Penny press  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Penny press newspapers were cheap, tabloid-style papers produced in the middle of the 19th century.



As the East Coast's middle and working classes grew, so did the new public’s desire for news. Penny papers emerged as a cheap alternative to the standard dailies. They replaced dry political conversation with coverage of crime, tragedy, adventure, and gossip. The penny papers represented the crudest form of journalism because of the sensational gossip that was reported.

The Penny Press was most noted for being very low-priced - only one cent per paper - while other contemporary newspapers were priced around six cents per issue. The exceptionally low price popularized the newspaper in America and extended the influence of paper media to the poorer classes. With the penny press, newspaper made the news and journalism more important. The newspapers also began to pay more attention to the public that they served. They realized that the same information that interested the upper class did not interest the penny public. The “new public” enjoyed information about police and criminal cases. The main revenue of the penny press was advertising while other newspapers relied heavily on high priced subscriptions.

The idea of a penny paper was not new in the 1830s. By 1826, multiple editors were experimenting with sports news, gossip, and a cheap press.

Most newspapers in the early nineteenth century cost 6 cents and were distributed through subscriptions. On July 24, 1830, the first penny press newspaper came to the market: Lynde M. Walter's Boston Transcript. Unlike most later penny papers, Walter's Transcript maintained what was considered good taste, featuring coverage of literature and the theater.This paper sold for four dollars a year.

The penny paper’s largest inspiration came from Charles Knight’s 1832 Penny Magazine. The main purpose of the magazine was to educate and improve England’s poor, but was very popular with Americans. It became a very successful magazine as it attained a circulation of more than 20,000 within a year.

Fredrick Hudson, one the first to write about the history of American journalism, believed the rise of the penny press to be a key factor in the development of the modern newspaper. Hudson considered newspapers to be dull during the 1840s.

The penny press arrived in New York on January 1, 1833, when Horatio David Shepard teamed up with Horace Greeley and Francis W. Story and issued the Morning Post. Although both Greeley and Story went on to fame and fortune in the New York press world, the concept of bringing out a penny paper belonged exclusively to Shepard. He made a habit of taking daily walks through the teeming streets of the Bowery, where he observed merchants selling small items for a penny a piece. Other papers of the time were selling for six cents which allowed for a wider spread of people to read the Penny Press so they could afford it. He also took note of the fact that sales were brisk.(David R. Spencer, The Yellow Journalism: the Press and America's Emergence as a World Power (Northwestern University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-8101-2331-2), p. 24.)

Benjamin Day was the leader in true transformation of the daily newspaper. The newspaper went from narrowly focused on the wealthy and sparsely distributed to a broad-based medium of the news. These changes were mostly seen in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and other East Coast cities. [6]

Later that year, publisher Benjamin Day introduced The Sun. The Sun appealed to a wider audience, using a simpler, more direct style, vivid language, and human interest stories. Day was a New Englander who worked for the Springfield, Massachusetts paper, the Republican. He came down to New York to be a compositor, but in the depression of 1833, he started The Sun in desperation. Day reasoned that a penny paper would be popular in hard times as many could not afford a 6 cent paper. He also believed that a substantial untapped market existed in the immigrant community. The paper was an instant success. Day made advances in the written news by introducing a new meaning of sensationalism, which was defined as reliance on human-interest stories. He placed emphasis on the common person as he or she was reflected in the political, educational, and social life of the day. Day also introduced a new way of selling papers. Day put into practice the London Plan. This plan included newsboys hawking their newspapers on the streets.

The success of the penny papers was not automatic; selling the new concept of the newspaper to the consuming audience took some persuading. Consumers did not want to buy a new newspaper day after day, which became a challenge. Mostly newspapers at the time did not have any sort of timeliness, so buying a newspaper daily had no point. But, eventually people were concerned with the latest news as penny papers had the latest news.

James Gordon Bennett's 1835New York Herald added another dimension to penny press newspapers, now common in journalistic practice. Whereas newspapers had generally relied on documents as sources, Bennett introduced the practices of observation and interviewing to provide the stories with more vivid details. Bennett is known as redefining the concept of news, reorganizing the news business, and introducing newspaper competition. Bennett’s New York Herald was financially independent of politicians because of large numbers of advertisers. Bennett reported mainly local news, and corruption in an accurate style. He realized that, “there was more journalistic money to be made in recording gossip that interested bar-rooms, work-shops, race courses, and tenement houses, than in consulting the tastes of drawing rooms and libraries.” He is also known for writing his “money page” which was included in the Herald and also coverage of women in the news. His innovations made others want to imitate him as he spared nothing to get the news first.

Horace Greeley, publisher of 1841's The New York Tribune, also had an extremely successful penny paper. He was involved with the first penny paper, Boston’s Morning Post, which was a failure. Instead of sensational stories, Greeley relied on rationalism in the Tribune. His editorial pages were the heart of his paper and the reason for its large influence. Greeley is also known as using his newspaper as a platform to promote the Whig and Republican parties.

Political factors

Political and demographic changes were also significant. Much of the success of the newspaper in the early United States owed itself to the attitude of the "founding fathers" toward the press. Many of them saw the free press as one of the most essential elements in maintaining the liberty and social equality of citizens. Thomas Jefferson said he considered the free press as even more important than the government itself: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate any moment to prefer the latter." It was because of his attitude that freedom of the press gained mention in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and though early politicians, including Jefferson, occasionally made attempts to rein in the press, newspapers flourished in the new nation.

However, the penny press was originally apolitical both in content and in attitude. As Michael Schudson describes in Discovering the News, the Sun once replaced their congressional news section with this statement: "The proceedings of Congress thus far, would not interest our readers." The major social-political changes brought on by the development of the penny press were themselves helped by the penny press' focus on working-class people and their interests. Thus an apolitical attitude was, ironically, a political factor influencing the advancement of the penny press.

The founders of the penny press popularized both low prices for newspapers and newspaper economics based on sales instead of political party backing. Benjamin Day created The Sun without any political party backing. This was rare because this was an era where political parties sponsored newspapers. Horace Greeley, however, used his newspaper, The New York Tribune, as a platform for Whig politics.


  • The penny papers became to hire reporters and correspondents to seek out and write the news. The papers began to move away from sounding editorial to sounding journalistic. It is noted as the rise of objectivity. Also, reporters were assigned to beats and were involved in the conduct of local interaction.

Demographic factors

Following the success of The Sun, James Gordon Bennett, Sr. started the New York Herald in 1835, and Horace Greeley started the New York Tribune in 1841. Three daily penny papers in one city were possible because the recent urbanization in industrialized New England had swollen the population of New York City and surrounding cities. By the 1830s, the general population had become both sufficiently localized and sufficiently literate that a penny newspaper could have a weekly circulation of 50,000. For comparison, the influential Spectator of a little over a century earlier had a maximum circulation per issue of about 4,000.

Historians credit the popularity of the penny press with a rise in literacy. The United States saw a 233 percent increase in population between 1833 and 1860. During the same period, public education developed and illiteracy dropped to 9 percent, calculated on the basis of Caucasians over twenty years of age.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Penny press" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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