For the 45th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Ken Ward spoke with Bill Huntzicker about the forces that radically altered the journalism industry in New York and across the United States in the mid-1800s.
After an academic and professional career in the upper Midwest in Montana, Bill Huntzicker retired from St. Cloud State University in 2017. He is the author of The Popular Press, 1833- 1865 (1999) and Dinkytown: Four Blocks of History (2016).
This episode is sponsored by Routledge.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Ken Ward, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by Routledge, the world’s leading academic publisher in the humanities and social sciences. Each year Routledge publishes thousands of books and journals, serving scholars, instructors, and professional communities worldwide.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the journalism industry in the past 20 years, it’s that it’s far from constant. Emerging digital technologies and shifting audience habits have led to monumental changes throughout the industry. But while the specifics of this current period of change may be unique to our era, the process of change itself is perhaps the only constant in the history of American journalism. The industry is in constant flux, having experienced many periods –
of change in the past as journalism morphed to meet the unique demands of its era.
Journalism went through one such transformation in the mid-1800s. As journalism historian Dr. Bill Huntzicker explains in his book The Popular Press, 1833- 1865, the shift in the economics and content of journalism of the era leading up to the Civil War was every bit as consequential as the changes we’re experiencing today. After an academic and professional career in the upper Midwest in Montana, Dr. Huntzicker retired from St. Cloud State University in 2017. In this episode, he walks us through the changes journalism underwent in the mid-1800s.
Dr. Huntzicker, welcome to the show.
So it seems that this story begins like so many others in journalism history in New York City. So what was it that was changing there in journalism in the mid-1830s, which is where the book begins, and how did those changes differ from the old ways of doing journalism?
Bill Huntzicker: Well, there’s a tendency to look at this as a revolutionary idea.
In fact, there is a book called The Communication Revolution back in the ‘80s, or 1970s, that says the communication revolution began on September 3, 1833, which is the publication date of the New York Sun, the first successful penny newspaper.
But times were really tough. I mean people worked long, long hours. They had very little family time, very little leisure time, and very little discretionary spending money. So when Benjamin Day started selling a newspaper on the street for a penny, he was competing not with other newspapers, but with penny candy.
Ken Ward: Huh.
Bill Huntzicker: In fact, in 1833 the first person to try a penny newspaper was Horace Greeley, but he started it in January in a middle of a blizzard and it failed after a few days.
But the idea was selling newspapers on the –
street, trying to appeal to the masses, hence, the mass communication idea, and rather than to small groups. Newspapers before then were generally subscribed: people who had the money and wanted to keep track of their portfolio, had investments to make, or they belonged to certain groups, like abolitionist societies or other religious groups, church groups, all of these organizations had newspapers. In fact, even the abolitionist societies, different societies had different newspapers. So there’s all kinds of – there’s turmoil, but there’s also not – this is not a society that the people at the bottom have any say much at all. They have long working hours, not a lot of leisure time, and Benjamin Day,
who started the first penny newspaper in New York, started it by selling it on the street for a penny. Most penny newspapers only sold for a penny for maybe a few weeks. The prices always went up, but that’s basically what life was like and that’s what they were trying to appeal to: people who didn’t normally read basically, and as literacy grew and you could say newspapers had something to do with the growth of literacy – as literacy grew, then newspapers grew in popularity and they were cheap enough for people to afford them.
Ken Ward: And so what was it about the business model that shifted that allowed them to sell them at a penny, right? What changed between the partisan era into the penny era in terms of how the business operated?
