Academic journal article Journalism History

The Economics of Popular Journalism in the Gilded Age: The Detroit Evening News in 1873 and 1888

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Economics of Popular Journalism in the Gilded Age: The Detroit Evening News in 1873 and 1888

Article excerpt

The urban newspaper market in the late nineteenth century was characterized by a series of innovations that fundamentally transformed the economics and politics of the newspaper business. In 1919, George G. Booth, publisher of the Detroit Evening News, looked back on this history from his perspective as an active participant in Detroit and Michigan journalism and labeled these tumultuous changes the "first and second revolutions" in the Gilded Age press.(1) These two "revolutions" saw the emergence of cheap, afternoon newspapers with expanded circulations and soaring advertising revenues. The ensuing economic upsurge created new millionaires among American publishers, and it initiated what Svennik Hoyer has labeled the "consolidation phase" of urban newspaper markets.(2) By the 1890s and the early 1900s, these transformed conditions of newspaper sales and marketing intensified the competition among daily papers and ultimately led to newspaper closures and concentration in metropolitan press markets across the country. At the same time, the new opportunities for wealth and the pressures of competition reinforced the profit orientation of the press and created a complex dynamic attenuating the use of partisanship as a key selling point for the daily journals.(3)

Detroit, in fact, led in the introduction of these cheap, popular newspapers in the industrializing cities of the midwest. And, in important ways Detroit foreshadowed the development of the "new journalism" of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. As Harper's Magazine claimed in 1888,

One of the most notable features of Western Journalism during the past few years has been the rise and success of the penny and two cents newspapers. The first journalist of the West to discover the demand for journals of this class and to act upon his discovery was Mr. James E. Scripps, the principal owner of the Detroit Evening News....This was the pioneer of the cheap newspaper in the West.(4)

The journalistic innovations of James E. Scripps at the Detroit Evening News in 1873 created the first of the revolutions enumerated by Booth. They reconfigured the newspaper market in Detroit, leading to an expansion in the sheer number of readers, but also introducing a new "class viewpoint" into the pages of the daily papers. Fifteen years later this economic expansion was followed by a second journalistic revolution. The Detroit Evening News and Detroit dailies in general were transformed by an influx of advertising revenues during the "retail revolution" of the late 1880s and 1890s.

This essay examines the "two revolutions" in late nineteenth-century journalism by looking at the particular case of the Detroit Evening News under the ownership of James E. Scripps. It describes the market conditions Scripps faced and his aspirations and innovations as he sought to change the newspaper business. Then it turns to the implications of each revolution for the future economic development and politics of the daily press, both in Detroit and in the nation at large.

In the years after the Civil War, manufacturing was burgeoning in the industrial heartland of the Northeast and the Midwest. America had entered its own "Age of Capital."(5) The population too increased at an "exponential rate as immigrants flocked to the developing industrial cities in search of work. By and large this mass of poor workers and immigrants was not part of the reading audience for any newspaper. In Detroit in 1870, daily newspaper circulation equaled only thirty percent of the English speaking population, while in New York City it was just under forty percent.(6) Workers were untapped by the established partisan and usually conservative journals which counted among their subscribers the social and economic elites, and biased their news accordingly.(7)

A central obstacle to attracting new readers, beyond politics, was price. All Detroit's dailies, whether they were Republican, Democrat, or pro-labor, (for example, the Detroit Union,) were five cents, a hefty share of the average wage of a dollar a day. …

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