History of Journalism: 1861-1930

Anthony R Fellow. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

Between the Civil War and those years marking the height of the Great Depression, every aspect of American life, including its news media, were transformed by dramatic change. From a nation loosely tied by slow travel, magazines, and newspapers, the country by the 1920s had developed telephones, globe-circling news agencies, radio broadcasting, and rapid urban transit as well as long-distance rail lines.

A Changing Country

Between the Civil War and the turn of the century, every aspect of American life, including its media, was transformed. Continuing trends of urbanization and industrialization were at the center of this transformation. In 1850, the country was largely rural, no cities had achieved a population of a million, and only two, New York and Philadelphia, had more than half a million. As a result of the Civil War (1861-65) and postwar industrialization, however, populations began to cluster in a growing number of cities. Starting in the 1890s, an immigrant wave pushed the nation’s population to 76 million by 1900. Many of these newcomers lived in the teeming cities.

Modern America rose directly from the foundations laid by such moguls as Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant from Scotland who at the age of 13 was earning $4.80 a month as a bobbin boy in a Pittsburgh textile mill. By 1901 his steel empire assured him of a guaranteed retirement income of a million dollars a month for life. Oil baron John D. Rockefeller organized a second industry, the oil business. In the middle of the Civil War, he formed a partnership that would produce 3,000 barrels of oil a day, a tenth of the industry’s output. Within a decade, his Standard Oil Company controlled nine-tenths of the nation’s oil-refining capacity.

However, many Americans lived in urban squalor. Most obvious among the oppressed were immigrants, southern freedmen and blacks in the North, women and child workers, and mine and factory workers. Many families were able to survive only because their children could earn money in sweat shops, businesses with inferior wages and working conditions. Child labor and similar iniquities slowly disappeared from the American scene in the twentieth century, though only after organized labor became strong enough to push political and social reforms.

Political corruption was notorious in Washington and much of the country in the post-Civil War era, and particularly flourished during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77). City political machines became instruments to bilk the public coffers and line the pockets of those in charge. None was more notorious than William M. Tweed, whose Tammany Hall controlled New York City during and after the Civil War. Indeed, his power soon extended to the state legislature and the governor.

A new crop of writers, the muckrakers, would expose these injustices, writing primarily in the nation’s first national medium, magazines. Meanwhile, newspapers reflected the urban trends of American life and the problems—especially government inefficiency and crime—of urban America. Increases in literate populations allowed urban newspapers to flourish. By the end of the century about 1,600 newspapers were published in the afternoon and nearly 600 in the morning. Joseph Pulitzer, one of the many immigrants who helped to build the new America of the post-Civil War period, and his rival, William Randolph Hearst, would capitalize on problems of the period as circulation builders, culminating in the creation of a “new journalism.”

At the turn of the century, America became the “can-do” nation. The dream that riches would reward hard work flowered in the United States and abroad as evidenced by the rising number of immigrants, nearly 9 million, who arrived in the first ten years of the twentieth century. With the era’s wealth came leisure time, a new aspect of life that would have profound impact on consumption of media.

Love of gimmickry matched by inventive genius produced a welter of labor-saving devices and novelties, including the personal camera, motion-picture projector, and after 1920, radio broadcasting. By 1900 some 1.25 million telephones buzzed with business and social talk; 20 million incandescent lamps glowed; skyscraper buildings and their elevators rose to increasingly giddy heights.

Civil War Journalism

On the eve of the Civil War in April 1861, about 2,500 newspapers (only a minority of them dailies) were operating. of these, nearly 300 dailies were in the North and 80 in the South. New York City alone had 17 dailies. The typical paper contained four or eight pages and offered few illustrations. Circulations were small, rarely exceeding a few thousand copies in most communities. Wartime reporting introduced the development of the “special correspondent” and widespread journalistic use of the telegraph to speed news transmission. These special correspondents could be sent anywhere at any time by their editors to gather and report war news in a timely and readable—but not necessarily accurate—fashion. The speed of their reporting was greatly aided by extensive railway networks, especially in the North.

