North American Newspapers

North American Newspapers
North American Newspapers

Emerging almost simultaneously with the appearance in Europe of new forms of printed communication, Britain’s North American colonies propelled newspapers to new heights of political clout, popular appeal, and financial success in the 18th and 19th centuries. New technologies, including the telegraph and steam printing press, and an evolving connection between growing urban publics and their newspapers made this medium the communication choice of its era.

Colonial Beginnings

Early colonial newspapers tended to be small and mainly devoted to commercial information. Papers like the Boston Gazette, founded in 1719, published commodity and stock prices, ship arrivals, and notices for goods available in town. Printers needed to be literate; a printer who had opinions also had the means to express them.

As early as 1721 James Franklin, elder brother of Benjamin Franklin, opposed smallpox vaccinations in his New England Courant. The ability of a news sheet to include controversial topics or political views tended to wax and wane, depending on the forbearance of British and local officials.

As relations between the American colonies and Britain deteriorated after the Seven Years’/French and Indian War, newspapers’ political engagement increased significantly. Publishers spearheaded opposition to Britain’s 1765 Stamp Act, which threatened both their expression and their profits. This act imposed a tax on every printed page.

Printers counterattacked, using their presses to circulate anti–Stamp Act articles while often refusing to pay the tax. Newspapers not only helped kill the Stamp Act but forged colonial linkages that would eventually help bring on the American Revolution. The oldest surviving paper from this era, the Hartford Courant, was founded in 1764. In 1791 the U.S. Bill of Rights would enshrine freedom of the press.

U.S. Press Challenges

Establishing press freedom soon proved much easier than actually dealing with a free press. It was one thing for colonial newspapers to ridicule the hated British, but U.S. politicians soon found themselves targets of both fair and unfair abuse.

As political parties emerged, newspapers became a favored way to broadcast their achievements and belittle their foes’ programs in highly partisan fashion. One such party mouthpiece was the New-York Evening Post, founded by Federalist Alexander Hamilton.

A major challenge to press freedom emerged in 1798 when a Federalist Congress approved and President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. A key target of these repressive laws was the Philadelphia Aurora, published by Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin.

Bache was a ferociously Republican journalist who spared no Federalist from his printed assaults. Bache died of yellow fever before his sedition trial; his wife defiantly continued to publish. When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, he made sure the Sedition Acts died.

The Penny Press Revolution

In the early 19th century, neither the partisan press nor a growing number of newspapers dedicated to business issues were widely circulated by modern standards. These papers were expensive, about six cents an issue, and many were available only by long-term subscription. It was the wealth or importance of readers rather than their number that concerned the owners of such newspapers.

Even so, by 1825, the United States was believed to circulate more newspapers than any other country. Visiting in 1831, French observer Alexis de Tocqueville saw this outpouring of printed speech as a means of uniting and stabilizing American society.

Newspaper circulation soared dramatically when, in 1833, Benjamin Day, using the slogan “It Shines for All,” launched his New-York Sun, priced at just a penny. In 1835 James Gordon Bennett began publishing the New-York Herald. Although its price was raised to two cents the next year, the Herald circulated 20,000 copies a day.

This new penny press focused on crime, human interest, and scandal, although political issues of special concern to working-class readers were not ignored. In 1841 Horace Greeley, an abolitionist and promoter of westward expansion, founded the influential New-York Tribune, another penny paper.

The penny press was made possible by the growing populations of American cities and the rise of steam-powered presses. The old hand press, not much changed from the days of Gutenberg, turned out about 125 copies per hour; by 1851, Day’s Sun was printing 18,000.

Another important leap was the introduction, in 1844, of the first telegraph connections. No longer stuck printing stories days or weeks old, received by mail or messenger, newspapers became considerably more timely and enterprising. Transatlantic telegraph connections in the 1860s extended this real-time benefit to foreign news.

New Professionalism and “Yellow” Journalism

As newspapers became wealthier, many owners committed their publications to new kinds of journalism, and new kinds of clout for themselves. In 1851, backed by two friends who were bankers, Henry J. Raymond, a veteran of Greeley’s Tribune, founded the New York Times.

The Times caused a stir in 1871 with pioneering investigative journalism that brought down the corrupt political organization of New York City boss William Marcy Tweed. In 1855 Joseph Medill, a Canadian immigrant who helped create the U.S. Republican Party, took over the Chicago Tribune. After the disastrous Chicago Fire of 1871, he served a term as mayor.

