The Gilded Age Press, 1865-1900

By Ted Curtis Smythe | Go to book overview

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A Changing Nation and a Changing Press, 1865-1872

The newspaper coverage of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination ratified the new role of the press as the primary source of news. It was a role that was hammered out in the post-Civil War era, with several news characteristics vying for dominance: timeliness, accuracy, exclusiveness, sensationalism, entertainment, and impartiality. The emphasis on one or more of these characteristics helped each paper establish a character of its own. The press changed organizationally in order to support the new emphasis. These changes occurred as the nation changed from its antebellum political, economic, and social organization.

Newspapers were first to inform Northerners of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Readers unfolded their morning papers, especially Republican papers, to find the front page lined with black mourning borders. 1 While the turned rules, a long-used device for printing black borders, expressed the sorrow of most of the North, the more important element of the news was that the press provided it first. As a result of the extension of the telegraph, people had come to expect the daily press to deliver useful news quickly and accurately. In a country where the sinews of transportation were undeveloped, for railroads covered but a part of the country and roads were unpaved between cities, not even rumor flew as rapidly as the daily press.

The American press, especially in the North, was a mixed medium. Despite a quickened public interest in news as a result of the Civil War, many editors and publishers expected to return to the partisan political press practices of the antebellum period. News coverage was expensive. Political and social comment was cheaper. Many papers did return to personal journalism, where the emphasis was on comment. But those papers eventually lost readers and influence as a new kind of journalism began to make its presence felt, particularly in the North.

There was a palpable tension among journalists over the meaning of the shift to news: Did it mean that leadership came through editorials or news? The

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