The History of Journalism

News reporting goes back thousands of years,
perhaps to the first humans or even the first
animals that could communicate to one another
about such things as approaching predators.
The potential for "mass
media," however, was not
realized until the middle of
the 15 century, when
German inventor Johannes
Gutenberg's development
of movable type gave
people a relatively fast,
inexpensive means of
producing hundreds or
thousands of fliers, books,
and eventually
Gutenberg, William Caxton, and the American
printers who followed them made or purchased small
metal blocks, each with an individual letter,
punctuation mark, or other symbol on it. They then
arranged these blocks in trays to spell words. By
applying ink to the letters
and then pressing large
sheets of paper down on
them, they could print
pages, which they then cut
to create fliers or
assembled into books or
other publications.
Even then, it appears that newspapers-if defined as regular publications
devoted to current events and made
available to the general public--did not
begin to appear in earnest in Europe
until the early 17th century.
Although newspapers had been
published in Germany, England,
Spain, and other European
countries in the early 17th century,
at roughly the same time that
English immigrants were settling
Virginia and Massachusetts, the
American colonists did not
establish a real newspaper of their
own for another century.
Shortly after English settlers set up colonies in
Virginia and Massachusetts, America got its first
press, which was set up in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, in the late 1630s. Although a
number of books issued from this press over the
next half century, the American colonies did not
produce their own real newspaper until the 18th
century. Colonists in Massachusetts were
preoccupied with survival, could read news coming
from the Mother Country (England), and lacked the
type of industry and commerce that would have
created a demand for advertising… funding?
The establishment of postmasters
and post offices supplied a further
impetus for newspapers because
postmasters had access to
information and took interest in
spreading it … Who would have
History of American Journalism
Newspapers have not always
been the sophisticated, fullcolor extravaganzas we know
today. American journalism
had its humble beginnings in
the Colonial period with the
publication of Benjamin
Harris’ Publick Occurrences
Both Forreign and Domestick,
which was shut down after its
one and only issue on Sept. 26,
This newspaper was
printed on three
sheets of stationerysize paper and the
fourth page was left
blank so that readers
could add their own
news before passing
it on to someone else.
Unfortunately, the
essays which this
paper contained did
not please the
authorities, and
Harris had not
bought the required
license, so the paper
was shut down after
just one issue.
The first continuously
published American
newspaper did not come
along for 14 more years.
The Boston News-Letter
premiered on April 24,
1704. The publisher of the
first colonial newspaper
was postmaster John
Campbell, whose Boston
News-Letter debuted on
April 24, 1704. The paper
originally appeared on a
single page, printed on both
sides and issued weekly.
In the early years of its
publication the NewsLetter was filled mostly
with news from London
journals detailing the
intrigues of English
politics, and a variety of
events concerning the
European wars. The rest
of the newspaper was
filled with items listing
ship arrivals, deaths,
sermons, political
appointments, fires,
accidents and the like.
One of the most
sensational stories
published when the NewsLetter was the only
newspaper in the colonies
was the the account of
how Blackbeard the
pirate was killed in handto-hand combat on the
deck of a sloop that had
engaged his ship in battle.
On view here is the May 14,
1761 issue of the NewsLetter. The front page is
displayed in its entirety. As
was the custom then, the
front page was devoted to
events overseas. This issue
contains news from London,
a speech by the King to the
House of Commons, and
various accounts from
Westminster and Whitehall
Also displayed from this issue is
an ad from the back page for a
Scheme of a Lottery. The lottery
was created to sell 6000 tickets at
$2 each to raise funds to pave the
highway in Charlestown from the
Ferry to the Neck. Of the $12,000
to be raised, according to the ad,
$10,800 is earmarked for prizes
and $1200 for paving the
The circulation of the Boston News
Letter was rarely more than 300, and
Campbell could not make a significant
profit from publishing it. Other
publishers struggled, as well. Some
2,000 newspapers that appeared
between 1690 and 1820, fewer than half
lasted two years or longer.