Although some newspapers sent staffers to gather news from Washington, D.C., and state capitals as early as the 1820s, not until the Civil War did the necessity of having reporters cover live events become generally recognized. Bennett had sent just one observer to the Mexican War; he sent 63 to Civil War battlefields, where they competed with reporters from the Tribune, Times, and others.

In the late 19th century fierce competition between publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst reshaped journalism in many American cities. Pulitzer founded the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1865 and moved to New York in 1883 to spectacularly resuscitate the ailing New York World. Pulitzer used a combination of sensational stories, important local issues, and populist politics to attract urban readers.

His effort to raise donations from World readers to install the Statue of Liberty succeeded after other fundraising efforts had failed. Hearst trained at Pulitzer’s World after he was expelled from college. In 1887 Hearst returned to California to revive his father’s San Francisco Examiner.

His rivalry with Pulitzer truly began in 1895 when Hearst bought the New York Morning Journal, cutting its price to one cent and luring away many World staffers, including the artist who drew an early comic called “The Yellow Kid.” The battle between the two publishers for circulation and stature, often at the expense of journalistic accuracy, became known as yellow journalism.

As the United States and Spain tangled over the status of Cuba in the 1890s, Hearst sent celebrity writer Richard Harding Davis and renowned artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to collect news. Although Pulitzer and Hearst were soon enmeshed in their own war over which newspaper was telling the truth about Cuba, both the World and Hearst’s Journal used huge headlines and scare stories to help foment and cheer on the 1898 Spanish-American War.

By the end of the century, U.S. newspapers were riding high. Across the nation, advertising revenues rose with circulation, staffs increased in numbers, skill, and specialization, and larger cities supported an array of daily and weekly newspapers. New techniques, including woodcuts and etchings, were making both news content and advertising copy more colorful and easier to read.

By 1897 a new kind of rotary press made it possible for many papers to include actual photograph on their pages. Outside the mainstream, smaller presses used similar techniques of writing and presentation to bring news to non-English-speaking immigrants and African Americans.

Although the first AfricanAmerican journal appeared in 1827, and Frederick Douglass began publishing his North Star in 1847, black-owned newspapers like the Philadelphia Tribune of 1884 and Baltimore Afro-American of 1892 provided their readers the full newspaper experience.

Canadian Newspaper

With a smaller population and continuing colonial rule by Britain until 1867, Canada’s journalism followed a trajectory similar to that of U.S. newspapers, but at a somewhat more gradual pace. In Canada, as in the United States, political figures played major roles in publishing and used their newspapers to shape the political discourse.

In 1752 the Halifax Gazette, Canada’s first newspaper, was established with the help of a Boston printer who brought the first press to what was still a wilderness outpost. France had strongly discouraged newspapers in its New France colony; not until Britain triumphed in the French and Indian War did French-language publications begin to emerge.

The first was the Quebec Gazette, founded in 1764 with the assistance of Philadelphia printers. In 1778 Fleury Mesplet founded the Montreal Gazette as a French-language journal. After a period as a bilingual paper it became English only in 1822.

Mesplet, who had received some encouragement from American patriots, was jailed, along with his editor, by outraged local authorities soon after the Gazette appeared. In 1766 British authorities closed down the Halifax Gazette and removed its editor for allowing publication of an article attacking the Stamp Act.

In 1835 publisher Joseph Howe was charged with seditious libel for writing in his Novascotian that local magistrates were pocketing fines with tacit approval from the province’s lieutenant governor. Although he was not allowed to claim truth as his defense, Howe was acquitted by a jury in just 10 minutes.

Between 1813 and 1857, the number of Canadian newspapers, mainly weeklies, rose tenfold. Politics was a major impetus as old Tory elites faced challenges from new reform parties in both French- and English-speaking areas. William Lyon Mackenzie’s Colonial Advocate was one of the most outspoken of these new papers.

When Tory sympathizers smashed his presses in 1828, Mackenzie used the incident to build support and was elected to a reform Upper Canada assembly soon thereafter. George Brown, who had published an antislavery paper in New York, launched the Toronto Globe in 1844.

Brown, a proponent of Canadian western expansion, used his paper to push this and other reform causes, becoming an initiator of Canadian Confederation in the 1860s. Brown died in 1880 after he was shot in his office by a disgruntled former Globe employee.

Like their U.S. counterparts, Canadian papers expanded their size, circulation, advertising, and newsgathering techniques in the late 19th century, although they were slower to adopt such innovations as huge headlines.

They did experiment earlier than many U.S. papers with rotary presses and half-tone photographs, the first of these, a photo of the new Montreal Customs House, appeared in 1871. As Canadians expanded west, so did their newspapers. By 1900 Canada had 121 dailies, up from 23 in 1857.