The Man Who Invented the Newspaper

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Bennett failed three times to establish a newspaper devoted to Jacksonian principles and decided to try something new. The steam engine was changing printing as it was changing everything else in the early nineteenth century. A rotary press, powered by steam, could turn out thousands of copies of a newspaper in a night, making it possible to sell each copy for much less than previously. On May 6, 1835, Bennett issued the first edition of the New York Herald , with $500 of startup capital, an office in a dank cellar, and himself as the only employee.

Bennett made the Herald nonpartisan in its news articles, sought always to be the first with the news, and sold the paper to a mass audience by having it hawked on the street at a penny (and, later, two cents) a copy. None of these ideas were his own invention, but he molded them into a unique product aimed at a rising middle class that was avid for information about its world.

At first the Herald made little impression among the dozen or more daily papers published in New York. Then Bennett devised a plan to get his paper known. Although he had no gift for making friends, he had almost a genius for making enemies, and he attacked the editors of other papers in hopes that they would counterattack and thus bring the Herald to the attention of their readers.

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The plan worked. The thin-skinned Benjamin Day, editor of the New York Sun , the city’s most popular newspaper, wrote that Bennett’s only chance of dying an upstanding citizen “will be that of hanging perpendicularly from a rope.” As people began buying the Herald to see where the next attack would land, circulation picked up.

Bennett also introduced a dazzling array of more substantial journalistic innovations. He was the first to cover sports regularly. He was the first to include business news and stock prices in a general-interest newspaper. Furthermore, although respectable newspapers weren’t supposed to notice such things, when a beautiful prostitute was murdered in one of the city’s more fashionable brothels, he played the story for all it was worth.

He visited the scene and gave his readers vivid, gruesome details. He interviewed witnesses and interested parties, especially the brothel’s owner. He printed the complete interview, the first time that this basic journalistic staple appeared in an American newspaper. His fellow editors attacked him for stooping so low, but they soon had to follow his example as the city became transfixed by the story and the Herald ’s circulation soared.

Within a few years the Herald was among the most successful papers in the city, and Bennett was able to travel to Europe. There he signed up correspondents in London, Rome, and Paris to supply his paper with exclusive copy. They were the world’s first foreign correspondents. He fought Congress to establish the principle that out-of-town newspapers had as much right to the congressional press galleries as the local papers, and thus began the Washington press corps.

As the telegraph began to spread across the country, Bennett was among the first journalists to exploit its possibilities. When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, he organized a consortium of newspapers to pay for a pony express with headquarters in New Orleans, which was connected to New York by telegraph. The reports the newspapers received thereby were often days ahead of official reports arriving in Washington.

As other journalists imitated Bennett’s Herald more and more, politicians, who had dominated the old party press, realized that their world had changed. A new, deeply symbiotic relationship quickly developed between politicians and the journalists who covered them. The “leak” was soon one of the prime tools of this mutual back scratching, and it was Bennett, in 1848, who first used the word in the journalistic sense.

By the Civil War the Herald had by far the largest circulation in the country and had utterly transformed the newspaper business and its place in society. “The daily newspaper,” wrote the North American Review in 1866, “is one of those things which are rooted in the necessities of modern civilization. The steam engine is not more essential to us. The newspaper is that which connects each individual with the general life of mankind.”

But Bennett, who died enormously rich in 1872, had also made the newspaper business big business. While he was able to establish the Herald with only $500 in capital, The New York Times , founded only 16 years later, in 1851, needed $70,000 to enter the business.