Bill Huntzicker: Well, I don’t want to overstate the changes, but the business model depended on advertising. The penny didn’t pay for the newspaper. Advertisers did and the penny made newspapers available –
to larger numbers of people. As a result, then the newspapers were written for a mass audience. So it had more content that people are interested in. They’re also written at a different level. They’re written so that people who are not as literate as the elites would be interested in them. They also had – they were made – because they had a larger audience – they could charge more for advertising and, when James Gordon Bennett founded his New York Herald, he reached an audience that had more of an upscale interest. While he was very sensational, he got more sensational than anybody else. He also had interesting stock market news and so he could say that he is charged – he could charge more for his advertising. That’s what his –
managing editor said when he wrote a history of journalism, so that the New York Herald said they could charge more because they reached a higher quality audience. So he could say the penny newspapers started the whole ratings process and the demographic stuff back in the 1830s. The New York Herald started in 1835 and that’s when the battle over the audiences began on the street. So the newspapers started selling audiences to advertisers. This begins as early as the 1830s and that gave them enough money, like the New York Herald, to really invest in covering the Civil War. The Herald and then Greeley’s New York Tribune, which was founded in 1840, they were the major newspapers covering the Civil War.
Ken Ward: And so – so you mentioned the penny aspect of it. There’s that economic angle. What sorts of things appeared in the newspapers? Like how did the content change, or the advertising, things like that? What was different about it? Like what characterizes the popular press?
Bill Huntzicker: Well, the – the mainstream press before that talked about whatever the issue was of their sponsors. They were talking about economic issues, the marketplace, shipping news, or they were talking about politics of who’s going to be president and trying to keep the political organizations together. The New York Sun, then later the New York Herald, they wanted to appeal to a more audience, popular audience. And of course, if you want a popular audience, you want big ratings, you want sex and violence.
Ken Ward: Sure. [Laughter.]
Bill Huntzicker: And the New York Herald, which was sponsored by James Gordon Bennett in 1835, that was much more about sex and violence, but they all – Bennett founded his newspaper in a basement of a Wall Street building, I think, for $500 or something like that. He got his business started. He understood Wall Street –
in ways that few people did. But the Professor Ed Emery, who was my mentor at Minnesota, called it comparable to Playboy Magazine of the 1980s and ‘90s when I was first starting to study, maybe the ‘70s and ‘80s I should say. He said, “People bought Playboy Magazine. They said they didn’t buy it for the pictures. They bought it for the interviews.” Well, if you’re carrying around a New York Herald in New York, you would say you’re buying it for the financial news.
Ken Ward: [Laughter.]
Bill Huntzicker: Even though – but then it was writing about a lot of sex and violence –
Ken Ward: Sure.
Bill Huntzicker: In fact, there’s a famous murder of a prostitute a block off of Wall Street that somebody, a lot of people on Wall Street knew, and she was murdered in a very vicious way, but Bennett threw himself into the story and that had all kinds of –
theories about the murder of Helen Jewett [pictured above], or Ellen Hewitt, depending on which paper you read. But that sold the paper and it made him very popular, but he also understood financial news.
Ken Ward: Sure.
Bill Huntzicker: And one of the things that the penny papers did, especially Bennett, he defined himself on what he wasn’t. James Watson Webb was a publisher of the Courier and Enquirer, a major New York newspaper. He trained a lot of people who founded penny newspapers, including Bennett and Henry Raymond. Bennett defined himself by what he wasn’t, and Webb had invested in Wall Street and wrote about Wall Street, and Bennett said he would never invest in the stocks that he wrote about. So he created a sort of independence about that. He was not particularly modest either. He said he wanted to be the Shakespeare of the newspaper press.
Ken Ward: Huh. So what happened then to the old ways –
those older ways of journalism, like the partisan press, or the mercantile press? How did – did those fade out or did this new style, this popular press style, interact with those older ways of journalism?
Bill Huntzicker: Well, the old ways never went away. There’s like newspapers that continue to require subsidies to operate and they often got that from political parties. There was also newspapers who would start out – they all declared their independence, even though they did get help from political parties and endorsed politicians, so the old days continued throughout the nineteenth century.
Ken Ward: Okay.
Bill Huntzicker: It’d be like having MSNBC and Fox News everywhere.
Ken Ward: Sure. [Laughter.]
Bill Huntzicker: And everybody had a different perspective. There wasn’t just two sides. There was multi-sides to issues.
