Chris Daly: “Putting the News in Newspapers, 1833-1850”

Christopher Daly’s “Putting the News in Newspapers: 1833-1850” was both interesting and relevant to discussions of the news media today. His analysis of technology, culture, and society as the three major aspects of the field’s history ring true today, as news continues to develop and adapt according to the same three factors. In 1833, technological advances in the forms of steam-powered printing presses and vastly improved modes of communication and transportation (literally) paved the way to a nation capable of sharing information closer to real-time than ever before. Simultaneously, American cultural norms had contributed to the literacy of an exceptionally high percentage of the adult population. Whether this normalcy was because of the need to read religious texts, ballots, and almanacs or if such things prompted it, the United States “was probably the first country on earth where it was considered normal for adults to be able to read.” Finally, the social construction of the country at this time was highly conducive to the spread of newspapers: larger cities and a growing middle class perfectly set the stage for an explosion of media that has lived on to the present day.

Following this comprehensive introduction, Daly proceeds to summarize the history of the newspaper’s rise through some of its most influential early figures. Benjamin Day and his revolutionary penny-press paper The Sun characterize the initial breaks from previous decades including a non-attachment to particular political parties, the decreased price to one cent, and a focus on daily distribution rather than annual subscription rates. James Gordon Bennett represents the next chapter with the introduction of a major competitor to The Sun, additional commitments to “just and good-tempered” coverage, and an increased focus on human-interest stories focusing on the grotesque, titillating, and captivating events of the day. Daly’s next pair of figures, Horace Greeley and William Lloyd Garrison, represent another turn in history with the turn to a slightly more refined audience and greater attention to political and social issues through editorials and commentary.

Furthermore, technological developments, specifically the telegraph, pioneered by Samuel Morse radically changed the ways by which information was shared across the country. The emergence of the Associated Press in 1846 was closely related to such advancements, and allowed for news to be shared not only between cities, but across state lines, national borders, and oceans. While this new ability to distribute the news so vastly brought with it many positives, it also posed a far greater challenge to retain the vital “objectivity” championed by Day, Bennett, Garrison, and others. Correspondents like Lawrence Gobright were faced with the challenge to report the goings-on around Washington without a hint of partiality or partisanship as the actions he was reporting displayed quite the opposite. This too translates to our modern time eerily well, as today’s journalists continue to struggle be “truthful and impartial,” as Gobright famously put it, in spite of rising tempers and strife within our nation’s capitol.

Overall, the chapter deftly captures the fascinating and complex history that rapidly unfurled during this seventeen-year period with a clear connection to the developments that news faces today. As with most history, much can be learned from the past, applied to the present, and directed toward the future, and the subject of news media is no exception.

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