In the early to mid-nineteenth century, in most western countries but especially those with press freedom, a cheap popular press appeared. The term “penny press” is associated with a famous generation of US newspapers that appeared in the 1830s, but the notion of penny publications has a longer lineage. The penny papers of the 1830s and their British counterparts have been credited with effecting a revolution in journalism, and in fact with the invention of journalism itself as well as of neutrality or objectivity. This famous generation of penny papers also had successors that were spectacular in their own day but have escaped the attention of journalism historians. Echoes of the penny press formula – particularly the combination of sensational news with mass market appeal, large-scale industrial production, and economies of scale – have continued to appear. The relationships between popular journalism and populism, on the one hand, and journalism, on the other, remain controversial.
Cheap publication has surfaced periodically since the advent of printing. In most western countries, a ballad literature commenting on novelties and current events came to be printed up in the sixteenth century. Each one of these ephemera, often single-page broadsides, had to find its own audience, and so looked to the most sensational content, including marvels and disasters, and frequently crime and punishment. Over time, these novelties developed into more substantial publications. In seventeenth-century England, cheap, short pamphlets (“chapbooks”) of 8, 12, or 24 pages appeared, priced at a penny and featuring tales of the supernatural, romances, heroes and villains, and some history and news. These were irreverent in tone and definitely plebeian, and were viewed with suspicion by the authorities and polite society.
These penny pamphlets survived taxation and moral uplift to remain vibrant through the eighteenth century. Reformers competed with them by producing more acceptable cheap publications. The pathbreaker was Hannah More, whose Cheap Repository for Moral and Religious Tracts issued monthly penny publications from 1795 to 1798, intending to counter both the plebeian sensational pamphlets and the radical political press inspired by the French Revolution and native thinkers like Tom Paine. Penny magazines began circulating successfully in Britain in the 1810s, the most famous being the Penny Magazine published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, but, because of taxes and censorship, penny newspapers did not appear there until the 1850s.
British cheap publication evidently inspired French experiments. One key pioneer was Émile de Girardin, whose initial cheap publication, the Journal des Connaissances Utiles, had 120,000 subscribers. In 1836 he established La Presse, which cost 40 francs a year and was dedicated to conservative politics. De Girardin was a vigorous partisan, and France’s cheap press, like French journalism generally, remained committed to politics.
In other countries, the appearance of a cheap mass circulation press was delayed until later in the nineteenth century. In many countries, censorship prevented popular publication. In others, market conditions, and especially the availability of plentiful advertising revenue, were slow to develop. By the end of the nineteenth century, most western countries had some version of a cheap popular press.
US 1830s Penny Press
In the US, the absence of censorship, the ready availability of government and party patronage, and the generous policies of the national postal system had encouraged a rapid growth of the newspaper system, until by the 1830s US Americans could claim to have more newspaper readers than any other country. Still, most of the newspapers produced were weeklies; daily newspapers remained expensive and targeted toward the business class.
Beginning with the publication of the New York Sun in 1833, a new genre of daily newspapers emerged. Priced at a penny, targeted toward a mass readership, drawing on manifold roots in working-class culture, intentionally wary of party politics, focused on crime news and other sensational matter, the Sun and its imitators opened a new market niche. The large popular readerships of these papers led to expanded advertising revenue. Some became immensely successful, and, after investing revenue in the latest communication and production technologies, became the elite organs of a new mass media system. Others continued to operate in the margins, producing plebeian matter on the cheap for ephemeral audiences.
This generation of penny papers has drawn a good deal of scholarly attention. Because it coincided with many other remarkable developments – a “market revolution,” a quickening of working-class activism, and a burst of reformism across the political spectrum – it has prompted arguments about the connections among them. Some point to connections between the penny press and class tensions evident in popular culture generally. Others argue that the penny press served a middling class coming into more intense contact with urbanization and market forces. The most ambitious arguments see the penny press as a driving cultural force behind the creation of a modern culture of news that included objectivity, political neutrality, commercialization, the adoption of new technologies, the deployment of reporters, and the rise of “news,” by which is meant a combination of crime news and human interest stories. There is some truth in all these arguments, though a more responsible perspective sees the developments in both the general society and news culture as coming out of diverse sources and having deeper roots in a longer history.
The apparently distinctive content of the penny papers – politically neutral ephemeral matter – had been honed by predecessors. Since the turn of the century, gossip newspapers, often with names like Wasp or Microscope, had exposed the hypocrisies and vices of “dandies” and others. At first, these newspapers had a partisan bent. Later, under the threat of lawsuits, they turned more toward crime reporting. Meanwhile, the Workingman’s Party and the Anti-Masons had used republican language to criticize the corruptions of “partyism,” and claimed a stance above party. The Workingman’s Party especially adopted a plebeian tone. Most of these newspapers were weeklies, and not especially urban. Meanwhile, urban dailies were commercial, focusing on business news, meant to be read by the business class, and investing resources in news gathering. These were sometimes very political and sometimes neutral Advertisers.