Ken Ward: So, several key technologies emerged during this period. How did –
you know, you start this book in the 1830s, but it continues through the end of the Civil War, so we saw some major technological leaps in terms of communications technology in particular, so how did – what were some of those technologies and how did they impact journalism and direct the development of this model of journalism?
Bill Huntzicker: One of the interesting things was each new technology is going to bring us a peaceful world, right? Like the internet is going to bring us all together –
Ken Ward: Oh, sure.
Bill Huntzicker: And television is going to give us a global village. Well, Bennett, who was a publisher of the most popular paper in New York at the time, in 1844 when the telegraph was invented, he said that would be the end of newspapers, because people would just go down to the telegraph office to get their news. So he thought news would have to be more interpretive and add more perspective than just facts about events. So this is a debate that’s been going on for a long time and so the telegraph is a big, important technology.
And then the steam presses, the penny press is made possible by steam presses that could print rapidly. Before that there were hand operated presses and as the press moved west there were – there had to be presses that you could move in an ox cart or a covered wagon to western territories, but you – they were run by a couple of people where you printed one sheet at a time. So steam presses, you could print thousands of pages of the same impression at one time.
It’s interesting though that even though you could print really fast and during the Civil War they could actually put – make illustrations and printed illustrated newspapers overnight, you still had to set the type by hand. So it took teams of typesetters standing at a type case, a job case it was called, setting one letter at a time –
onto a page in order to get a page ready, but once it’s on the press they could print them out thousands.
Ken Ward: Well that’s – that’s one interesting thing here. So how did technologies like the steam press and then – you know, how did those things change the economics of journalism to make it grow? Because it seems like it would – would have a definite impact on sort of the scale of journalism nationally.
Bill Huntzicker: You had to have capital. It made it a capital investment. One or two people could create a newspaper in a small town and run a hand-operated press where you put in one page at a time, let’s say one sheet of paper is two pages. Just fold it in half and you’ve got four pages. You print one side and then you print the other side, printing one side at a time.
And two people could do that and that took forever, but once you have the large presses –
going much faster you can have teams of reporters and you can turn out multi-page papers. The web press means you start with a roll of paper, put the roll of paper on the press, run it through and print the multiple page – another thing that was an innovation is they could – it was a perfecting press, meaning they could print two sides of the page at a time, so when the paper went through the press it printed both sides. It would come out completed rather than having to print one side of the sheet, turn it over, then print the other side of the sheet. You can sort of see how the technology would change very rapidly there. Then it’s not until the 1880s that we get a line at that machine where somebody could sit at a keyboard and actually call up the letters.
Ken Ward: And I would assume with these changes then speeding up the process of production and sort of economizing some aspects of it means that you can have a bigger newspaper, both in size –
and in terms of the depth or the amount of content inside. Is that right?
Bill Huntzicker: Yes. It doesn’t mean the content got deeper –
Ken Ward: Right.
Bill Huntzicker: Until the Civil War when you have reporters out in the field, but the selling the paper on the street, you want things that will sell because somebody is standing on the street selling this paper for a penny, so say the New York Sun, and then by 1835 you have somebody from the Herald standing across the street trying to sell his paper. So you’ve got competing either schoolboys, or people who are not in school, or unemployed men who, you know, buy their papers, like they pay $0.67 for 100 papers and if they sell them, all 100 papers, they make a profit that day and if they don’t they’re at a loss, so the publishers didn’t even invest in the day’s paper that much. When you have the large presses, the steam presses, then they could print out thousands.
Ken Ward: You can definitely see the way that competition would play out then in New York City, especially with those newsies, you know, standing across the street hawking papers. But you mentioned that eventually this mode of journalism sort of filters out to the west. It’s maybe a story centered often in New York City, but it definitely plays out in the west as well. Can you speak to that a little bit? Where else was the popular press model adopted in the United States, and can you point out any examples of the way it adapted to local circumstances? How were things different in other parts of the country?
