The Man Who Invented the Newspaper

The news business is in a revolutionary state. Newspapers have been declining in both numbers and editions for decades, and today only the very largest cities have more than one general-interest daily paper. Television news has changed even faster. In 1950 it barely existed at all. By 1970 it had come to dominate the American news business, and the national network anchors, especially Walter Cronkite of CBS, were more famous, and often more powerful, than the politicians they covered.

But as cable television spread, making more and more channels available, the audience for the network evening news shows began to drift away. Today the network evening-news audience largely consists of middle-aged and elderly people who acquired the habit a generation or more ago.

Television, in fact, has never been a very satisfactory medium for news. While it is unsurpassed in handling breaking news and stories, such as the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, with a strong visual content, it is dismal at those that require nuance or aren’t visual in nature, such as many policy issues.

The Internet, a technology undreamed of by most Americans when Walter Cronkite retired, is rapidly replacing television as the dominant news medium. Like television, and unlike traditional newspapers, the Internet can function in real time, covering stories as they break, updating minute by minute if necessary. While high-quality moving images on the Internet are in their infancy, there is no doubt that they will soon be commonplace. In addition, unlike television, the Internet can deal with complex issues and can cite sources in abundance. And unlike the days when there were only three television news outlets, there are an enormous number of Internet news outlets. Every major news organization, from newspapers to television to the wire services, now has an “Internet presence.”

But what really makes the Internet revolutionary is not that so many multimillion-dollar news organizations are to be found there but that so many shoestring operations—tens of thousands of them—are right there too, just a click away. And these small sites can have a large impact. Matt Drudge, of the Drudge Report, essentially a one-man operation, was instrumental in turning the Monica Lewinsky story into a great Washington scandal that nearly brought down a President. Walter Olson, an author on legal reform and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has been giving tort lawyers and activist judges fits by assembling in one much-visited site called overlawyered.com the most egregious lawsuits and decisions from around the country and beyond. It makes for reading that is often hilarious, infuriating, and sad at the same time.

Matt Drudge and Walter Olson can operate because all someone needs to be an Internet journalist is a domain name, some server space, and journalistic skills. In other words, it is suddenly possible to enter the news business with very little money. When the young can enter a business and experiment with new technology at little risk, revolution is on the way. Indeed, the last time this was possible in the news business, it was completely reinvented—and a fundamental component of the modern world came into being—within a few short years. That revolution was largely the work of an immigrant New Yorker named James Gordon Bennett. Bennett was born in northeastern Scotland in 1795, the son of a family that owned its own land, unusual in an area where most farmers were tenants. Even more unusual, the Bennett family was Catholic in an overwhelmingly Presbyterian society.

There is no doubt that this religious separation gave Bennett an intense sense of being apart from society, which can be an asset for a journalist. Adding to his sense of apartness was the fact that he was remarkably ugly. Taller than average, he was stoop-shouldered and thin. Worse, he was severely cross-eyed. A young journalist who interviewed him in his office across from City Hall Park in New York in the 1850s reported that he “looked at me with one eye, [while] he looked out at the City hall with the other.”

Because his family was relatively well off, Bennett received a good education at a Catholic seminary in Aberdeen. He also educated himself, reading voraciously, and he published his first piece of journalism, about the Battle of Waterloo, when he was 20. Four years later he emigrated, first to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then to the United States, where he worked at a series of publishing houses and newspapers on the East Coast, from Boston to Charleston.

The newspapers of the time were not at all like the papers of today. The number that could be printed in a timely manner using the old flatbed press familiar to Benjamin Franklin (or Gutenberg, for that matter) was small, and they were thus expensive, sold by subscription. Most people read them in coffeehouses or libraries. Moreover, they were almost always highly partisan, each unquestioningly backing one political party (which financially subsidized the paper) and excoriating all others.