Essential to effective wartime journalism was the electric telegraph. Some 50,000 miles of telegraph line, belonging to a half dozen companies, crisscrossed the country between the eastern border of Kansas and the Atlantic Coast by 1860. While it allowed rapid transmission of news, the telegraph was expensive. For example, a 2,000-word story transmitted from Washington, D.C., to New York cost about $100 (easily 20 times that in monetary values of 2009). That same story transmitted from New Orleans might cost $450, a hefty sum when one considers that a reporter likely earned less than $10 a week.

Some 350 correspondents accompanied the Northern armies to cover one bloody battle after another. These newspapermen were rough, rowdy, courageous, and hotly competitive. Correspondents were equipped with their standard tools—a revolver, field glasses, notebooks, blanket, a sack for provisions, and a good horse. They included some not-so-famous poets, preachers, school teachers, lawyers, and eventually famous celebrities such as Henry M. Stanley, a young Bavarian immigrant who after the war would be assigned by the New York Herald to search for missionary David Livingston in Africa. The New York Times publisher Henry Raymond assigned himself to cover the war, and his speed and accuracy in reporting stories became legendary.

In the South, about 10 percent of newspapers were dailies. The typical four-page papers, which varied from four to eight columns in width, were rarely profitable. As with the northern press, many of the papers were highly partisan, surviving solely because of party subsidies. The Southern press witnessed a shortage of ink and paper. of the 555 paper factories in the United States reported by the census of 1860, only 24 were in the South. Meanwhile, blockades prevented paper shipments from the North. The result was that many of the weeklies reduced the size of their newspapers.

The Civil War had a tremendous impact on the nation’s press. First, newspapers became big business. This was precipitated by improved methods of printing, with the introduction of stereotyping making it possible for the first time to create a printing plate the size of an entire page, curved to fit the cylinder, which sped production. Before stereotyping, pages were made up of individual lines of lead type strapped in a wooden box and printed one page at a time. Second, Sunday editions were inaugurated and with the practice of issuing afternoon “extras” (which many critics said were issued to contradict the lies that newspapers told in the morning). Third, news agencies, especially the Associated Press, developed. They provided war and other news, saving newspapers from having to pay for their own war correspondents. Fourth, the newspaper syndicate developed, distributing preprinted news and feature material on a subscription basis to smaller newspapers. Finally, the high cost of telegraphic news reports forced a more concise reporting style—the “inverted pyramid,” in which the most important information was placed first.

Postwar “New” Journalism

The technological, social, political, and economic changes resulting from the Civil War brought about a different society and different media. Publishers and editors now saw their newspapers as public defenders, as watchdogs over government and business. They became more impartial in their coverage of news stories and more interested in investigative reporting, rooting out corruption in city politics and industry. Joseph Pulitzer exemplified this new journalism. In 1883, Pulitzer acquired the New York World and soon instituted dramatic changes, including a new concept of news that included widespread use of illustrations, sensational treatment, and news reporting as a social crusade.

His chief contribution to the business was the invention of the formula that rival publisher William Randolph Hearst later took up and made famous in his New York Journal—sex on the front page but an editorial page that demanded morality from politicians and businessmen. This approach took the form of an exaggerated sensationalism in news stories along with a steady self-advertisement of the newspaper and its latest deeds. Soon dubbed “yellow” journalism (so named over a cartoon character), techniques included use of provocative illustrations, larger and darker headlines, and incessant promotions of exclusive features. The World‘s news columns also were peppered with illustrations, which were by the 1890s enhanced by color printing and the use of half-tone photographs. The cartoon would become a daily fixture in larger newspapers by 1890.

Pulitzer also created news—or stunts, as some critics called them. These were often entertaining, sometimes educational, and always attracted readers. His most ambitious was sending reporter Elizabeth Cochran (“Nellie Bly”)—who in an earlier undercover exposé had exposed the horrors of an asylum at Blackwell’s Island—on a world voyage in an effort to beat the record of Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s popular novel, Around the World in Eighty Days.

Though he didn’t invent the journalistic crusade, Pulitzer stimulated circulation by constant stunts designed to involve readers in social change. His most famous crusade was to collect funds to build a pedestal for the new Statute of Liberty after Congress refused to appropriate funds and a citizens’ committee failed in the same task.

