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Communication in The Americas and their Influence

The Penny Press

In the 1830s American newspapers began their emergence as a true mass medium—one that disseminates the same information to large numbers of people. In the colonies or early republic a successful newspaper attracted only a few thousand readers at most. After the revolution, advertising helped finance newspapers, and many, if not most, had the word Advertiser in their title. Circulation was dependent on subscription. Early in the nineteenth century, partisan politics began to play an increasingly important role as papers aligned themselves with political parties in response to the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. No matter what political constituency these journals served, the associated business interests determined their emphasis. Subscribers were generally well-off and had to sign on for a year at a cost of six cents an issue.

The arrival of the penny papers changed the industry. The idea began in New York and within a decade had spread to other metropolitan areas. Benjamin Day's New York Sun (1833), James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald (1835), and Horace Greeley's New York Tribune (1841) were sold on the street for a penny and reached a readership many times that of the partisan press. Many readers were immigrants, members of the traditional middle class, or from a nascent literate working class. These papers were not without political leanings, but they were not party-funded (advertising revenue helped defray costs) and were quite capable of shifting an allegiance if a candidate's platform displeased them. Local news, along with crime—the more sensational the better—human interest stories, and coverage of late-breaking events such as the war with Mexico made the penny papers immediate as well as informative. Journalistic practice shifted from the interpretation of an event, in some cases long after the fact, to speedy, descriptive reporting. Eventually the penny papers added coverage of the arts, theater, sports, and general entertainment.

Several theories have been put forth to explain the success of the penny press. On the technological side, steam power and the rotary press facilitated mass production. The use of steam in rail and ship transportation and improved roads speeded the movement of news. By the mid-1840s that movement was no longer limited to the available means of transportation, given the advent of the electric telegraph, which prompted the formation of news agencies such as the Associated Press (1849). News was becoming a commodity—the fresher the better. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the advent of the penny press itself preceded technological influences that contributed so greatly to its success. On the human side, a literate urban population was expanding and was feeling a greater sense of empowerment through the electoral process. Being informed through regular access to news helped give direction to that empowerment.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cluster compound to ConcupiscenceCommunication in The Americas and their Influence - Pre-european Communication, New World Civilizations, Colonial America, The Penny Press, Yellow Journalism