The telegraph enabled rapid, continuous, and simultaneous diffusion of public information across space. Its application to news reporting transformed journalistic practices, institutional arrangements, and audience experiences. The advent of telegraphic news further affected political, socio-economic, and cultural processes internationally.
Introduced in the US in 1844, the telegraph helped sustain the press for nearly a century as the fastest, most alluring and useful news medium. Discovering the news – the provision of timely information on recent events – helped launch major increases in daily circulations beginning in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Readers found timely news functionally useful for operating in the rapidly changing economic, political, and social world. Fast news also provided emotional gratification, by connecting audiences to major events across time, if not space. Speeding news by telegraph increased the potential usefulness and popularity of newspapers on both accounts. At the same time, news transmission proved the most successful application of the early telegraph and would remain a major source of income and influence for the telegraph industry.
This synergy gave rise to an institution mediating between the press and telegraphy: the news wire service. Although newspapers at the time were becoming big businesses, their news-gathering operations were organizationally compact, incapable of managing a far-flung system of active news gathering in real time. Nor was the capacity of early telegraph lines sufficient for delivering separate news reports for each newspaper. An operation that specialized in telegraphic news gathering on behalf of many newspapers could economize on telegraphic capacity and tolls, as well as on newspapers’ scarce organizational resources.
The emergence of wire services also followed a technological rationale. Besides the obvious utility of speeding news from point to point, telegraphy also had the novel capacity of broadcasting. Information from any node on the network could reach all other nodes simultaneously, by integrating the telegraph lines. News gathered at one point could therefore broadcast to every point connected to the network at once. The wire service thus operated as a giant funnel, gathering news from a vast field into its headquarters, processing it, and then broadcasting it to newspaper clients spread over space. The systemic features of both ends of the wire service funnel implied that telegraphic news gathering, like postal or electricity networks, would have monopolistic tendencies. In many countries a single wire service dominated, but the structure varied among geopolitical systems.
In the United States, once the major trunk lines connected in New York in mid-1846, the city’s six leading dailies joined in a cooperative arrangement that became known as the Associated Press (AP). Before long it began selling the telegraphic news it gathered to out-of-town newspapers, and after mid-century the AP dominated a national system of telegraphic news. Once the telegraph began spreading over Europe, a variety of telegraphic news-gathering arrangements emerged. In France, a private commercial enterprise established in 1835, the Havas Agency, added telegraphic news distribution to its translation and advertising services, cooperating closely with government in its wire news operation. The Wolff Bureau in Germany was also a private business, and cross-ownership of telegraph and cable enterprises buttressed its position. Its cooperation with German political and commercial interests was also significant but remained covert. Guilliamo Stefani’s agency in Italy was fundamentally a commercial venture, but Paul Usoff in Russia led a telegraphic news-gathering system founded on cooperative elements. In the United Kingdom, the public telegraph companies at first provided news to the provincial press. By the late 1850s Reuters foreign news service augmented the telegraph company reports, and from 1868 it cooperated in the domestic field with the British Press Association.
News gathering by telegraph had far-reaching implications for the development of the press and influenced major social processes. Providing a coherent first report, wire news set the agenda for the press. The reports, combining news from all over the country and shaped for a national audience, served the cause of national integration. By collating and spreading uniform economic information, wire service news leveled market prices and advanced the integration of national economies. As the most popular kind of news copy, wire reports also influenced journalistic practices and standards, from setting the inverted-pyramid structure for telling news stories to using objective language in reporting. Read across regions, the wire report spread national languages, discourses, and cultures.
International news gathering by telegraph expanded with the laying of trans-oceanic cables in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasing the scope of telegraphic news. Although rapid sharing of economic news across political boundaries rationalized markets, it did not necessarily harmonize international relations. International conflict and war proliferated in the age of the telegraph, illustrating that news briefs from foreign sources could increase friction and hasten belligerence.
Improvements in telegraph user equipment in the 1870s generated a variety of telegraphic indicators and “tickers” for delivering commercial quotations and news headlines direct to subscribers, circumventing the press. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, telephone reporting supplemented telegraphic news gathering, and teleprinters facilitated its distribution. After the turn of the century, news transmissions used radiotelegraphy extensively, with news photographs transmitted alongside text. Radio and television, like newspapers before them, made use of wire reports in their newscasts. By the latter twentieth century, digital transmission replaced telegraphy as the conveyer of fast news in text, voice, and video to media outlets.
- Blondheim, M. (1994). News over the wires: The telegraph and the flow of public information in America, 1844–1897. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Desmond, R. W. (1978). The information process: World news reporting to the twentieth century. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.
- Read, D. (1992). The power of news: The history of Reuters, 1849–1989. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Scharzlose, R. A. (1989, 1990). The nation’s newsbrokers, vol. 1: The formative years: From pretelegraph to 1865; vol. 2: The rush to institution: From 1865 to 1920. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
- Stern, F. (1977). Gold and iron: Bismark, Bleichroder, and the building of the German empire. New York: Knopf.