Perhaps the most noteworthy weakness in these early
newspapers, especially those printed in the first
decade or two of the century, was a lack of
controversial coverage. If, as has been famously
declared, a newspaper's job is to "raise hell," then
early publications such as Campell's Boston NewsLetter barely raised an eyebrow. The main reason
was control by government authorities, who feared
the power of even a fledgling press. The First
Amendment, which promised freedom of the press,
was not to come until 1791. In the meantime,
journalists had to cope with a tradition of British
There were success
stories and no greater
one than that of
Benjamin Franklin,
whose Pennsylvania
Gazette was considered
to be "the best
newspaper in the
American colonies"
After contributing material to his brother James's New England
Courant and The American Weekly Mercury, Franklin bought
The Pennsylvania Gazette and turned it into an enormous
success. After its debut in 1728, it is reported that the Gazette
soon had the largest circulation, most
pages, highest advertising revenue,
most literate columns, and liveliest
comment of any paper in the
area. From 1729 until 1766,
Franklin not only ran the newspaper,
but also produced much of its
material, including straight news
stories, essays, even a political
By modern standards, colonial newspapers were small
publications featuring out-of-date, often toothless
coverage of a small range of subjects. A typical
publication might consist of four pages of stories about
government and foreign affairs, the weather, and
disasters such as fires or diseases. Illustrations were
rare, and headlines generally were nonexistent. It
could take weeks for the news of an event to appear in
one of these papers, particularly if it took place abroad,
and inaccuracies were common.
Journalists, for the most part, simply stayed out of
trouble by printing innocuous coverage or even
giving government officials the chance to approve
material before publication. Things changed
somewhat when James Franklin, brother of
Benjamin, established the New England Courant
in 1721.
The Courant was the first American
newspaper to supply readers with what they
liked and needed, rather than with
information controlled by self-interested
officials. Its style was bold and its literary
quality high. Franklin even challenged
religious and political authorities, setting a
precedent for journalists to come. The press
was still far from free, however, as Franklin's
own case illustrates: some two years after he
began his fiesty newspaper, authorities
banned him from publishing it.
Perhaps the most famous
name in early American
journalism is that of Peter
Zenger. Publisher of the New
York Weekly Journal, Zenger
was charged with sedition
after his paper had criticized
colonial authorities, and he
was tried for libel against the
colonial British government
in 1735. In this picture,
Zenger is arrested and his
printing press is burned by
Colonial authorities.
Zenger was found innocent with the help of noted attorney Andrew
Hamilton, and this verdict was that one verdict that paved the way
for a free and independent press in America. For the first time it
was considered proper for the press to question and criticize the
government. This is a pillar of a free press in the United States and
any country that is free. Journalists have to be able to question the
actions of the government in order to make them accountable.
All that is needed for newspapers to become
a mass medium is a good idea. Along comes
Benjamin Day in 1833. Day opened the New
York Sun and created the Penny Press.
Newspapers of the day cost about 10 cents each . . .
too expensive for the masses. But there was a large
literate audience out there. Day took advantage of
the fact that he could print thousands of papers
inexpensively and sold the papers for a penny
He also changed the content of newspapers to make it
more sensational and more popular to the lower class. He
hired boys to hawk the newspapers on street corners. It
was the Penny Press that also began using advertising as a
way to bring readers information, but advertising also
helped by paying for the printing and distribution of
Cheap newspapers sold to the workers were a hit. His
idea was huge success and newspapers crossed that line
that made them truly mass media. Others were quick to
follow his lead. They became so powerful that they were
called Lords of the Press.
The Civil War era brought some “new” technology
to the publishing industry. Photography became a
popular addition to newspapers. Matthew Brady
set up a camera on the battlefields and
photographed the soldiers at war. One of his
photographs appears above.
An invention that
helped speed
news along was
the telegraph.
Reporters were
able to send
encoded news
back to their
papers as it was
Lincoln became
the first
president to
direct armies in
the field directly
from the White
During the
darkest days of
the terrible war
Lincoln would
pace back and
forth in the
telegraph office
awaiting news of
the fate of the
nation that
would emerge
from the new
Because the
telegraph wires
kept going down
on a regular
basis, sometimes
the story that a
reporter was
trying to send got
cut off before it
was finished.
