Penny press

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This article is about 19th century newspapers. For the Cleveland newspaper, see Cleveland Press. For information on pressed pennies, see elongated coin.

Penny press newspapers were cheap, tabloid-style newspapers produced in the United States from the 1830s onwards. . Mass production of inexpensive newspapers became possible following the shift from hand-crafted to steam-powered printing.[1] Famous for costing one cent while other newspapers which cost around 6 cents, penny press papers were revolutionary by making the news accessible to working and middle class citizens for a reasonable price.


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 source 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[4]

The penny paper’s largest inspiration came from Charles Knight’s The Penny Magazine (1832–1845). 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.[4]

Frederic Hudson, one of 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.[4]

Benjamin H. Day, founder of the first penny press in the USA

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, he introduced The Sun. The Sun appealed to a wider audience, using a simpler, more direct style, vivid language, and human interest stories.[7] Day was a New Englander who worked for the Springfield, Massachusetts paper, the Republican. He came 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. The paper's motto, printed at the top of every page, was "The object of this paper is to lay before the public, at a price within the means of every one, all the news of the day, and at the same time offer an advantageous medium for advertisements."[8] 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.[4]

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.[6]

The Sun, Benjamin Day's paper

James Gordon Bennett's 1835 New 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.[9] 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.[4]

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.[4]

Quite possibly the most famous penny press paper was started in 1851 by two men: George Jones (publisher) and Henry Raymond. This paper was originally named The New York Daily Times, but later was changed to The New York Times in 1857. Originally sold at one cent per paper, it became famous for incorporating journalistic standards that are common today as well as having very high quality reporting and writing. The first issue of the New York Daily Times addressed the various speculations on its purpose and positions that preceded its release. It stated:

We shall be Conservative, in all cases where we think Conservatism essential to the public good;—and we shall be Radical in everything which may seem to us to require radical treatment and radical reform. We do not believe that everything in Society is either exactly right or exactly wrong;—what is good we desire to preserve and improve;—what is evil, to exterminate, or reform.[10]

This neutral stance on public issues is a trait that future newspapers adopted, and this made it a good paper to read because people could debate over its content without one side getting an advantage.[citation needed]

Political factors[edit]

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." [11] 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. On the other hand, Horace Greeley used his newspaper, The New York Tribune, as a platform for Whig politics.[12]


In the early 1800s, newspapers were largely for the elite and took two forms – mercantile sheets that were intended for the business community and contained ship schedules, wholesale product prices, advertisements and some stale foreign news, and political newspapers that were controlled by political parties or their editors as a means of sharing their views with elite stakeholders. Journalists reported the party line and editorialized in favor of party positions.[13] The emergence of the penny press greatly influenced communication technologies by covering news outside those of government interests. The first penny paper, the Sun, was founded in New York in September 1833. After that time, newspapers became nonpartisan since they were not supported by political parties.[14] Penny papers hired reporters and correspondents to seek out and write the news, while at the same time, started to sound more journalistic than editorial. Reporters were assigned to beats and were involved in the conduct of local interaction.[15] The penny press contributed to changes regarding newspaper content and structure. New journalism practices resulted in the development of concepts such as news reporting, emphasizing the importance of timeliness, and appealing to wider audiences.[16] These newspapers, though not completely uninfluenced by political parties and their views, were self-funded and not party-funded, which allowed them to quite easily shift allegiance on political issues that the paper dealt with, which also aided in its success and acceptance by the general public.

Since these newspapers were not politically funded, the core interests of the journalists themselves were obviously quite different from competing newspaper agencies that had heavy political influence. The largest portion of demand was from immigrants, traditional middle-class citizens, and nascent literate classes; journalists kept articles concise and engaging with real-life topics that the readers could relate to, and doing so with less sophisticated vocabulary that readers wouldn't require higher education to understand the articles.[17] The Penny press formula is the combination of sensational news with mass market appeal, large-scale industrial production, and economies of scale used in combination with neutrality and objectivity to create a paper that gets its point across without taking sides.[18] Also, journalist-incorporated advertisements treated readers as consumers instead of another market for demand,[15] in effort to set the vibe of the relationship between paper and reader to be less about work and the economy but more about relaxation and reading for pleasure and relaxation.

Some reporters used the electric telegraph to share information.

The penny press newspapers became more widely read because journalists made the effort to keep their content understandable to even the less educated audiences. They also focused on investigating topics with more factual-based information rather than opinion-based articles which gave the paper a less biased form of news than the elite newspapers. News items and stories were also shorter than those found in elite papers. It was also believed that the working-class audiences would not have enough free time to read longer editorials, hence the shorter and more concise editorials.[19] Human interest stories were also popular with the penny press audiences. Such items took up more space compared to earlier, more expensive papers that used human interest stories as filler content.[20] The New York penny papers were particularly known for publishing stories about interesting personalities and covering different aspects of the human condition. To connect with the urban, mostly working-class readership, New York reporters wrote about ordinary people and their experiences.[16] They also wrote about the stock market, entertainers, politics, sports, and weather, all of which became important news and are still held as absolute necessities in a newspaper thanks to the Penny Press.[21] Reporters strove to deliver news in a timely manner and sometimes relied on the electric telegraph to gather and share information.[22] Penny press journalists were the first people to report on crisis and crime news, something that has become a staple in newspapers since. Continuing reports on the same story were introduced in Penny Press papers and were read by thousands of people on the same day. This, in combination with the speed of news delivery and thoroughness in the coverage of local news, forever changed the direction of American journalism.[21]

Julius Chambers, the first muckraker

There were a number of different types of journalists during the time of the penny press, but one of the more interesting types[according to whom?] was the muckraker. A muckraker was any American journalist who, in the first decade of the 20th century, attempted to expose the abuses of business and the corruption in politics.[23] Muckrakers, due to their specialization, did not write numerous types of articles but mostly wrote investigative journalism pieces for magazines. Most people consider Julius Chambers the original Muckraker.[citation needed] In 1872, Chambers undertook an journalistic investigation of Bloomingdale Asylum to obtain information about the alleged abuse of inmates. Thanks to his efforts, twelve patients who weren't mentally ill were released, the asylum was re-staffed, and lunacy laws were changed.[24] Muckrakers still conformed to a neutral standpoint, but used their neutrality to dig deeper into the stories they were researching, which is why they ended up with as much information as they did. Muckrakers created a groundwork of public concern and set a standard for journalistic impact on political decision-making that hasn't been matched since.[15]


  1. ^ B. Kovarik. Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age. (The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4411-9495-4), p. 48.
  2. ^ Barbara Friedman. "The Penny Press: The Origins of the Modern News Media, 1833-1861. " Rev. of: title_of_work_reviewed_in_italics, clarifying_information. Journalism History 31.1 (2005): 56-56. Research Library Core, ProQuest. Web. 27 Oct. 2009.
  3. ^ "The Penny Press". A Brief History of Newspapers in America. Retrieved 2014-04-22. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Fellow, R. Anthony, America Media History. (California State University, Fullerton) Ed. Rebeckah Matthews and Megan Garvey. 2005. p. 85-109.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ a b Donald K Brazeal. "Precursor to Modern Media Hype: The 1830s Penny Press". The Journal of American Culture 28.4 (2005): 405-414. Research Library Core, ProQuest. Web. 27 Oct. 2009.
  7. ^ Bird, S. Elizabeth. For Enquiring Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992: 12-17.
  8. ^ Jennifer Vance. "The Penny Press." Retrieved from
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