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Culture in History of American Journalism

The Changing News Landscape

In 1832, the Tontine Coffee House, at the corner of Wall and Walter Streets, was the center of intellectual and commercial exchange in New York City. A room on the second floor housed the New York Stock Exchange. On the first floor, newspapers from across America and the capitals of Europe were available for perusal or purchase. Gentlemen with a free morning could spend it in the reading room, quietly digesting the news of the world.

In 1833, the New York Sun published its first issue. Selling for only one penny (the older papers cost six cents), the Sun became an immediate success. Just six months later, the paper's owner, Benjamin Day, claimed a daily circulation of 8000—more than double its nearest competitor.13 In 1835, James Gordon Bennett released the New York Herald. Bennett matched the Sun's price, and he also copied Day's idea of using "newsboys" to sell the paper in the streets of the city. In just over a year, Bennett boasted a circulation of 40,000. The two penny papers combined to blanket the city. They were available everywhere—except at the Tontine Coffee House. The famed center of New York news was forced to close in 1834, less than a year after the debut of the Sun. The shrill cry of young boys hawking papers in the street had replaced the genteel atmosphere of the Tontine Coffee House as the symbol of New York news.

The New News World of the Penny Press

The "penny press" developed by Day and Bennett dramatically changed the newspaper and its role in American life. Everything about the penny papers was different—their price, their distribution method, and even their size and appearance. Most penny papers were about eight and one-half by eleven inches. The older papers were comparatively massive—24 by 35 inches, on average. But more substantively, the new penny papers redefined what constituted the "news." They delved into the local stories that the older papers dismissed, and they embraced the gory and sensational stories that the older papers deemed beneath the dignity of their pages. Day and Bennett, and the host of penny press editors that followed them, recognized that America's growing cities contained thousands of new readers—readers interested not just in politics and shipping news, but in the raw, sensational, and sometimes sordid details of the cities in which they lived.

Crime stories, for example, were an important feature of the penny press—the more horrific the crime, the more famous or infamous the participants, and the longer the trial, the better. The penny press lapped up and distributed the details of these events, from crime to conviction. They even opined on the guilt or innocence of particular suspects.

The most sensational trial of the 1830s—a kind of O.J. Simpson trial for the nineteenth century—surrounded the murder of Helen Jewett, the so-called "beautiful cigar girl." Jewett did sell cigars. But she also sold sex; she was a high-class prostitute at a time when the sex trade in New York City was flourishing. And when her skull was crushed in the middle of the night inside one of New York's upscale brothels, the public clamored for details—details the penny press was all too willing to provide. Suspicion soon fell upon one of her paramours, Richard Robinson—a cocky young player in the city's nightlife scene. And during the trial, Robinson did everything he could to feed the public's hunger for sensation. The young cad not only denied the murder charges, he defended the libertine lifestyle that had led him to Jewett's bed. Even better, his supporters—young men who filled New York's expanding clerical workforce by day and cruised the city's growing saloon and brothel districts by night—attended his trial sporting "Robinson caps," symbols of their contempt for traditional sexual mores.

The Jewett-Robinson story—complete with a beautiful victim, a charismatic villain, illicit sex, and a gruesome murder—was perfect fodder for the penny press. And the papers pushed the edges of contemporary standards in their coverage of the crime. James Gordon Bennett toured the crime scene and described for his readers the condition of Jewett's naked body in teasing detail: "It was the most remarkable sight I ever beheld—I never have, and never expect to see such another. 'My God,' exclaimed I, 'how like a statue! I can scarcely conceive that form to be a corpse.' Not a vein was to be seen. The body looked as white—as full—as polished as the pure Parian marble. The perfect figure—the exquisite limbs—the fine face—the full arms—the beautiful bust—all—all surpassing in every respect the Venus de Medicis.... For a few moments I was lost in admiration at this extraordinary sight—a beautiful female corpse—that surpassed the finest statue of antiquity."14 But the papers offered more than details; they stoked the public's interest further by staking out competing stances on the question of Robinson's guilt. The Sun sided with the clergy and city leaders who blasted Robinson's rakish behavior, and cast Jewett as a victim of the deterioration of American moral standards—a poor country girl who had been forced into self-abasement by poverty and the decadent behavior of corrupt men. The Herald similarly condemned a society that would "debauch young women and young men, and root out virtue and morality."15 But the Herald also concluded that Robinson was innocent, and to breed public sympathy for him it printed a friendly biography that even included excerpts from his diary.