The penny press merged the culture of the marginal weeklies with some of the habits of the commercial dailies to find an expansive audience of daily readers that could in turn be effectively sold to advertisers. This may at first have been a working-class audience, but in the course of the 1830s the successful entrepreneurs managed to move upscale, a history that can be told in capsule form by recounting the founding of the most important of the New York City penny dailies. The Sun and its producers, headed by Benjamin Day, were rooted in the same artisanal culture in New York City that had nurtured the Workingman’s Party and radical sheets like the Free Enquirer. In 1835, James Gordon Bennett established the New York Herald, which quickly surpassed the Sun in circulation. Bennett had been a Washington correspondent for the commercial daily Courier and Enquirer, and had sharpened his editorial voice in the party press; he won middle-class readers with his regular “money article,” which reported business news coming out of Wall Street, even while keeping downscale readers with crime news and show-business gossip. He also raised his price to two cents. In 1841, New York’s Whigs, led by former Anti-Mason publisher Thurlow Weed, selected Horace Greeley to edit the New York Tribune, a Whig counterpart to a penny press establishment that they considered thoroughly Democratic. And in 1851, Henry J. Raymond, a committed Republican politico, founded the New York Times as a penny paper. The Times had no working-class accent to it, was consistently partisan and upscale, and cost the then-immense sum of $100,000 to establish. Other famous papers – the Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Public Ledger, and Cincinnati Commercial, for instance – followed a similar trajectory, beginning as rebellious upstarts and becoming their cities’ elite newspapers.
The penny press of the 1830s happened for a time to give expression to the demotic energy of working-class culture. By the 1840s, news culture and working-class culture had again separated. A vibrant popular culture continued in “yellow” literature – cheap books featuring genre fiction, often sold with a yellow paper cover – and radical and reformist politics continued in a weekly newspaper culture sponsored by reformists and evangelicals, but these were increasingly remote from commercialized news culture, which had again become partisan and would remain so until the end of the nineteenth century.
Something similar happened later in other countries and again in the US. In other western countries, the penny press waited upon the abolition of censorship and newspaper taxes – so, for instance, in Britain in the 1850s. There, mass popular dailies at first courted and then rinsed themselves of the radical political culture of the “unstamped” and Chartist press. In the US, the 1870s and the 1890s saw similar eruptions of cheap new newspapers, sparked by combinations of cheap paper (the result of new wood-pulp processes), newly abundant advertising (especially from department stores), and economies of scale coming from new production technologies (stereotyping, the linotype, and so forth). In the 1920s, “tabloids” appeared, emphasizing a shorter, more popular, decontextualized verbal reporting style combined with “candid” photography. In the 1930s and the 1950s, broadcast media produced somewhat similar bursts of popular journalism, and in the last decades of the twentieth century, talk radio, cable television, and the Internet provided new openings for news with a populist accent. Each of these moments seems to share important elements of the penny press, and there is a tendency among historians to view the penny press through the lens of subsequent “tabloid” or “boulevard” newspapers.
But these later mass popular journalisms are historically and analytically distinct. They appear as alternatives to a dominant daily news culture already well established. The first moment of the penny press arose before the appearance of a dominant daily news culture. Reacting against a politicized press, the successful penny papers themselves became the dominant daily news culture. Later eruptions of popular journalism found their markets alongside established and (by the twentieth century) professionalized news as the disreputable “other” journalism. Because the penny press produced a commercialized mass circulation newspaper establishment, it created the space for subsequent eruptions of popular journalism even while keeping them in their place.
- Baldasty, G. (1992). The commercialization of news in the nineteenth century. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Chalaby, J. K. (2000). The invention of journalism. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Nerone, J. C. (1987). The mythology of the penny press. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 4, 376–404.
- Pederson, S. (1986). Hannah More meets Simple Simon: Tracts, chapbooks, and popular culture in late eighteenth-century England. Journal of British Studies, 25(1), 84–113.
- Reynolds, D. S. (1989). Beneath the American renaissance: The subversive imagination in the age of Emerson and Melville. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Saxton, A. (1984). Problems of class and race in the origins of the mass circulation press. American Quarterly, 36, 211–234.
- Schiller, D. I. (1981). Objectivity and the news: The public and the rise of commercial journalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Schudson, M. (1978). Discovering the news. New York: Basic Books.