Study Guide

History of American Journalism

History of American Journalism Introduction

If you pay attention to the press today, you might be familiar with a charge news outlets are constantly throwing at each other: of being biased, partisan, unfair, and unbalanced. And often, these accusations are accompanied by lots of angry finger-pointing.

What you may not know is that this is an old, old story. As old as America itself, actually. When America was first getting started, the press was pretty much as partisan as you can get—and proud of it. So, although today's reporters and pundits may not agree, our press is a lot less partisan than it used to be.

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.

Plus, we even have to decide what's fake news these days. 

So, while the American press has experienced a lot of changes over the past two centuries, some gradual and some more abrupt, all of 'em have been accompanied by some growing pains. 

No one said growing up was easy.

What is History of American Journalism About and Why Should I Care?

Ah, the internet. So full of wonderful things. (Like us.) So equally full of complete junk. 

Today, more and more people are turning to the internet for the information they once searched for 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. 

  • 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-20th century?
  • How did it become the primary forum in which we could find cars, vacuum cleaners, clothes, jobs, and even relationships?

It's now hard to imagine navigating our world without the internet—but just 20 years ago people couldn't imagine getting along without a newspaper

So, even if you haven't picked up a paper in years, journalism is everywhere. It’s on your doorstep, on your television, in your car radio, on your computer and laptop and tablet and phone and, hey—maybe beamed directly into your brain. 

(It'll get there. Trust us.)

History of American Journalism Resources

Books

Gerald Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century (1992)
This short book takes an interesting look at the transformation of American newspapers from political organs to business-run and business-serving enterprises. Not everyone will agree with the severity of Baldasty's conclusions, but the general emphases within his well-documented argument are hard to challenge.

Timothy Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790–1920 (1994)
Virtually every book on antebellum American culture has a chapter on the penny press. The chapter on the Helen Jewett murder in Gilfoyle's exploration of New York's sex industry ("Sporting Men") provides a representative and interesting introduction to the press and its role.

David Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (1998)
Henkin explores New York's penny press within the context of an expanding urban environment filled with print. Newspapers, as well as billboards, street signs, and even paper money, are weaved into an interesting analysis. Plus, it's got pictures.

David Paul Nord, Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers (2001)
This is less a comprehensive history than a collection of essays about the newspaper's role in American civic life, with particularly interesting discussions of the relationship between the newspaper and religion and municipal reform.

Images

Coffee, Cash, and the News
The Tontine Coffee House was the business and news center of New York. Between 1792 and 1817, it served as the home of the New York Stock Exchange. Until 1834, it offered its genteel customers national and international newspapers for perusal in its lavish reading room.

Penny Press Pioneer
James Gordon Bennett, founder and editor of the New York Herald.

Dastardly Deed
Richard Robinson prepares to murder Helen Jewett in this etching typical of the sensational coverage of this crime.

Pulitzer
Joseph Pulitzer, owner and editor of the New York World, and the benefactor behind the Pulitzer Prize.

"Spanish Treachery"
Front page of William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal after the sinking of the USS Maine.

Technological Breakthough
Robert Hoe's four-cylinder rotary press.

Movies & TV

Newsies (1982)
Bummed out by too many Jacob Riis photographs? Can't sleep since you read Lincoln Steffens' Shame of the City? Watch this movie and relax—the squalid underbelly of the America's largest city (at least as imagined by Walt Disney Studios) was apparently really a pretty perky place, full of singing.

All the President's Men (1976)
This movie has it all—Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, brilliant investigative reporting, and lots of corduroy. This classic (if romanticized) portrayal of the Watergate investigation bred an entire generation of journalism majors.

Citizen Kane (1941)
Considered by many the greatest film ever made, and by others completely overrated, this Orson Welles classic offers a thinly veiled look at the life of William Randolph Hearst. Anyone interested in the history of film, anyone interested in the history of the newspaper, and anyone who's ever been confused by some reference to "rosebud," should watch this film.

Websites

History of Journalism
This site's useful both for the study of history, and the exploration of history as it has been recorded by newspapers. It provides reference materials, primary sources, digital images of newspaper editions covering historic events, and brief essays on various topics like newspaper technology and women journalists.

Gender in Journalism
This site provides a useful research guide to the study of American female journalists. A bibliography of recommended reading and links to primary sources are included.

Historical Documents

The First Amendment
Check out the text and our analysis of the Constitution's fundamental statement of the principles of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.

Sedition Act of 1798
We've got a learning guide devoted to Congress' first major restriction on First Amendment rights to freedom of the press. The act was repealed in 1801.

Sedition Act of 1918
Here's the World War I-era clampdown on press freedom in time of war.

Smith Act of 1940
This act criminalized speech made in favor of "overthrowing or destroying the government [...] by force or violence," and was mostly used to prosecute American communists during the Cold War era.

Schenck v. United States
This was a landmark 1919 Supreme Court case that ruled that speech that presented a "clear and present danger" to national security was not protected by the First Amendment.

New York Times v. Sullivan
This 1964 Supreme Court decision made it harder to sue for libel, as it required evidence of "actual malice" in publishing information with "reckless disregard for the truth" to establish liability in libel cases involving public figures.

Roth v. United States
This 1957 Supreme Court case made it more difficult to suppress publications on the basis of obscenity in their content. It established that material could only be deemed obscene if "the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest."

Miller v. California
This 1972 Supreme Court case granted state and local governments the authority to regulate objectionable publications according to their own "community standards" of decency.

Tinker v. Des Moines
This 1969 Supreme Court decision ruled that public school students do have First Amendment rights to freedom of expression in school.

Bethel v. Fraser
This 1986 Supreme Court decision upheld the authority of schools to restrict students' ability to make "offensively lewd and indecent" speech disruptive to the educational mission.

"Bong Hits 4 Jesus"
The 2007 Supreme Court descision in Morse v. Frederick affirmed that school officials had a right to punish a student who displayed an offensive banner—"Bong Hits 4 Jesus"—just off school grounds during a school-sponsored activity.

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier
This controversial 1988 Supreme Court decision established that most high-school newspapers do not have full rights to freedom of the press under the First Amendment.

Hosty v. Carter
This 2007 decision of the Seventh Circuit Court ruled, for the first time, that college newspapers could be subjected to the same restrictions on freedom of the press as high schools under the Hazelwood standard. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, meaning that Hosty applies to student journalists in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, but not elsewhere in the country.