History of Newspapers By Mitchell Stephens For Collier's Encyclopedia (1994)

NEWSPAPER, a publication that appears regularly and frequently, and carries news about a wide variety of current events. Organizations such as trade unions, religious groups, corporations or clubs may have their own newspapers, but the term is more commonly used to refer to daily or weekly publications that bring news of general interest to large portions of the public in a specific geographic area. The United States had 1,611 general-circulation daily newspapers in 1990 -- 14 percent fewer than it had in 1940, before the arrival of television.

The news in general-circulation newspapers is gathered and then written up by reporters. Photographers shoot pictures to accompany the stories and graphic artists contribute charts and diagrams. Editors assign reporters to stories, check over those stories, write headlines for them, determine where they will be placed in the newspaper and work on the paper's "layout" -- the arrangement of stories, photographs and art on each page. An editor-in-chief or an executive editor usually supervises the paper's news staff. The newspaper's publisher has overall control of its business and news operations.

General-circulation newspapers play a role in commerce through the the advertisements they carry; they provide readers with information of practical value, such as television schedules, weather maps and listings of stock prices; and these newspapers provide a source of entertainment through their stories and through such features as comic strips and crossword puzzles. However, one of the most important functions of the general-circulation newspaper -- a crucial function in a democracy -- is to provide citizens with information on government and politics.

Leaving newspapers free to perform this function was considered important enough by the first Congress so that they specifically protected it in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, ratified in 1791, which, among its other guarantors of free expression, prohibits Congress from passing any law "abridging the freedom...of the press." In 1787 Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote, "...were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

The colonial press. The Maryland Gazette appeared in Annapolis in 1727, the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg in 1736. By 1765, according to the American journalism historian Frank Luther Mott, all but two of the colonies, Delaware and New Jersey, had weekly newspapers. Boston had four; New York three; and Philadelphia had two newspapers printed in English, one printed in German. There were two newspapers in Connecticut, Rhode Island and each of the Carolinas. These early newspapers were usually no more than four pages long. They were filled primarily with short news items, documents and essays mostly taken from other newspapers, particularly British and European papers.

New York City's first newspaper was the New York Gazette, founded by William Bradford in 1725, but it was the city's second newspaper, John Peter Zenger's New York Weekly Journal, which began printing in 1733, that was to have a major effect on the history of journalism. The New York Gazette was a typical colonial newspaper: It stayed out of trouble by supporting the policies of the colony's governor. But New York's governor at the time, William Cosby, was a particularly controversial figure, who had alienated many of the most respected individuals in the colony. They wanted a newspaper that would express their point of view, and Zenger, a young German-born printer, agreed to start one. Zenger's Weekly Journal immediately began taking on the colony's administration. Governor Cosby had Zenger arrested on November 17, 1734, charged with seditious libel. (While he was in jail, the paper was printed by Zenger's wife, Anna.)

There was no doubt that Zenger had printed articles critical of the governor, and at the printer's trial in August 1775, the judge instructed the jury that, under the common law definition of seditious libel, criticism of the government was no less libelous if true. However, Zenger's lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, made an impassioned call to defend the "cause of liberty...the liberty both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power...by speaking and writing truth," and the jury ignored the judge's instructions and found Zenger innocent. This case represented a major step in the struggle for the freedom to print honest criticism of government, and it would have the practical effect of discouraging British authorities from prosecuting American journalists, even when their criticisms of the government grew intense in the years leading up to the American Revolution. After the Zenger trial, the British were afraid they would not be able to get an American jury to convict an American journalist.

Newspapers and the American Revolution. The major limitation on press freedom in England in the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century was the stamp tax, which had the effect of raising the price of newspapers to the point where the poorer classes could not afford to buy them. The Stamp Act passed by the British Parliament passed in 1765 would have placed a similar tax on American newspapers. Americans were not represented in this Parliament, and American newspapers rebelled against the new tax. They printed letters and essays protesting the Act -- the "fatal Black-Act," one editor called it; they printed reports on the meetings and mobs that protested the tax. New York's lieutenant governor, Cadwallader Colden, complained that these newspapers employed "every falsehood that malice could invent to serve their purpose of exciting the People to disobedience of the Laws & to Sedition."

The Stamp Act was to take effect on November 1, 1765. As that dreaded day approached, newspapers like the Pennsylvania Journal dressed themselves as tombstones and announced that they were "EXPIRING: In Hopes of a Resurrrection to Life again." Then cautiously, as the date passed without a British crackdown, the newspapers began appearing again, without the stamp; the Maryland Gazette calling itself, "An Apparition of the late Maryland Gazette, which is not Dead but Sleepeth." The Stamp Act could not be enforced and was soon repealed.

Similar protests reverberated through the colonial newspapers when the British Parliament approved the Townshend Acts in 1767, which imposed taxes on American imports of glass, lead, paint, tea and, significantly, paper. "Nonimportation agreements," policed in large part through the press, led the colonies to another victory. In 1770 all the duties except that on tea were removed.