Hearst wanted to share the New York newspaper stage with Pulitzer. After he made the San Francisco Examiner one of the most profitable newspapers on the West Coast, the ambitious Hearst in 1895 moved to New York and initiated a hot circulation war with Pulitzer. The Hearst formula was simple. He adopted Pulitzer’s ideas wholesale, having admired them from the beginning, and then carried them a step further in both extravagance and boldness. He could do this successfully because of his virtually unlimited resources and because he had a better sense of the mass mind than did Pulitzer. The collision of Pulitzer and Hearst brought about one of the most fascinating, if unseemly, periods in American journalism.

The crucial test of the new mass-circulation newspaper power came when the Pulitzer/Hearst struggle coincided with the tensions between the United States and Spain that in 1898 led to war. Hearst’s coverage of the war exhibited his usual audacious style. He chartered a tramp steamer, installed a printing press and a small composing room big enough to lay out an edition of the Journal, and set sail for Cuba along with a crew of reporters and photographers.

In an era of widespread illiteracy, political cartoons grew to importance. New York City-based Thomas Nast was one of the first and most important figures, helping to pillory and finally drive from office the Tammany Hall machine of William Marcy Tweed, which had bilked the city for years. As Tweed himself acknowledged, “them damn pictures”—which caricatured his large nose, unkempt beard, and giant frame—were what did him in, far more than pages of angry newspaper stories. Nast went on to create the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey symbols still in use 125 years later.

Magazines and Muckraking

The Pulitzer-Hearst brand of journalism evolved by the early 1900s into a related and more useful but distinct form of reporting called muckraking. “Muckrakers”—nicknamed by President Theodore Roosevelt for their crusading style of journalism—were writers active during America’s progressive era, the first decade of the twentieth century. Their investigations into corrupt businesses and governments shocked readers, who demanded reform in politics and industry. Their usual targets were leaders in business and finance—often tagged as “robber barons”—who controlled the nation’s wealth and bought and influenced state legislatures and some U.S. senators as well.

Muckrakers sought to clean house by naming names, pointing to sore spots in business and politics. They investigated and wrote extensively about crooked politicians; criminal police; exploitation of children in mills, mines, factories, and sweatshops; malefactions of capitalists, such as John D. Rockefeller; food adulteration; fraudulent claims for patents; prostitution across state lines; and other unscrupulous business practices.

What distinguished the Progressive-era muckrak-ers was their reach; they commanded attention nationwide, thanks to the growing role of the first national medium—weekly and monthly popular magazines. The emergence of the ten-cent periodical as a powerful social force began with the founding of McClure’s in June 1893. A flood of cheap periodicals followed, until publisher Frank Munsey estimated in 1903 that they comprised about 85 percent of the total circulation of magazines in America. Besides his own (Munsey’s, naturally), Munsey guessed correctly that the biggest moneymakers were Argosy, Cosmopolitan, and McClure’s.

The basis of the ten-cent magazine’s popular appeal was its liveliness and variety, its many well-printed illustrations, and its coverage of world events. These magazines were quite a contrast from the traditional literary or political magazines that were genteel and sedate enterprises selling at 35 cents a copy. Publishers of such magazines as Atlantic, Harper’s, the Century, and Scribner’s were literary men who believed that magazines were really books in periodical form. While their circulations were far smaller than the popular muckraking titles, they reached the political and business opinion leaders of their time.

Film and Radio

This buoyant era of technology produced a welter of media innovations, including the camera, motion-picture projector, radio, and (by mid-century) television. Despite the popularity of early silent black-and-white motion pictures, they took a backseat to newspapers when it came to First Amendment protections. Moral guardians saw film as a new enemy of social mores and demanded legislation to control the medium. Ohio authorities, for example, censored a film and then won the Supreme Court’s blessing in 1915. In Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, the Court set a precedent that stood for 37 years—movies were not protected by the First Amendment. Simply, the court dismissed them as frivolous entertainment and not a vehicle for significant ideas. Only in 1951 did the court have a change of heart, ruling in the case of Burstyn v. Wilson that films could be a vehicle for important ideas and affording them First Amendment protection.