To alleviate this
developed the
pyramid” form
of writing,
putting the most
important facts
at the beginning
of the story.
This way, the
most important
part of the story
would most likely
reach the
newspaper, and
if anything got
cut off, it would
be the lesser
important details
of what
Newspapers began to evolve and grow into a major
industry. Men mostly dominated the field, but in 1868 the
New York Sun hired their first female reporter, Emily
Verdery Bettey. The Sun hired Eleanor Hoyt Brainerd as
a reporter and fashion editor in the 1880s; she was one of
the first professional female editors, and perhaps the first
full-time fashion editor, of any American newspaper.
As newspapers began to compete more and more
with one another to increase circulation and
obtain more advertising revenue, a different type
of journalism was developed by publishers
Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.
In the mid-1890s, Pulitzer (in the New York
World) and Hearst (in the San Francisco
Examiner and later the New York Morning
Journal) transformed newspapers with
sensational and scandalous news coverage, the
use of drawings and the inclusion of more
features such as comic strips.
After William Randolph Hearst moved to
New York, he and Joseph Pulitzer competed
for readers by making their papers more
and more sensational.
In 1895, Hearst purchased the New York
Morning Journal and entered into a head-tohead circulation war with his former mentor,
Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World.
To increase circulation both started to include
articles about the Cuban Insurrection. Many
stories in both newspaper greatly exaggerated
their claims to make the stories more
The American public purchased more
newspapers because of the sensational writing,
and this strongly encouraged Hearst and
Pulitzer’s newspapers to write more
sensationalized stories.
This form of journalism in short, is biased
opinion masquerading as objective fact.
Moreover, the practice of yellow journalism
involved sensationalism, distorted stories, and
misleading images for the sole purpose of
boosting newspaper sales and exciting public
opinion. The endless drive for circulation,
unfortunately, often put publisher's greed
before ethics. It became known as Yellow
Journalism, named after “The Yellow Kid”
Drawn by R.F.
Outcault, the
popular (if nowunfunny) strip
became a prize in
the struggle
between Pulitzer
and Hearst in the
New York
newspaper wars.
Outcault moved
the strip to
Hearst's papers
after nine months,
where it competed
with a Pulitzersponsored version
of itself.
Yellow Kid
cartoonist Richard
Muckrakers are journalists who seek out and expose
the misconduct of prominent people or of highprofile organizations; they emerged on the American
scene in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Crusaders
for social change, muckraking journalists wrote
articles not about news events, but about injustices
or abuses, bringing them to the attention of the
American public. Sometimes criticized for their
tactics, their work succeeded in raising widespread
awareness of social, economic, and political ills,
prompting a number of reforms, including passage
of pure food laws and antitrust legislation.
One of the most popular
reporters of era was a woman
named Elizabeth Cochrane
who wrote under the name
“Nellie Bly.” She wrote with
anger and compassion. She
wrote to expose the many
wrongs that developed in
nineteenth century cities after
the industrial boom. Most of
her reporting was on women.
She directed her articles to
upper class women to open
their eyes and hearts to their
impoverished, hungry, hopeless
sisters. She felt very strongly
that women and their issues
were not represented in
newspapers or any where else.
She wanted people to know
different women’s plights and
understand why some became
“fallen women." She hoped
that by reading her articles
other women would want to
help their sisters. She wanted
people to realize the unfairness
that women were afforded at
the turn of the century.
She got a job on the Pittsburgh
Dispatch when she wrote a
furious letter complaining
about an editorial that claimed
that women were good for little
but housework. She covered
social questions such as
divorce, slum life, and
conditions in Mexico for the
In 1887 she moved to Joseph
Pulitzer's New York World, for
which she exposed the
conditions in which the insane
lived by pretending to be mad
and getting herself committed
to the asylum on Blackwell's
Island. She also investigated
sweat-shops tenements, the
world of petty crime and Corps
de Ballet by the same methods.
