Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
From Partisanship to Professionalism
The Transformation of the Daily Press

Richard L. Kaplan

.  .  .

Throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, the daily newspaper was the dominant source of stories and information for most Americans. When Americans read, they picked up their local newspaper first. The press, in turn, characterized its central role in narrating American life as a service to democracy. Journalists proclaimed their ethical devotion to aiding the public— providing crucial information and analysis and enhancing public deliberation. The manner in which the press served the public, however, changed drastically between 1880 and 1920. Over time, daily papers altered what they judged appropriate public rhetoric, whom they considered a proper public speaker, and how they understood their reading public. This chapter describes the press’s shifting democratic aspirations from the late nineteenth century into the first half of the twentieth.

For most of the nineteenth century, newspapers were purchased by the few, read by the well-to-do, and addressed to the elite. Despite its reputation as a democratic country with universal white, male suffrage, newspaper distribution in the United States remained a restricted affair. Until the 1870s circulation hovered between three and four daily papers for every ten households. In the waning years of the century, however, the press experienced a revolution that was both economic and political. From 1870 to 1910, the press rapidly expanded to reach many more Americans. This media growth was driven by innovations in printing technology, increasing advertising revenues, lower paper costs, and the drive for greater profits. By 1910 newspapers were full-scale incorporated companies, earning and spending millions of dollars, paying dividends to stockholders, and consolidating into extended media chains.1

The commercial expansion of the press was followed by a political revolution. Early twentieth-century newspapers rejected their past political heritage as noisy, argumentative, and partisan.2 Instead, the U.S. press declared itself independent of all political attachments. Notwithstanding manifold behind-thescenes connections to politicians and the persistence of hidden political sym

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