successful and led Bennett to generate more ideas and hire investigative reporters to pursue them. Bennett also extended the reach of American newspapers into the international arena, introducing the paper's first European edition (the Paris Herald), the predecessor of the International Herald Tribune, in 1887. (The International Herald Tribune survived the demise of its parent and continues to publish today, 34 years after the New York Herald Tribune closed its doors.) In the 20th century, Bennett pioneered technological advances, hiring Marconi’s radio to obtain results of the America’s Cup races ahead of his rivals.
Charles Anderson Dana of the New York Sun (1861), a former editor for Horace Greeley, added the human interest story and a better definition of news value ("man bites dog" not "dog bites man") to the growing industry.
Western (Midwestern) papers were less nationally oriented than those in the East, focusing more on local news and community service. In frontier areas, like turn-of-the-century South Dakota, newspapers often depended for their economic existence on homesteaders, who were required to publish their intent to claim land in a local paper. Many of these early papers went out of existence once the land rushes were over.
Western newspapers did, however, contribute two of the major forces in American journalism in the last third of the 19th century: William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. After building fortunes with western newspapers, Hearst and Pulitzer both established New York papers that were dedicated to the public defense (New York World 1883 and New York Journal 1896). Pulitzer's papers had a reputation for excellence and integrity, although they tended to sensationalism. Hearst followed similar ideals but was even bolder and more sensational; for many years, his excited reports of the sinking of the Maine were credited with starting the Spanish-American War.
The sensationalist press of the late 19th century came to be called the “yellow” press – the term itself derived from “The Yellow Kid,” the title of one of the first comic strips to be published, which also began in this era. Meant as a term of derision, the “yellow press” soon turned to muckraking, as the impulse to find and deliver sensational stories was directed toward the public good.
20th Century
The turn of the 20th century saw a vibrant, if sometimes sensationalist, American press, and brought the advent a strong “muckraking” tradition – the beginnings of investigative journalism. The muckrakers included such figures as Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair, who shared a strong social conscience and a dedication to unrooting corruption – especially in the practices of big businesses such as Standard Oil. (Although sometimes their efforts hit the wrong targets – Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which he wrote to call attention to the plight of poor immigrants in Chicago, struck a national nerve in its depiction of unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing industry. The novel contributed to the introduction of new, much more stringent food and drug laws, but Sinclair’s original concern about the immigrants who worked in the industry did not reach most readers.) Not surprisingly, much of this reporting was published by smaller, more politically committed papers and magazines rather than the major media outlets, which were already becoming dependent on advertisers’ dollars. Throughout the century, but especially prominent during the turmoil of the 1960s and after, a kind of “shadow” or alternative press coexisted, often in parallel with the mainstream press. Such publications as I.F. Stone’s Weekly, the Village Voice, The Nation, and Mother Jones magazine have contributed a more politically inflected take on the news than counterparts like the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Broadcast news began soon after the turn of the century. In 1901, Gugliemo Marconi and his colleagues first successfully sent a wireless signal across the ocean, and by 1907, Marconi’s invention was in regular use for transatlantic communications. The first actual radio broadcast, transmission of voice through the wireless, came in 1912 in Los Angeles, but regular broadcasts waited for the emergence of the first radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, in 1920. Early broadcasts included election and sports results; in the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt demonstrated the value of the new medium for communicating with the public without (or at least with less) intermediaries, through a series of “fireside chats” that were broadcast nationally on the developing radio networks. (NBC had begun operations in 1926, followed by CBS the next year.)
Unlike newspapers, radio (and later television) were subject to government regulation of content. Citing the limited number of available frequencies, the Federal Communications Commission required broadcast outlets to obtain a license, the retention of which was dependent on demonstrations that the stations provided for the public good. These restrictions were partially eased through the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which recognized that the growth of cable networks and technology for increasing the carrying capacity of existing frequencies seemed to render concerns about media monopolies moot. (Ironically, other commentators have noted a decreased quality of news reporting and a “follow-the-leader” pack mentality as the competition for viewers heated up, so that a kind of monopoly remains.)
Just as the Civil War inaugurated high-speed transmission of news from remote areas through the telegraph, World War II showed the power of radio, as leaders such as Winston Churchill in England and FDR in the US used radio broadcasts to rally their countrymen, while intrepid radio reporters led by Edward Murrow of CBS brought the actuality of the war home.