The high point in her life,
however was the round-theworld trip, which she made in
72 days, 6 hours,11 minutes
and 14 seconds. Joseph Pulitzer
sent a special train to meet her
return to San Francisco, and
she was greeted by fireworks,
gun salutes, brass bands and
parade on Broadway.
In 1895 Nellie Bly married
a millionaire, Robert
Seaman, 50 years older
than herself, and retired.
She lost most of his money
after he died and in 1919
tried unsuccessfully to
make a comeback. She died
in 1920.
Journalism does not stop
with newspapers…
Upton Sinclair is
actually responsible
for the journalist term
Muckracker when he
brought about
important changes in
American society.
His novel, "The Jungle," filled it with page after
page of nauseating detail he had researched about
the meat-packing industry, and dropped it on an
astonished nation in 1906.
An instant best-seller, Sinclair's book reeked with
the stink of the Chicago stockyards. He told how
dead rats were shoveled into sausage-grinding
machines; how bribed inspectors looked the other
way when diseased cows were slaughtered for
beef, and how filth and guts were swept off the
floor and packaged as "potted ham."
In short, "The Jungle" did as much as any
animal-rights activist of today to turn
Americans into vegetarians.
But it did more than that. Within months, the
aroused -- and gagging -- public demanded
sweeping reforms in the meat industry.
President Theodore Roosevelt was sickened
after reading an advance copy. He called upon
Congress to pass a law establishing the Food
and Drug Administration and, for the first time,
setting up federal inspection standards for meat.
Roosevelt was so taken with Sinclair that
he coined the term “muckrakers” to
describe him and other reformist
crusaders, even though the president’s
phrase was not meant to be wholly
Sinclair wanted to pave his way in
the literary world, but instead he
opened the door to a new type of
journalism that continues today.
He said, “I aimed at the public's
heart, and by accident I hit it in the
stomach.“ He was the first
American author to win Nobel prize
for literature!
Magazines are also an
important part of journalism,
and Henry Luce is an
important name in the
magazine industry.
Luce, who once held the role of a
newspaper reporter, broke away
from the world of newspaper.
He is the founder of Time
magazine, Fortune, Life and
Sports Illustrated! With the
exception of Life, these magazines
are still in high circulation today!
As the U.S. population in the
latter half of the 20th
century has shifted from
cities to suburbs, and with
the growth in competition
from other media, many
large city newspapers have
had to cease publication,
merge with their
competitors, or be taken over
by a chain of newspaper
publishers such as the
Gannett Company or
Knight-Ridder Inc.
In 1982, using satellite
transmission and color
presses, the Gannett chain
established a new national
newspaper, USA Today,
published and circulated
throughout the United
States, Europe, and Asia.
The Wall Street Journal, the
New York Times, and USA
Today are read all over the
country; small towns and
rural districts usually have
daily or weekly local papers
made up largely of
syndicated matter, with a
page or two of local news and
editorials. These local papers
are frequently influential
political organs.
As the U.S. population in the
latter half of the 20th
century has shifted from
cities to suburbs, and with
the growth in competition
from other media, many
large city newspapers have
had to cease publication,
merge with their
competitors, or be taken over
by a chain of newspaper
publishers such as the
Gannett Company or
Knight-Ridder Inc.
Since the invention of the
telegraph, which enormously
facilitated the rapid
gathering of news, the great
news agencies, such as
Reuters in England, Agence
France-Presse in France, and
Associated Press and United
Press International in the
United States, have sold their
services to newspapers and
to their associate members.
Improvements in
photocomposition and in
printing (especially the web
offset press), have enhanced
the quality of print and made
possible the publication of
huge editions at great speed.
Modern newspapers are
supported primarily by the
sale of advertising space.
Computer technology has
also had an enormous impact
on the production of news
and newspapers.
By the 1990s this technology
had also affected the nature
of newspapers, as the first
independent on-line daily
appeared on the Internet. By
the decade's end some 700
papers had web sites, some
of which carried news
gathered by their own staffs,
and papers regularly
scooped themselves by
publishing electronically
before the print edition