America's first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was published in Boston in 1690. Today, just over three centuries later, we have more than 1400 dailies in this country, with the two largest (USA Today and the Wall Street Journal) claiming circulations exceeding two million readers each.1 The first newspaper promised to provide its readers with the news, "both foreign and domestic." Today we expect our newspapers to do the same, but our definition of what constitutes the news has expanded considerably over the centuries. We would now consider the religious commentary and sermons that filled many of the first American newspapers to be totally out of place—just as they would surely deem inappropriate the attention we pay to crime, scandal, sports, and entertainment in today's papers.
The newspaper is one of our most revered cultural institutions—but its history has been one of change and adaptation. Today, with the rise of the internet, we stand on the brink of another revolution in the delivery of news. The next century may bring changes to the news industry, and perhaps even to our definition of the news itself, as dramatic as those separating Publick Occurrences from USA Today.
Today, more and more people are turning to the internet for the information they once sought in the newspaper. Everything from hard news to horoscopes, from political commentary to celebrity gossip, is quickly making its way from the printed page to the computer screen. It is now hard to imagine navigating our world without the internet—but just twenty years ago people could not imagine getting along without a newspaper.
So how did the newspaper become such a critical part of Americans' lives? How did it transition from a narrowly circulated organ of religious doctrine to the widely read guide to politics, crime, entertainment, and sports that it became by the late twentieth century? How did it become the primary forum in which we could find cars, vacuum cleaners, clothes, jobs, and even relationships?
What was the particular combination of forces—political, legal, technological, demographic, and economic—that contributed to the evolution of the American newspaper? And how fully will the internet now transform the newspaper and our understanding of the news itself?