Newspapers – Key to Successful Government
In 1704 John Campbell began printing the first successful newspaper in the colonies, the Boston News-Letter. A few publishers followed suit, but the newspaper industry really took off at the time of the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers understood that a well-informed citizenry was critical to producing and maintaining a successful government. They showed their support for this concept by allowing newspapers into the post at very low rates. Newspapers exchanged between publishers were allowed into the post for free! In 1783 there were 43 newspapers in print in the new United States.
The great French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed by the virility of the American press even while being repelled by its provincialism. Western crudeness shocked him but he was amazed at the success of the democratic experiment and he conceded that the press had been an important implement in the development. The public appeared to respect the Fourth Estate, he reported and this was manifest in the great freedom accorded the institution. The young nation’s press was an active, (fighting) one. Political factions each had their own newspapers actively promoting and arguing their views while attacking the other side with a viciousness that would shock contemporary Americans.
Newspapers Were a Highly Competitive Business
By 1814 there were 346 newspapers published all across the nation. By the time of Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the 1830s that political vitriol was growing hand in hand with advances in printing and papermaking technology. Almost every town of any size had a local paper. They competed vigorously with newspapers in the next town. Towns large enough to host more than one press often found them fighting each other for advertising and circulation. Thanks to continuing low postage rates, big city papers were able to encroach upon the territories of small town papers. By 1880 there were well over 11 thousand newspapers in publication in the U.S.
In 1845 it cost only one cent to mail newspapers within 100 miles, and a half cent more to mail further than that. Small town presses caught a break in 1851 when Congress established free postage for distribution within the county of publication, a preference that lasted until the mid 20th century. By 1900, there were about 12,000 community newspapers.
Rural Free Delivery service began as an experiment in 1896, but quickly found its way to towns across the country. As it did, the audience for big city and local newspapers expanded.
Technology Helped Newspapers Became Big Businesses
Through the late 19th and early 20th century, dramatic improvements in printing technology made it possible to produce large volumes of newspapers, with “hot off the press” news and specialized sections. Other improvements enabled newspapers more flexibility in design, use of color, better illustrations and even photographs. Newspapers attracted attention not only with newsboys screaming “Extra, Extra” on street corners, but with their bold banner headlines, the addition of “funny pages” and sports coverage, and for some, the tabloid “yellow journalism” stories promoting the lurid and macabre that were the hallmark of the 1890s.
The high capital costs for these improvements drove some papers to form cooperative associations to share the costs, or simply hired services from a printer rather than operate their own presses. Business entrepreneurs, such as Hearst and Scripps-Howard, built chains consisting of multiple newspapers and other print properties across the nation, becoming giants in the industry and establishing powerful, secure positions. News Services that had already extended the reach of newspapers by taking advantage of telegraph during the Mexican-American War expanded their abilities by using the teletype, and telephone to bring the latest news from distant locations to editors. Just as small businesses trying to protect their local advertising reach had done in the 19th century, radio, and later television, competed with newspapers for advertising content. In return, some newspaper organizations bought radio and television stations. Newspapers also often fought against the increase in direct mail print advertising, but also used “Total Coverage” programs to deliver their advertising to non-subscribers. Most newspapers now have sophisticated web sites and digital editions of their publications.
The Future of Newspapers
Some of the great media enterprises that owned large numbers of newspapers have divested themselves of their print properties. Yet some newspapers retain market power in their local markets (most have no direct competition). Newspapers have a readership that is still important to advertisers – generally more educated and affluent households. Traditional newspapers, with pages enhanced by the application of new technology and produced by processes that reduce operational cost while providing new capabilities, position print newspapers to continue to play a strong role in providing information and entertainment.