Volume 5, Issue 2
Defying Destiny: How Nineteenth-Century Newspapers Survived a Disruptive Technology
Tom Standage, Business Affairs Editor, The Economist
Just a year earlier, in May 1844, Samuel Morse had first connected Washington and Baltimore by wire, and sent the first message, in dots and dashes: "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT." The second message to be sent down Morse's line was of more practical value, however: "HAVE YOU ANY NEWS?" As a network of wires began to spread across the country, it was obvious that the technology would have a huge impact on the newspaper industry. But would the telegraph be friend or foe?
James Gordon Bennett, the outspoken editor of the New York Herald and the author of the doom-laden 1845 prediction, believed 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. "The telegraph may not affect magazine literature, nor those newspapers that have some peculiar characteristic. But the mere newspapers — the circulators of intelligence merely — must submit to destiny, and go out of existence." 1
The telegraph posed a threat to the newspapers' hard-won control of the news. In the early 1800s newspapers were astonishingly slow-moving. They received news by post — some of it from correspondents who sent in reports, but mostly by copying stories from other newspapers as part of an exchange system. An 1849 article in the Weekly Herald, recalling the situation in 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." 2
Merchants who passed on business news would already have made use of it and would keep anything that was still commercially valuable to themselves. Some merchants exchanged information with each other in special clubs, called news rooms, in which news items (the arrival of particular ships, for example, or reports from abroad) were written in books that could only be accessed by paying subscribers. Journalists would sometimes become members of such newsrooms to pick up stories. But they rarely sought out news themselves.
Things started to change in the 1820s as two New York papers, the Journal of Commerce and the Courier and Enquirer, began to compete for business readers. Both papers started to use pony expresses to deliver news from other cities more quickly, 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 papers and catered to a wider audience. Bennett, the founder of one such paper, the New York Herald, even agreed to pay one of his sources $500 for every hour by which he beat other papers in getting hold of news from Europe.
Elaborate ruses involving fast boats, carrier pigeons, express trains and even semaphore systems meant that newspapers, not businessmen, started getting the news first. Newspapers 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." Sometimes crowds would gather outside newspaper offices to await news from distant markets. Newspapers were democratizing information. Bennett once declared that "speculators should not have the advantage of earlier news than the public at large."
But the telegraph, it seemed, would put an end to this merry rivalry. The raw news and market information would now arrive first at the telegraph office; newspapers, along with merchants and everyone else, would have to queue up for it. Telegraph companies would establish a new monopoly over the news. Business people would once again be able to share intelligence quickly and quietly, by sending telegrams. Newspaper circulation would decline, and advertisers would flee. The democratization of news would be undone.
There was hope, however. A few newspapers that provided commentary and analysis (including his own Herald) would survive, Bennett believed: "That journalism, however, which possesses intellect, mind and originality, will not suffer. Its sphere of action will be widened. It will, in fact, be more influential than ever." 1 Bennett was not alone in this view. The Alexandria Gazette predicted that the telegraph would provide the raw news, leaving newspapers to "examining causes, tracing effects, enlightening the judgments, and directing the reflections of men." In short, the few surviving newspapers would be reduced to offering analysis and opinion, rather than news.
We now know that this view was completely wrong. Telegraphs could indeed deliver news more quickly and in greater quantity, but they could not distribute it quickly to thousands of people: only newspapers could do that. Far from putting papers out of business, the telegraph made them more attractive and increased their sales.
For the first time it became possible to read up-to-date business and political news within hours of its occurrence. For fast-moving stories, newspapers would print "extra" editions with the latest updates. And the predictions that newspapers would favor analysis and opinion over news got things exactly backwards. The telegraph "may help speculation in commercial affairs, but it will interfere very often with the speculations of the newspapers," observed the Public Ledger in 1858. 3 Long-winded musings about distant events were replaced by cold, hard facts, and the obsession with speed only intensified. The technology that was initially seen as a threat was instead co-opted by the newspapers and turned to their advantage. Does this offer a lesson for the industry today, as it struggles to cope with the impact of the internet?
To be fair, newspapers have done their best to co-opt it. They have launched online editions, set up blogs and encouraged greater dialogue with readers. The fundamental problem is that the internet, unlike the telegraph, does not just allow news to reach newsrooms faster: it can also distribute that news more quickly and efficiently to subscribers than paper can. The internet threatens the traditional newspaper model in a way the telegraph never did. And by making their content available free online, newspapers have accelerated the demise of their own print editions. They are now trying to find a new model, switching to online-only publication in some cases, introducing pay barriers in others, and experimenting with new forms of paid-for electronic delivery to mobile devices.
Looking back to 1845, it is clear that John Gordon Bennett's prediction was wrong: far from destroying it, communications technology actually helped to create the modern newspaper. But in the modern era he has been belatedly proved right: the internet is now destroying it.
1 "The Electro Magnetic Telegraph a Great Revolution Appreaching." (sic) New York Herald, May 17th 1845.
2 "Progress of the American Newspaper Press." Weekly Herald, May 12th 1849
3 "One of the effects of the telegraph." Public Ledger, August 28th 1858