This sensation-feeding approach to journalism adopted by all of the penny press, but perfected by James Gordon Bennett, was not without its risks. It prompted criticism from moral conservatives of the penny papers, and it gave their competitors the material they needed to wage a campaign against them. In 1840, several of the six-penny papers called for a boycott of the Herald and its immoral brand of journalism.

These critics of the penny press were offended not just by stories about prostitutes and murderers; they were almost equally outraged by the sports coverage that appeared in the papers. America's Puritan past had bred a certain suspicion of most leisure activities—but the bare-knuckle prizefighting that grew in popularity during the early nineteenth was particularly troublesome to moral conservatives. Condemned as barbaric and immoral, the uncivilized pastime of America's working class, prizefighting had to sneak onto the pages of the papers. An 1823 account of a fight was prefaced by a defensive explanation that the reporter had chanced upon the primitive spectacle by accident—"being near the Ferry at Grand Street, I observed a large number of men, women, and children collecting."16 But by the 1830s and '40s, the penny papers offered no apologies for their detailed coverage of the fights and all the surrounding fanfare—the extension of a challenge, the terms of the contract, the size of the purse, and the brawls among the fans that often preceded and followed these fights.

As the century progressed, Americans embraced a wider variety of sports, and their suspicion of recreation was replaced by a celebration of the physical and moral benefits of sporting competition. As attitudes changed, sports moved onto the pages of even the more expensive and conventional papers. And as part of this greater acceptance of sports, baseball displaced prizefighting as the most popular sport in America. There were a number of reasons for this, but at least part of baseball's ascendance as the "national pastime" was due to the game's better suitability for newspaper coverage. Far better than the boxing matches that preceded it or the football games that followed, baseball could easily be reduced to numbers—an entire game could be summarized efficiently in a box score, and teams and players could be compared using statistics. Of course there was no replacing the experience of watching a ballgame—and the vivid narrative penned by a talented sports writer added texture to the statistical summary. But a simple box score, reducible to a few column-inches on the page, could be disseminated across the city, and across the nation, uniting Americans in the common social experience of a sporting event that may have really unfolded on the opposite side of the country.

In this sense, sports coverage and crime coverage had something in common—they tied Americans together through knowledge of a series of dramatic and entertaining events. Through their coverage of the sensational and the horrific, the scandal and the spectacle, penny papers formed Americans into a community of curiosity seekers.

From Helen Jewett to American Idol

The significance of this cannot be overstated. Since the nation's founding, statesmen and philosophers had worried about what might tie Americans together. In a nation so large, divided into often-antagonistic regions, and separated by politics, religion, and ethnicity, they agonized over the possible sources of national cohesion. Thomas Jefferson suggested that national identity might derive from Americans' commitment to republican ideals; Alexander Hamilton argued that unity could be forged by a shared investment in national debt; Noah Webster said the answer lay in the development of a set of standardized school materials; George Washington urged Congress to create a national university that would bring together young men from across the country. Alongside these great names and their grand schemes, any discussion of the scandalmongers Benjamin Day and James Gordon Bennett may seem misplaced. But their introduction of an affordable newspaper that delivered stories that interested people and that provided America's diverse population with a shared set of compelling literary experiences did a great deal to shape a common national consciousness.

The German philosopher Goethe suggested that national identity is founded on a sense of shared experience, an individual's awareness that some act being performed was "being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion." Benedict Anderson, an American social theorist and historian, more recently suggested that reading a daily paper was precisely this sort of act—a daily ritual performed by millions of Americans in full awareness that millions of others were doing the same. If Goethe and Anderson are correct, the creators of the penny press did more than take the news out of the coffee house and into the street; they helped turned America's diverse and disconnected populace into a culturally united people.

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