Bill Huntzicker: Well – well, you brought up earlier the fact that newspapers were subsidized. Well, as newspapers moved West, one of the ways that a small town would talk about how civilized they’d become, and they talk about civilizing the West, as you probably know, one of the ways a town becomes civilized is they have a public school and they have a newspaper. And so newspapers become boosters of the town –
so if somebody founds a town and wants people to come there, sometimes they’re founded by railroad companies. They want people to come there. They create a newspaper, maybe give the publisher some land on which to build his office, maybe even build an office for him, so he has to promote the town. He not only has to promote the town because he’s helped, but he also needs the town for subscribers and advertisers. So have an investment in a small town. They boost the town. You know, the prairie in Kansas, or the Great American Desert is going to become the Garden of Eden.
Ken Ward: Right.
Bill Huntzicker: There’s all kinds of – and the – and the weather in Minnesota, speaking close to where I live now, and it’s about 20 degrees now, but it was below zero overnight. This weather is good for you.
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Bill Huntzicker: I mean the St. Paul Pioneer talked about how this weather makes you healthier, and you live longer, and you’re heartier, because you live in this cold weather. And that’s –
that’s the way they sold wherever they were.
Ken Ward: So did – did they still, out in the West, did they play up those same sensational angles on stories like they did in New York City?
Bill Huntzicker: Oh, well, one of the things I’ve done a lot of work since the book on Western newspapers and smaller town papers, and one of the things – and we historians have been criticized for focusing too much on New York, but actually, the newspapers depended a lot on New York. There were what they called exchange papers, so every small town paper got newspapers from neighboring towns and from other parts of the country and they reprinted, usually with credit, items from these other towns. And so the newspapers were enormously influential, even on the big issues, because the small towns often reprinted from the larger newspapers. People who moved to, say, small towns out West –
they wanted to get news from wherever it was they came from, and so the town’s paper would reprint from those, the larger metropolitan areas, sometimes nearby, sometimes New York.
Ken Ward: Well, and one of the interesting points that you raised in the book that I wanted to ask you about was – it had to do with the rise of the telegraph and the relationship between the East and the West because you mentioned that some of the Western newspapers actually competed with one another, eventually to export their information back to the east, especially once we get later in the era, closer to the Civil War. How did that work out?
Bill Huntzicker: Well, it’s part of the idea. If you’re starting a newspaper in St. Paul, Minnesota, you want people to come there and so you want stories that are going to be reprinted in the papers back East, so you write things that are interesting so maybe somebody in New York will reprint your item and that gives you some cache that also –
attracts people to the area.
Ken Ward: Sure.
Bill Huntzicker: So you know, hear about the blizzard in Minnesota, but you also hear about how healthy it is. [Laughter.]
Ken Ward: Right. [Laughter.] So as the era progresses we get to some major events in American history and namely, we eventually arrive at the Civil War, but before the Civil War arrives we have other wars. We have the Mexican War and one very interesting episode in the book deals with Bleeding Kansas and the way newspapers competed for really the fate, at least the temporary fate, of the state of Kansas. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Bill Huntzicker: Well, Kansas is such a fascinating place historically because there were competing interests there. As you know, there were – it was the popular sovereignty idea was the federal policy, so when a territory votes to become a state they also voted whether they’re going to be a free state or a slave state and, of course –
various interests had a lot invested in whether Kansas was going to be slave or free. Abolitionist societies in New England particularly created towns, like the towns of Lawrence in Kansas, as abolitionist strongholds, next to Missouri, which was a slave state, and Missourians were very much involved in Kansas politics and other things, like guerrilla raiders and so on. So they had – each faction had its own newspapers. In 1855 there were three newspapers created in the town of Lawrence, Kansas, and they represented different positions. One was friendly to slavery. Others were more – one more was a more independent. It represented the different factions and they got violent.
