Change was a constant feature of journalism in the 19th century, driven in large part by the rapid economic, social, and technological development of the United States. By the start of the 19th century, there were already more than 200 newspapers in the United States, and they had become far more diversified than before.
The owners of newspapers — and newspapers remained the primary source of news during this period — were often printers who received income from subscribers, advertisers, merchandise sales, and other printing work for individuals and governments. The development of the U.S. Postal Service and a growing naval sector allowed news distribution to extend far beyond the major cities. Additionally, early forms of user-generated content became more frequent as newspapers published more letters, literary materials, and political essays. Daily newspapers grew even more common, and news reporting started becoming more systematic. By the end of the 19th century, the press had completed a significant shift away from being sites of political debate and toward being commercially driven enterprises.
Throughout the early 1800s, newspapers continued to be highly partisan, and they derived considerable income from political parties and government subsidies.
However, by the 1830s a combination of factors had significantly altered the news industry by making news products cheaper and more accessible. Socially, literacy rates rose, resulting in larger potential audiences for news products. Economically, disposable income began to rise as the standard of living increased for some of the nation’s residents. Technologically, high-speed steam presses made it possible for newspapers to be printed faster than ever.
The confluence of these factors led to the birth of the so-called Penny Press period, during which newspapers became cheaper and gained even wider circulation. While newspapers continued to be partisan tools, especially in rural areas where the owner/editor of a small press would often be involved in local politics, additional commercial options also emerged, and news was further commodified within a capitalist framework.
During the early 1830s, French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville traveled throughout the United States and produced influential writings about American culture. Within his classic book, Democracy in America, Tocqueville remarked that almost every community he visited had its own periodical, which he saw as evidence of the power of the people and American sovereignty. The American ideals of free expression were propelled to the global stage by Tocqueville (and other intellectuals), and they became instruments of social transformation in other parts of the world. The writings also elevated the U.S.’s growing international stature in matters pertaining to freedom of the press.
Such accounts did overlook important issues within the press during this time, though. For decades before and after the American Civil War, journalists and editors in different parts of the country struggled to write about inequality and discrimination in the United States, and the white press often refused to cover issues affecting the country’s Black communities. It was not until 1827 that the country’s first Black-owned newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was founded in New York — and largely in response to the many pro-slavery newspapers in that city. Even the abolitionist papers of the time often characterized Blacks as powerless or ignorant, and rarely gave a voice to people of color. However, Freedom’s Journal operated for just two years, illustrating the challenges that alternative and minority-owned media would continue to face in the years to come.
The 1830s also saw the development and proliferation of a technological actant that has had a lasting effect on journalism: the telegraph. The first commercial telegraph in the United States was developed by Samuel Morse (of Morse code fame). The device allowed messages to be quickly transmitted across large distances via electrical wires.
The development of the telegraph redefined time and space, in the context of journalism. It made it possible for ‘news’ coming from afar to actually be new. For example, events happening in Virginia could now appear in the next day’s edition of a New York-based newspaper. This created a new class of reporter — the correspondent — who would travel to different parts of the country and send dispatches via telegraph to an editor, who would tidy up and publish a story. That, in turn, coincided with the American Civil War, which led to the creation of the war correspondent, who could offer frequent updates on battles as they were fought at the front lines. Moreover, the deployment of submarine cables linking the United States to Europe and other countries made it easier to bring ‘the world’ to local audiences in a timely fashion.
The cost and unreliability of the telegraph also promoted a more terse style of writing, which would become very influential in U.S. journalism. Since transmissions sometimes failed partway through, correspondents not only produced shorter stories but also organized them using the inverted pyramid style of writing. That style prioritizes information such that a news story begins with the most newsworthy information on top, followed by important contextual details, and concluding with relevant background information. Oftentimes, the correspondent would only transmit the most important information, leaving editors to fill in the background at the bottom of a news article. The inverted pyramid remains the most commonly used writing style at many U.S. journalistic outlets.
Although technology acted as a key enabler for new forms of journalism, popular demand and the growing commercialization of the U.S. press also led to important changes in content and ownership. There was now growing demand for entertainment, crime stories, and business news — and especially financial news from London, which was then the financial capital of the world. Increased competition also sparked increased pressure for journalists to produce news quickly, accurately, and reliably.
Newspaper magnates also began to emerge during this period. For example, Edward W. Scripps built a large portfolio of newspapers by lending money to launch publications and acquiring control of the most successful ones. Scripps, in particular, tended to take a more hands-off approach, granting his local editors considerable autonomy so long as they met revenue objectives via advertisements and subscriptions.
Other magnates were far more hands-on, though. Recognizing news media’s power to influence change in society, William Randolph Hearst — on whom Orson Welle’s classic film Citizen Kane is based — purchased a number of newspapers in the 1890s and routinely intervened in their editorial decision-making and used them to publish his personal views. He would go on to use one of his newspapers, the New York Morning Journal, to provoke American outrage against Spain through sensationalist and often false articles. Such coverage contributed to the Spanish-American War in 1898, and helped fire off a circulation rivalry between Hearst’s Morning Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s (of Pulitzer Prize fame) New York World.
The Morning Journal’s coverage was emblematic of the so-called yellow journalism that became prevalent at the time. Yellow journalism sought to draw larger audiences by using misleading, eye-catching headlines that were displayed in huge print (even for minor news). Those headlines were accompanied by sensationalized and highly suspect articles that contained fake interviews, pseudo-science, scandal-mongering, and dramatic emotional language. Those articles often appeared alongside lavish illustrations, many of which bore little resemblance to reality and simply dramatized events. Yellow journalism thus offers an example of commercialism run amok within the context of journalism, and it is representative of an era of powerful proprietors exploiting newspapers to advance their personal whims.
Not all journalism during that time was poor or sensationalized, though. This period also offered examples of pioneering investigative journalism. An example of this was Ida B. Wells, who documented lynching in the United States throughout the 1890s. Wells investigated claims that lynchings were reserved for Black criminals only, and brought to light not only the barbarism of lynchings but also how they were being used to intimidate Blacks who created economic and political competition for whites. Wells’ publishing office and press was destroyed by a white mob, forcing her to relocate from Memphis to New York in order to continue her reporting, which was then carried nationally by the growing Black press.
Ultimately, what is perhaps most remarkable about the 19th century is that journalism shifted from being an information good available to a relatively limited number of people in the early 1800s to a widely available commodity oriented toward giving mass audiences consumer choice about by the end of the century. It was no longer gathered and distributed primarily for political communication, trade, and pleasure. Rather, it was commodified with an eye toward the creation of mass media markets. As such, the 19th century is crucial to journalism history because it represents the victory of commercialism in the U.S. press — and also illustrates some of its worst excesses.
By the 1830s, higher literacy rates, lower product costs, and more efficient printing presses helped popularize mass circulation newspapers. Mass media was thus the product of social, economic, and technological developments.
The telegraph changed the temporal and spatial nature of journalism, allowing journalism to be quickly transmitted from far-away places. It also created new jobs in journalism and helped shape the inverted pyramid style of writing that is still commonly used today.
The mid- to late-1800s saw the development of an even more commercialized news industry, with powerful newspaper magnates and highly sensationalized ‘yellow journalism’ emerging toward the latter part of the century.