Technology for newspapers
CHANGE is in the air. A new communications technology threatens a dramatic upheaval in America's newspaper industry, overturning the status quo and disrupting the business model that has served the industry for years. This “great revolution”, warns one editor, will mean that some publications “must submit to destiny, and go out of existence.” With many American papers declaring bankruptcy in the past few months, their readers and advertisers lured away by cheaper alternatives on the internet, this doom-laden prediction sounds familiar. But it was in fact made in May 1845, when the revolutionary technology of the day was not the internet—but the electric telegraph.
It was only a year earlier, in May 1844, that Samuel Morse had connected Washington, DC, and Baltimore by wire and sent the first official message, in dots and dashes: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT”. The second message sent down Morse's line was of more practical value, however: “HAVE YOU ANY NEWS”. (There was no question-mark in Morse's original alphabet.) As a network of wires spread across the country, referred to as “the great highway of thought” by one contemporary observer, it was obvious that this new technology was going to have a huge impact on the newspaper industry. But would the telegraph be friend or foe?
James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald and author of the gloomy prediction of May 1845, concluded that the telegraph would put many newspapers out of business. “In regard to the newspaper press, it will experience to a degree, that must in a vast number of cases be fatal, the effects of the new mode of circulating intelligence, ” he wrote. He returned to his theme in another editorial in July. “All those papers which serve merely as vehicles of intelligence will be destroyed, ” he declared. “The scissors-and-paste journalism of the country will be annihilated.”
The telegraph posed a threat to the newspapers' hard-won control of the news, itself a relatively recent development. In the early 1800s newspapers were astonishingly slow. They received news by post, some as reports from correspondents but mostly by copying old stories from other newspapers as part of an exchange system. The Weekly Herald, recalling the 1820s, noted that “the newspapers of that day relied altogether upon their exchanges for news, and, of course, the intelligence which they gave the readers was meagre, stale and unsatisfactory.” Foreign news, if any, was usually several weeks old. Some local papers even varied publication schedules to suit the editor's social life.
The most avid collectors of news were businessmen, some of whom acted as correspondents to papers. But merchants who passed on news in this way would already have made use of it, and they kept anything that was still commercially valuable to themselves. Some merchants exchanged information with each other in special clubs, called newsrooms, in which items of interest (the arrival of particular ships, say, or reports from abroad) were recorded in shared books to be accessed by paying subscribers only. Journalists would sometimes frequent such newsrooms to pick up stories. But they rarely sought out news themselves.
Things began to change in the late 1820s as two New York papers, the Journal of Commerce and the Courier and Enquirer, began to compete for business readers. Both started to use pony expresses to deliver news from other cities, and fast boats to meet incoming vessels and get foreign news a few hours early. In the 1830s competition intensified with the establishment of the “penny press” papers, which were cheaper than the business ones and catered to a much wider audience. Bennett, the founder of the New York Herald, agreed to pay one of his sources 0 for every hour by which he beat other papers in getting news from Europe.
Elaborate ruses involving fast boats, carrier pigeons, express trains and even semaphore systems meant that papers, not businessmen, started getting the news first. Editors boasted about the timeliness of their news, and how they had beaten other papers to it. When the Journal of Commerce arrived in Boston by mail, merchants would fight to see it: one eyewitness reported seeing “crowds, in Topliff's News-room in Boston, disagreeably elbowing each other around the file of the Journal of Commerce, on the arrival of the New York mail.” Newspapers were democratising information. Bennett once declared that “speculators should not have the advantage of earlier news than the public at large.”
The telegraph, it seemed, would put an end to this productive rivalry. Raw news and market information would now arrive first at the telegraph office; papers, along with merchants and everyone else, would have to queue for it. Telegraph firms would establish a new monopoly over news delivery, and would sell early access to the news to the highest bidder. Papers would be unable to compete. Circulation would decline and advertisers would flee. The democratisation of news would be undone.
There was hope, however. Bennett believed that a few papers which provided commentary and analysis (including the Herald) would survive. “The telegraph may not affect magazine literature, nor those newspapers that have some peculiar characteristic, ” he predicted. But he warned that “mere newspapers”, which simply reported the news, were doomed. He was not alone in this view. The Alexandria Gazette opined that the telegraph would henceforth deliver the raw news, leaving newspapers to “examining causes, tracing effects, enlightening the judgments, and directing the reflections of men.” It seemed that the only way to survive was to offer analysis and opinion, or to focus on events in a narrow field, too obscure to merit coverage by telegraphic news services. A reshaping of the entire industry appeared to be imminent.
Not such bad news after all
The telegraph did indeed reshape the newspaper industry, but not in the way that Bennett and others had predicted. For although telegraph wires could deliver news more rapidly than ever, they had a “last mile” problem: they could not disseminate news quickly to thousands of people. Only printed newspapers could do that. Far from putting papers out of business, the telegraph actually made them more attractive and increased their sales.