By 1939, pictures joined sound in broadcasts, as the first experimental TV broadcasts were made. Although commercial televison began in 1941, its full development was delayed by the war, and the powerful news and entertainment networks only began to emerge in the 1950s.
In the 20th century, there was a strong tendency for newspaper consolidation, beginning in the Depression. The New York World folded in 1930 after bad business decisions. Its evening edition merged with the New York Telegram, which also later absorbed the Sun. Mergers and newspaper failures everywhere reduced major cities to one paper, or two papers with a single owner. The decline in newspaper numbers is clear from these examples:
 Chicago had 8 papers in 1904, two today
 Cleveland had 3 papers in 1950s, one today
 Philadelphia had 13 dailies in 1895, 8 in 1913, 2 now
The growth of chains has also contributed to a decline in newspaper variety.
With the collapse of rivals, some very strong papers have emerged (Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, LA Times). These papers are often strong journalistically and influential (and very profitable), although their domination is often viewed negatively by observers at both political extremes.
In the 1960s, originally in the underground press but increasingly in more mainstream outlets, a “New Journalism” emerged, combining traditional reporting with more creative, “literary” methods of telling that included elements borrowed from fiction. In contrast to the aura of objectivity that had come to be seen as the objective of mainstream reporting, “New Journalism” often called attention to the journalist himself as a not-completely-unbiased observer, as in Hunter Thompson’s reporting for Rolling Stone.
In the 1980s, South Dakota's Al Neuharth founded USA Today as a national newspaper, with no "home" city. It offered homogenized news, with little depth or investigative work, but proved to be very influential in newspaper design and story length, even as it accommodated to its critics by developing a few more detailed stories and reporting strength. USA Today has contributed to the use of color, modular design, and other attractive features of today's newspapers.
Internet and Journalism
News moved into a new area in 1997 when the Dallas Morning News broke a story about reports that suspect Timothy McVeigh had confessed to the Oklahoma City bombing; the story broke on the newspaper’s web site rather than in the physical newspaper the next morning. The official reason for the decision to go on-line was the story’s overwhelming importance, but there was also speculation at the time that the on-line release was designed to prevent a judge from restraining publication, or to preserve a scoop. McVeigh’s lawyers called the story a hoax.
The pace of adaptation to the web and multi-format news providing has been rapid. This year (2000), the industry journal Editor &Publisher ran an account of a totally interconnected news operation in Tampa, where TV station WFLA, the morning Tampa Tribune, and website Tampa On-line share stories, reporters, and responsibilities for covering news. Such collaborations have been termed “crossover coverage” or "convergence." (E&P 8/22/00)
Still more recently, we have seen the emergence of blogs and other on-line-only methods of news transmission. The quality of such vehicles varies widely, as those with an axe to grind can take advantage of the Internet’s open access to broadcast their views; nevertheless, from the scoops recorded in the ‘90s by the Drudge Report to more recent correctives by conservative (and some liberal) bloggers, the Internet has increasingly become a vehicle for news reports in its own right, not just as an adjunct to traditional media. It was bloggers, for instance, who raised questions about the accuracy of CBS News reports that President Bush had a less than honorable discharge from the Air Force Reserve, and bloggers who “outed” Jeffrey Gannon, the conservative activist who received financial support from the White House to pose leading questions at press conferences and was responsible for some X-rated websites.
Links to Webpages on Journalism History:
• Images and links from a course on communications history
• "How to Read a 19th-Century Newspaper," with a discussion of publishing patterns in the mid-1800s.
• The history of the International Herald Tribune
• Homepage of the journal Journalism History
• A history of "alternative journalism" in the U.S. during the 20th century.
• "A Brief History of Newspapers"
• A history of communication site with student scholarship on all aspects of media history (including Internet)
• The history of the Associated Press, on its 150th anniversary in 1998
• "A Concise History of the British Newspaper"
• The Newseum (an interactive museum devoted to news media)
• "New Media Timeline" at the Poynter Institute - a history of on-line and other emerging news media
• "What a Century!" - article from Columbia Journalism Review on journalism in the 20th century
• "A Brief History of Newspapers" going back to Roman times - very brief (like two long paragraphs)
• A history of the Newspaper Guild (Reporters' union)
• The Media History Project's Timeline
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