During these successive waves of protest against the British in America, newspapers appeared with woodcuts of divided snakes, to represent the weakness of the colonies if they remained divided, with woodcuts of coffins (designed by Paul Revere) to represent the victims of the Boston Massacre; they published list of those "Enemies to their Country" who continued to import boycotted British goods; they serialized radical essays by John Dickinson and, in 1776, Thomas Paine. They called British officials and their supporters "serpents," "guileful betrayers," diabolical Tools of Tyrants" or "Men totally abondoned to Wickedness." The Boston Tea Party -- a protest against Parliament's decision to allow the East India Company to market its tea directly in American, with a price advantage over local merchants -- was organized in the house of a newspaper editor, Benjamin Edes of the Boston Gazette in 1773. Among the other leading newspapers in this struggle against British policies were Isaiah Thomas's Massachusetts Spy and John Holt's New York Journal. One of these newspapers, the Providence Gazette, was published during some of these crucial years by two women: Sarah and Mary Katherine Goddard.

Not all the colonial newspapers were on the side of the anti-British Sons of Liberty. James Rivington's New York Gazetteer, one of the best edited, most attractive papers in the colonies, gave voice to the Tory, or pro-British, as well as the "Patriot" side in the ongoing conflict, in what he called his "Ever Open and Uninfluenced Press." Despite their professed allegiance to the principle of a free press, the Sons of Liberty were infuriated by Rivington's paper, and he responded by taking more openly Tory positions. A group of members of the Sons of Liberty wrecked Rivington's printing plant, and, after the Revolutionary War began, he was arrested and forced to sign a statement of loyalty to the Continental Congress.

Still, for the most part American newspapers in the years leading up to the American Revolution represented something the world had never before seen: a press committed to challenging, even overthrowing, governmental authorities. This remains an unusual and difficult position for newspapers to take. Unlike pamphlets or broadsides, newspapers must appear regularly. Their publishers cannot hide from authorities, and, as proprietors of an ongoing business, they usually have a stake in the stability of the community and therefore in preserving the power of authorities. This tends to make newspapers conservative forces, more likely to try to unify the members of a community than to try to incite them to anti-authoritarian violence. One explanation for the uncharacteristic role the papers played before the American Revolution is that they were in fact unifying and supporting a community -- a new community that was forming within the British Empire, of Americans. These newspapers were in a sense loyal to the authorities -- the new authorities who had appeared on the continent: the Sons of Liberty. Most historians agree that the American Revolution would not have happened when it did without the efforts of these colonial newspapers.

The Partisan Press. In the unsettled years after the Revolution, American newspapers remained filled with arguments and anger -- now directed not against the British but against their political opponents. Each of the two parties that formed, the Federalists and the Republicans, had their newspapers and these papers had little sympathy for representatives of the other side. For example, this is how The Aurora, a Republican paper published in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin Bache, greeted George Washington's retirement as president in 1796: "The man who is the source of all the misfortune of our country is this day reduced to a level with his fellow-citizens, and is no longer possessed of power to multiply evils upon the United States."

Although it had originally been left out of the Constitution in 1887, freedom of the press was guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Nevertheless, Federalist Party leaders, increasingly uncomfortable with the criticism they were taking from Republican editors and made nervous by the threat of war with France, soon attempted to silence their critics.

In 1798, Congress passed and President John Adams signed the Sedition Act -- probably the most significant threat to press freedom in the history of the United States. The Sedition Act made "any false, scandalous and malicious writing...against the the Government of the United States," the Congress or the president, "with intent to...bring them...into contempt or disrepute" punishable by a fine or imprisonment. Among others, the leading Republican editor in New York, New England and Philadelphia (Bache) were all indicting for violating the Sedition Act or the common-law prohibition against seditious libel, which had been the charge against Zenger. There were at least fifteen convictions.

Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800, partly because of resentment over the Sedition Act, and the Act was allowed to lapse. "I have lent myself willingly as the subject of a great experiment," Jefferson wrote in 1807, "...to demonstrate the falsehood of the pretext that freedom of the press is incompatible with orderly government." That was a compelling "pretext" when Jefferson assumed the presidency. Certainly, the United States has upon occasion flagged in its commitment to Jefferson's "great experiment," particularly, but not exclusively, during wartime. Nevertheless, the experiment with a free press has continued, with the press in the United States eventually demonstrating not only a compatibility with the maintenance of "orderly government," but a talent for it.

There were about 200 newspapers in the United States when Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801. A printing press was pulled across the mountains to print the first newspaper west of the Alleghenies, the Pittsburgh Gazette in 1786. The first daily newspaper in America was the Pennsylvania Evening Post, published by Benjamin Towne, in 1783. It lasted only 17 months, but by 1801 there were about 20 daily newspapers in the country, including six in Philadelphia, five in New York and three in Baltimore. With daily publication, American newspapers were in a better position to cater to the need of merchants for up-to-date information on prices, markets and ship movements. By 1820, more than half of the newspapers in the largest cities had the words "advertiser," "commercial" or "mercantile" in their names. These "mercantile papers" were often published on large, or "blanket," sheets, and they were expensive -- about six cents a copy, more than most of the artisans or mechanics in the cities could afford.