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A (Brief) History of Print Journalism in America

A Profession Intertwined With the Nation's History

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A (Brief) History of Print Journalism in America

The New England Courant, an early American newspaper

Public domain photo

The Printing Press

When it comes to the history of journalism, everything starts with the invention of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. However, while Bibles and other books were among the first things produced by Gutenberg's press, it wasn't until the 17th century that the first newspapers were distributed in Europe.

The first regularly published paper came out twice a week in England, as did the first daily, The Daily Courant.

A New Profession in a Fledgling Nation

In America, the history of journalism is inextricably intertwined with the history of the country itself. The first newspaper in the American colonies - Benjamin Harris's Publick Occurrences both Foreighn and Domestick - was published in 1690 but immediately shut down for not having a required license.

Interestingly, Harris' newspaper employed an early form of reader participation. The paper was printed on three sheets of stationery-size paper and the fourth page was left blank so that readers could add their own news, then pass it on to someone else.

Many newspapers of the time were not objective or neutral in tone like the papers we know today. Rather, they were fiercely partisan publications that editorialized against the tyranny of the British government, which in turn did its best to crack down on the press.

An Important Case

In 1735, Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, was arrested and put on trial for allegedly printing libelous things about the British government. But his lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, argued that the articles in question could not be libelous because they were based on fact.

Zenger was found not guilty, and the case established the precedent that a statement, even if negative, cannot be libelous if it is true. This landmark case helped establish the foundation of a free press in the then-fledgling nation.

The 1800s

There were already several hundred newspapers in the U.S. by 1800, and that number would grow dramatically as the century wore on. Early on, papers were still very political and partisan in tone, but gradually they started to become more than simply mouthpieces for their publishers.

Newspapers were also growing as an industry. In 1833 Benjamin Day opened the New York Sun and created the "Penny Press." Day's cheap papers, filled with sensational content and aimed at a working class audience, were a huge hit. With huge increases in circulation and larger printing presses to meet the demand, newspapers became a mass medium.

This period also saw the establishment of more prestigious newspapers that had begun to incorporate the kinds of journalistic standards that we know today. One such paper, started in 1851 by George Jones and Henry Raymond, made a point of featuring quality reporting and writing. The name of the paper? The New York Daily Times, which later became The New York Times.

The Civil War

The Civil War era brought technical advances like photography to the nation's great papers. And the advent of the telegraph enabled Civil War correspondents to transmit stories back to their newspapers' home offices with unprecedented speed.

But the telegraph lines often went down, so reporters learned to put the most important information in their stories into the first few lines of the transmission. This led to the development of the tight, inverted-pyramid style of writing that we associate with newspapers today.

This period also saw the formation of The Associated Press wire service, which started as a cooperative venture between several large newspapers wanting to share news that arrived by telegraph from Europe. Today the AP is the world's oldest and largest news agency.

Hearst, Pulitzer & Yellow Journalism

The 1890s saw the rise of publishing moguls William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Both owned papers in New York and elsewhere, and both employed a sensationalistic kind of journalism designed to lure as many readers as possible. The term "yellow journalism" dates from this era; it comes from the name of a comic strip - "The Yellow Kid" - published by Pulitzer.

The 20th Century - And Beyond

Newspapers thrived into the mid-20th century but with the advent of radio and then television, newspaper circulation began a slow but steady decline.

That decline has only been hastened by the advent of the internet, and the early years of the 21st century have seen the newspaper industry enter a kind of death spiral, with layoffs, bankruptcies and even the total shutdown of some publications being seen nationwide.

Still, even in an age of 24/7 cable news and thousands of websites, newspapers maintain their status as the best source for in-depth and investigative news coverage.

The value of newspaper journalism is perhaps best demonstrated by the Watergate scandal, in which two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, did a series of investigative articles about corruption and nefarious doings in the Nixon White House. Their stories, along with ones done by other publications, led to Nixon's resignation.

The future of print journalism as an industry remains unclear. On the internet, blogging about current events has become enormously popular, but critics charge that most blogs are filled with gossip and opinions, not real reporting.

There are hopeful signs online. Some websites are returning to old-school journalism, such as VoiceofSanDiego.org, which highlights investigative reporting, and GlobalPost.com, which focuses on foreign news.

But while the quality of print journalism remains high, it's clear that newspapers as an industry must find a new business model in order to survive well into the 21st century.

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