But what’s particularly violent were the slave supporters from Missouri, who would come and attacked Lawrence. Lawrence was sacked and burned –
a couple of times. One time there was a raid that was just focused on a newspaper, two newspapers. They destroyed the newspaper offices and I found a Kansas paper – I couldn’t find the reference before today – but I found there’s a Kansas newspaper and on the same page talked about the importance of a free press and on another part of the page there was a blurb about how this one press in Lawrence was destroyed and it was a damn good thing because it was supporting the abolition of slavery.
Ken Ward: [Laughter.]
Bill Huntzicker: So the people who destroyed this press in Lawrence knew what they were doing. They made sure that this press would never be used again. So we have all kinds of contradictions like that. In class I would say that, you know, freedom of the press means freedom for your side, you know?
Ken Ward: Right. Right. So, but as I said, the book ends at the Civil War and one point you raise is that the Civil War actually sort of accelerated the spread of this popular mode of the press throughout –
the country and sort of made it the dominant mode of conducting journalism over others. How did it do so? Why? What was it about this popular press model that really resonated as the century progressed into the Civil War?
Bill Huntzicker: Well, news sells. I mean when news becomes a commodity, which it did during the Civil War, there was a lot of competition to sell news, because people want to know what’s happening in the war. A lot of small towns, for instance, had regiments from their town – as you probably know, much of the Army was made up of state and local militias who signed up for this federal cause, and sometimes soldiers would send reports back to their local newspapers and so they reprinted the articles from their local soldiers. They also sent correspondents to follow the armies and so you have, especially the major –
papers in New York, and Chicago, and Boston, they sent correspondents to follow the major armies and they developed an interest from the field. So a reporter following the Army knows more about what’s going on than the editor back in New York often and so the reporter becomes sort of a power base of his own out there, determining what the facts are and sending them home. Even though there are a lot of notorious editors who took control over their content, like Wilbur Storey of Chicago.
The Chicago Times was like a copperhead publication. That means they supported the Confederacy in this northern city, but Wilbur Storey famously said, “Send all of the news you can. When you find no news, send rumors.” He also said, “The role of a newspaper is to print the news and raise hell.”
But he hired two of the best reporters –
of the Civil War. One of them was Sylvanus Cadwallader, who went – later went to the New York Herald, and the other was Franc Wilkie, who gave us the story about Storey telling us – telling his people to go send rumors if there’s no news.
Ken Ward: The last question that we like to ask guests on this show is why does journalism history matter?
Bill Huntzicker: Well, that’s who you – you said you were going to ask me that and I’m still working on it. I think –
Ken Ward: [Laughter.]
Bill Huntzicker: You know, we have journalism history, as is journalism, is very important. You know, it’s really – when you get religion mixed up in politics it’s hard to separate them out, but that happened big time in the 1840s with the war with Mexico and it was a newspaper who created the term Manifest Destiny, saying God was on our side, basically, in the Mexican War.
And the Manifest Destiny was created not to fight the Indians, as we look at it in hindsight. It was created to give the United States authority, divine right, to control the North American continent when the competition was coming from France, and Great Britain, and Russia, and we’re trying to establish the American dominance over the North American continent. So they created this term Manifest Destiny. Well, that’s a newspaper-based magazine idea that took popular – grabbed the popular imagination. We’re still using the term Manifest Destiny, like that’s some kind of divine right that white settlers have to control the continent. Well, that comes from newspapers. The origins of these ideas, the proliferation of these ideas is supremely important to understanding them, I think, and to understand our society, culture, and politics.
This is not – there is a lot of fake news, but this is not fake news. This is really important stuff, although one of our prominent historians has written about all of the things we get wrong, but in journalism history and is – needs a lot of introspection, but it’s very important.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. All right. Well, thank you very much. Bill Huntzicker, I appreciate you being on the show with us.
Bill Huntzicker: Well, thank you very much. It’s an honor. Appreciate it.
Ken Ward: Thanks for tuning in, and an additional thanks to our sponsor, Routledge, the world’s leading academic publisher in the humanities and social sciences, and to Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “good night and good luck.”