How the Penny Press Brought Great Journalism to Populist America
The invention of the penny press in the 19th century gave working class Americans their own newspapers, and along the way created tabloid journalism and investigative reporting.
Benjamin Day changed American culture forever on September 3, 1833. I know such a bombastic opening statement seems trite, but here it’s apt, because on that date 185 years ago Day published the inaugural edition of the New York Sun: the first successful penny newspaper. Priced at a fraction of the price of the elite 6 cent newspapers that dominated the market, the Sun was affordable and accessible to all, a move that made the free press a true friend of the people.
As with so many fateful tales, this one begins at what seemed like the end. Trained as a printer in his native Springfield, Massachusetts, Day moved to New York to make it big in 1830, at age 20. After working three years as a typesetter at various outlets, including the Journal of Commerce and the Evening Post, ambitious Day opened his own print shop. The timing couldn’t have been worse: a cholera pandemic and the onset of a recession brought Day to the edge of ruin. Then, when Day’s days seemed numbered, he decided to take a friend’s advice: publish a new, cheaper newspaper, one aimed at people for whom 6 cent papers were prohibitively expensive, people like the tens of thousands of New Yorkers he saw on the street and the thousands arriving by the boatload daily. So, on September 3, 1833, Day debuted the Sun. Its slogan read: “It Shines for All,” while an introductory note vowed “to lay before the public, at a price within the means of everyone, all the news of the day.” This was a game changer.
Day didn’t just revolutionize the news industry. He created it. Newsstands wouldn’t carry his off-market Sun, so Day hired newsboys to sell it on the street; rather than relying on subscriptions, as elite papers did, Day sold ad space, expanding that industry and providing a fairly stable business model for newspapers that lasted well over a century, until—well, you know. (The second part of Day’s introductory credo described the Sun as “an advantageous medium for advertising.) And Day’s paper pioneered timeliness in news, something dominant papers didn’t value, instead printing “news” that was sometimes weeks or even months old.
Most importantly, Day changed the very meaning of news. While 6 cent papers wrote about elite-level concerns—international business, broad national news, shipping schedules, etc.—Day set out to provide more street-level happenings: local sports and crime, scandals, gossip, and general interest, i.e., information that would be appeal to the average Joe and Jane.
Though the young publisher initially operated as a simple news aggregator—he spent the early morning clipping 6 cent papers’ most commonplace stories and reprinted them in the Sun a few hours later—within a week Day hired his first journalist, George Wisner, and assigned him to report on what he heard and saw at the courthouse. And this too was novel: Established papers worked for or in conjunction with the powers that be, weaving their allies’ preferred narrative; but here Wisner pursued the truth on his own, flipping the script on how information was controlled and distributed. And it was a hit: The Sun’s first edition ran 1,000 copies; within six months circulation was 5,000; and then to 10,000 in another six.
It wasn’t long before other publishers climbed on the penny press bandwagon: The Evening Transcript and the New York Herald appeared in the Big Apple in 1835, the Boston Daily Times in February 1836, and the Philadelphia Public Ledger a month later. All of these papers followed Day’s formula: Dedicated reporters focused on the public at large, not the storied elite.
Committed to informing and engaging the masses, penny presses actively distinguished themselves from what Herald editor James Gordon Bennett deemed “the Wall Street papers.” “The banks and corrupt cliques of men control them altogether,” he said. The penny press operated independently, and was therefore the freest of the free press, said Bennett, “because it is subservient to none of its readers—known to none of its readers—and entirely ignorant who are its readers and who are not.” They spoke for no one and everyone at once. In fact, penny presses stayed out of politics almost entirely. For example, the Baltimore Sun promised “our object will be the common good, without regard to that of sects, factions, or parties, and for this object we shall labor without fear or partiality.” It wasn’t that they didn’t care about politics—Wisner snuck in some anti-slavery tracts—but they didn’t consider it in their purview. Penny presses didn’t interpret information, trying to win over readers; they simply spread it, remaining as objective as possible.
Not everything about penny presses was good news. Market-based competition led to instances of sensationalism: the embellishment or fabrication of stories to lure readers and advertising dollars. (One infamous example comes from the Sun, which in 1835 ran a six-part piece about humanoid-beasts living on the moon; widely read, and believed, the yarn became known as the Great Moon Hoax.) And penny presses at times reinforced social divides. Earlier papers had been politically partisan, yes, but penny papers tried to set themselves apart in the market by catering to specific social scenes. The Herald, for example, reported more on the emergent middle class (and raised its price to 2 cents, too), while the Sun stayed more working class-centric (until 1868, when it started courting the more well-to-do). This led some papers to amplify certain opinions over others, lending themselves to echo chamber-like phenomena with which we are all too familiar today.
Yet penny presses’ positive effects far offset the negative. By disconnecting newspapers from larger political and economic apparatus, Day and his peers made the news of and for the people. By treating the public as though their lives were as just as worthy as bold-faced names, penny presses showed the public that they mattered. The press has always been integral to America—it helped spark the revolution, after all—but the penny and other popular presses were different. They invited previously disregarded masses into the fold, expanded civil society, and made America more authentically American. Quite simply, they rebalanced the power.
Along those lines, penny presses’ inherent interest in the little guy set the stage for what would later become known as investigative journalism, a genre pioneered by Julius Chambers, who in 1872 had himself committed to the Bloomingdale Asylum to report on its abusive underbelly. His findings were published in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, which began as a penny paper. Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, aka Nellie Bly, took a similar approach in her 1885 pieces about the plight of female factory workers in Pittsburgh. (She also penned an asylum-related exposé in 1887 for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.) Other journalists did the same in years that followed, using the power of the free press to shine a light into the crevices and recesses of society, fighting for the reading public—and those not reading, too.
Without the Sun and its successors breaking rank, we wouldn’t have learned the truth about Boss Tweed’s corruption; we wouldn’t have learned about unsafe and unfair labor conditions in the early 20th century. Without the penny press, Americans would remain in the dark about Vietnam and Watergate. Without the penny press paving the way, the civil rights movement wouldn’t have been as successful as it was; anti-gay crimes like Matthew Shepard’s murder would go unreported; the Flint water crisis would remain below the surface. Without penny presses, we wouldn’t know whether or not Santa exists. (He does: The Sun confirmed as much in an 1897 answer to young Virginia O’Hanlon’s query, “Papa says ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?” The editors replied, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” a response that become an indelible Christmas idiom.)
These days, with Donald Trump and his allies smearing, demeaning, and generally defaming the press as the “enemy of the people” and “the opposition party” and the like, we must remember that the news industry was born from the people. Day, his peers, and every subsequent generation of newspaper publisher, editor, journalist, photographer, copy editor, and fact checker dedicated and dedicate themselves using the free press to inform the public about issues that impact their lives. Even the Herald, the paper that covered society happenings, still tried to please as many people as possible; or, in Bennett’s words, “the merchant and man of learning, as well as mechanic and the man of labor.”
The media is and always has been populist—down to its core. No, the media doesn’t always get it right—there were no monsters on the moon, there were no weapons of mass destruction—but most try their best, and when they do, it’s for the greater good. And that’s the truth.