Unpacking and Understanding Media Bias, Part 6: The Corporatization of the Press
The advent of the “pennys” marked a transition towards a broader appeal and more objectivity in newspapers.
The first five articles in this series deal with the basics of media bias as well as news in the colonial, revolutionary, constitutional and Jacksonian eras of U.S. history. The following few heavily researched articles in this series are completely intertwined and almost impossible to separate on a historical level as the penny press, telegraph and corporatization of the U.S. news market in the nineteenth century acted together to transform the landscape of the country’s newspapers and news offerings. They have, however, been separated for easier reading.
As the mid-19th century approached, critical changes to the ways of reporting and communicating news caused the long-standing relationship between political parties and newspapers to deteriorate. Most notably, the penny press and the telegraph affected the news industry in ways unrivaled until the rise of the internet in the 20th century.
Regardless of political association, modern-day media critics share their contempt for the contemporary corporatization of the press and the bias they attribute to it. Interestingly enough, corporatization of the 19th-century press played an integral role in the depoliticization of what was at the time a traditionally partisan press. It is said that as of the late 19th century, “The measure of success in journalism was no longer political wisdom or advocacy but the ability to entertain, the acquisition of large circulations and the generation of large revenues.”
Going forward from the mid- to late 19th century, newspapers strived to turn a profit and beat out the competition and that required the severing of government and political ties.
Broadening Influence With the Penny Press
During the 1830s publishers realized that selling newspapers for a penny per copy could open them up to broader readership – including the working-class poor, which allowed publishers to wield greater influence over public opinion while also providing them with a wider base for advertising revenue. The pennys, as they were called, essentially established the working-class press. They also signified the beginning of a truly competitive news industry in the U.S. If their viewpoints were valid, they thrived, if they weren’t, they failed.
Revolutionary in and of itself, the practice of selling papers at a cost of one cent per issue marked a noteworthy deviation from the norm at a time when established daily newspapers sold for six cents per copy and annual subscription rates ranged from $8 to $10. In addition to dropping the price of dailies, penny presses also shrank the standard size of newspapers from 3×2 feet to 12×18 inches, which had the extra benefit of making them more portable. Unlike their predecessors, these newspapers could be read on the go.
The pennys didn’t initially replace the partisan press so much as they co-existed since partisan papers grew in number at the same time. However, they marked a crucial early step toward objectivity in reporting. For the first time, editors attempted to appeal to broader markets rather than publishing for niche markets of like-minded individuals.
Created with the intent of entertaining consumers, the pennys included a wider scope of news stories that incorporated imaginative reporting of petty crimes, human-interest stories and sports. They not only expanded the scope of the news but also the scope of journalism beyond the news by embracing the publishing of hoaxes and fabricated stories. As such, the penny press signified not only the birth of commercial newspapers, but also the birth of both real and fake news in the contemporary sense. So, while fake news is considered a contemporary phenomenon in American media, its roots lie in the pennys of the mid- to late nineteenth century.
The rise of the pennys occurred at the same time political splintering of the 19th-century American citizenry broadened the spectrum of perspectives available in print to include such groups as the Anti-Masons, trade unionists and abolitionists.
Limitations to press access, however, still existed along racial lines. When The Sun refused to publish a letter from black writer Willis Hodges, in which he objected to the newspaper’s support for the retention of property ownership qualifications for black voters only, Hodges subsequently established one of America’s first black newspapers, The Ram’s Horn. The publication caught the attention of well-known abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown, both of whom wrote articles and secretly provided funding for the paper.
Freedom from Political Patronage
Relying primarily on subscription and advertising fees permitted newspaper editors and publishers to free themselves from their reliance on political patronage. As such, the penny presses marketed themselves as the unaffiliated voices of the people.
Launched in New York City in September 1833 by 22-year-old printer Benjamin H. Day, The Sun became the first penny to thrive. At the time of its creation, The Sun and its 10 competitors had a total circulation of 26,500. With an upgrade from a hand press to a steam press in 1835, The Sun became the largest newspaper in the country boasting a circulation of around 20,000.
The New York Herald, in particular, owed much of its success to a lack of political affiliation and its ability to offend all parties and persons equally. Founded in 1836 by James Gordon Bennett, a former employee of James Watson Webb’s Courier and Enquirer, the Herald helped pave the way for enterprise and objectivity in the press by declaring that the Herald would hold no political affiliation and accept no patronage. Bennett’s newspaper made enemies of everyone it reported on and earned him a figurative badge of honor and high praise for the level of impartiality and objectivity it exhibited. So, it should come as no surprise that by 1841 the Herald’s circulation had grown exponentially, ultimately reaching 51,000 which dwarfed Webb’s Courier circulation of approximately 37,000.
Lacking political affiliation and patronage, journalists began to see themselves as a cross between social crusaders and detached reporters, seeking to cover sports, entertainment, crime, cultural events and other contemporary stories.
The pennys alone, however, could not break the hold political parties had on newspapers. In 1846 Congress offered a huge helping hand when it put an end to awarding printing contracts to political party loyalists. From that point on the government granted its contracts to the lowest bidders. Then, in 1860 the government severed the relationship between the press and political parties entirely when it founded the Government Printing Office.
Throughout the 19th century, the number of newspapers available in the U.S. continued to grow. As competition within the news market grew, it became increasingly difficult to skew the news by omitting or ignoring facts and so the level of accuracy in reporting also improved. Additionally, accepting partisan patronage was scorned and came to be viewed as a form of corruption.
The Growing Cost of Starting and Printing Newspapers
As previously stated, the pursuit of profits contributed greatly to the depoliticization of the press in the late 19th century. No longer focusing on political advocacy, rather newspapers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries set their sights on high circulation and profit. This was the climate in which the newspaper industry underwent its transition from political party appendage to corporate business enterprise.
When James Gordon Bennett founded the Herald in 1835, he did so with just $500 in capital. By 1840 however, the cost of starting a daily newspaper in New York City blew up to somewhere between $5000 and $10,000, eventually climbing as high as $100,000 by 1850. Profit growth within the industry was even more impressive. In 1865 the New York Times boasted income in excess of $380,000, which equates to more than $500 million in today’s dollars. At that time, all three of the major newspapers in the New York market were pulling in annual incomes of more than $250,000 each.
Nonpartisan Newspapers Gain a Foothold
The level of growth newspapers experienced at this time eventually reached a tipping point after which owners could no longer handle the day-to-day operations of their businesses, and so, similar to the railroads and other businesses of the day, they turned to the hiring of professional managers. This separation of management and ownership drove the industry in a risk averse direction with a preference for long-term growth over short-term profits. Accordingly, political coverage in major metropolitan markets decreased significantly as papers in those markets endeavored to display a nonpartisan image in an effort to grow their circulation.
Historically, Americans believed the best way to safeguard their free press was to protect it from government. Much like the late 20th century, citizens didn’t give much thought to the threat that corporate control would pose.
By 1877, 40 percent of newspapers claimed to be independent. Gone were the days of newspapers viewing their readers as potential voters requiring guidance to lead them to vote for the right candidates. Focused on profit above all else, publishers of the late 19th century considered their readers consumers for their advertisers, which made blatant partisanship a threat to profits. As such, newspapers increasingly confined partisan articles to the editorial pages of newspapers.
The next article focuses on the advent of the telegraph. News wire services helped to further propel journalism and the newspaper industry farther away from its partisan past and closer to the objectivity that would come to characterize journalism in the early 20th century.