The Gilded Age Press, 1865-1900

By Ted Curtis Smythe | Go to book overview

8

Newsmongers, 1883-1895

Most publishers recognized that news, rather than comment, was the source of power in a newspaper. The commercialized independent press required news and entertainment to attract readers, and readers attracted advertisers. But even publishers of political newspapers saw the change. E.L. Godkin, editor of the New York Evening Post, whose commentary was read by intellectuals, recognized this as early as 1872. He wrote then that a man who wanted to cancel a paper had to consider the wishes of his family, because the paper contained many others things than politics. 1 But he and other publishers were still dragging their heels seven years later. One of them complained in 1879 that papers were about as large as they could get because readers were unhappy when they could not read all of the paper. At the time of his writing, papers generally were eight to twelve pages in New York. 2 The publisher was Whitelaw Reid of the New York Tribune. He was wrong, as he later would admit.

Publishers who emphasized news printed even larger papers with more news and advertising. They added general news, but their greatest increase came in specialized news, such as sports, business, religion, and society. They organized this news by columns, at first, then by pages, and finally by sections. Specialized news attracted small readership individually, but large readership in the aggregate. Such news was “News for small publics, ” as Hearst called it, and Reid eventually came to the same conclusion. He finally realized that the reader simply read what he or she wanted and “skip[ped] the rest.” Therefore, the paper that provided complete and accurate information in special fields was best, for it offered many items of news from which the reader could choose. 3

Writers of specialized news were important to a paper, but seldom did they gain public or even journalistic attention. They were important because they usually provided accurate news that won constant readers and steady circulation. 4 Their accuracy was more important even than in the general news, because readers demanded it. A newspaper that provided inaccurate sports or

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