August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
James Gordon Bennett was the forefather of the people inventing Internet news
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.
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.
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.
Now, 167 years after James Gordon Bennett changed the world by founding a newspaper on a wing and a prayer (and a good idea and lots of hard work, of course), it is possible to do much the same again. That simple fact will have great consequences in the very near future.