During the first unhappy years of the Great Depression, the public sought recognizable images of their own problems on the screen—or, at the other end of the spectrum, total musical escapism. The popularity of Warner Brothers’ Little Caesar sent the message that the public enjoyed a hardhitting, naturalistic form of drama that took its themes from the headlines of the day. They got it in The Front Page, The Public Enemy, and The Secret Six. Some films even brought reforms. After the appearance of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, based on an actual case, public clamor forced changes in the chain-gang system.

Radio would have a more profound impact on the nation, though it took some time to become apparent. Unlike other media, radio’s history is a complex web of technological and scientific achievements that had to be tied together. Most of these achievements were not accomplished by scientists in corporate laboratories. Instead, individual inventors, or hobbyists, tinkering in their garages or basements, helped bring about radio’s development, often ignorant of what others were doing.

Four ingredients were needed for radio’s development. Samuel Morse, a painter of some renown, succeeded in developing the first ingredient in the 1840s—an electromagnetic telegraph. Practical applications of electricity (chiefly the light bulb, early recordings, and practical movies) developed by Thomas Edison in the late nineteenth century made up the second ingredient. In the late 1870s, Alexander Graham Bell developed the third ingredient—telephony—allowing transmission of the voice over copper wires. Finally, the fourth and most important ingredient was provided by Italian innovator Guglielmo Marconi, who perfected wireless telegraphy at the turn of the twentieth century.

By 1921, one-time Marconi employee David Sarnoff became general manager of the new Radio Corporation of America. He played a central role in shaping radio broadcasting as an industry. Through a series of negotiations, he founded the National Broadcasting Company (NBC, 1926) that would be responsible for national programming. He would soon be challenged by William Paley, who invested in the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). By 1928 he became president of the company and brought in the Paramount movie studio as a partner. The network lost more than $300,000 the year he took over, but under his shrewd management, CBS would soon overtake NBC in profits.

Sarnoff and Paley helped introduce America to radio drama, soap operas, situation comedies, talk shows, and variety and specialty shows. Many colleges experimented with educational programs. Political broadcasts had been a staple of radio since KDKA broadcast results of the 1920 Harding-Cox presidential election. Hans von Kaltenborn was the first to offer weekly radio commentaries, in 1923, at WEAF, the station that a year earlier had introduced the principle of radio advertising as a revenue source. In 1930 Lowell Thomas introduced his first daily 15-minute newscast on NBC.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the effective use of radio as a political instrument and probably best understood its potential and power, even though others had used it before him. During the Depression, Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” soothed an often desperate nation. Approximately 50 million Americans tuned in to his first chat on March 12, 1933, when he attempted to stop a run on American banks. By then, radio had become an accepted part of America’s media landscape, though regular news broadcasts were still to come.


From 1850 to 1930, newspapers and magazines proved powerful entities that contributed to the social and political fabric of the nation. The American newspaper was at the pinnacle of its influence: New York had no fewer than 15 dailies and more than twice as many weeklies, but even a town as small as Emporia, Kansas, had two dailies. The New York World was selling 374,000 newspapers in morning and evening editions. By the end of the century, technological achievements in printing and stereotyping helped spur newspaper competition.

Early in the twentieth century Americans had come to appreciate the writers known as muckrak-ers, who described the dangers of unrestrained industrial capitalism. These writers of exposure were fueled by magazines, such as Munsey’s, Cosmopolitan, and McClure’s, with national circulations and huge resources, which exploited such innovations as printed photos and color illustrations. They also laid the foundation for the weekly news magazine, of which the first was Time, founded in 1923, by Henry Luce and Britton Hadden.

Over this 80-year period, newspapers and magazines became important and powerful media for the dissemination of news and entertainment. The telegraph and telephone also became important means of communications as America moved from an agrarian to an industrial nation. In the 1920s, radio was suggesting a journalistic promise that would grow in relevance in the coming decades.

Massive newspaper circulations pushed technological progress with the invention of improved presses, distribution syndicates, news agencies, and often aggressive news coverage. Growth in advertising, which supported the press and began to support radio, made publishers rich and their powerful newspapers provided them a platform in which to debate the most important issues of the day. By 1930, news media played a substantial role in setting both national and local agendas of political and social issues.