James Gordon Bennett and his New York Herald…
April 8, 2010 by TimHughes
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A book I am currently reading, "An Empire of Wealth" by John Steele Gordon, has a page or two concerning newspapers, mostly focused on the innovations of James Gordon Bennett
(image to the left is from the Harper's Weekly dated July 10, 1858
) and his "New York Herald
", offering some insights new to me and likely new to you. It is a bit lengthy but has some interesting information I felt was worthy of sharing:
"The biggest difference between the newspapers of the pre-industrial world and those of today was politics. Most general-interest newspapers were the instruments of political factions, praising one party and excoriating all others. They were, in reality, little more than an editorial page wrapped in some highly tendentious news.
A Scots immigrant to New York, James Gordon Bennett, changed all that. Born in 1795 into one of Scotland's few Catholic families, Bennett was always a man apart, which can be an asset for a journalist. He was also remarkably ugly, with severely crossed eyes. When a young journalist interviewed him in the 1850's at his office across from New York's City Hall, he reported that Bennett 'looked at me with one eye, while he looked out at the City Hall with the other.'
Well educated in Aberdeen, he wrote his first piece of journalism about the Battle of Waterloo, when he was twenty, and four years later, sensing greater opportunity, immigrated to the United States. He worked at a series of newspapers from Boston to Charleston before settling in New York where, three times, he tried to found a newspaper that would expound Jacksonian principles. Each attempt was a failure.
Steam, however, was changing the newspaper business as it was changing everything else by the 1830's. The new rotary presses, powered by steam, could turn out thousands of copies of a newspaper a night and at a much lower price than had been possible before. Bennett decided to try something new. On May 6, 1835, with $500 in capital, an office in a dank cellar, and himself as the only employee, Bennett began publishing the "New York Herald".
Bennett made the Herald nonpartisan in its news articles, sought always to be the first with the news, and sold it to a mass audience by having it hawked on the streets at a penny a copy by the armies of newsboys that would quickly become a feature of the American urban scene for more than a hundred years. None of these ideas was original with Bennett. But it was he who put them all together for the first time. He also introduced a dazzling array of other journalistic innovations. He was the first to print a weather report and to cover sports regularly. He was the first to cover business news and stock prices in a general-interest newspaper. And while 'respectable' papers weren't supposed to notice such things, when a beautiful prostitute was murdered in one of New York's more fashionable brothels, Bennett played the story for all it was worth.
The "Herald's" circulation soared, and other papers were forced to follow suit as the city, and then the country, became transfixed with the story. Within a few years the 'Herald" was among the city's most successful papers. Bennett traveled to Europe, where he signed up correspondents in London, Rome and Paris to supply the "Herald" with exclusive copy, 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, the beginning of the Washington press corps. He even coined the use of the world 'leak', to refer to the stores slipped to reporters by politicians for their own purposes.
As the telegraph began to spread across the country, Bennett exploited it to the hilt. When the Mexican Was broke out, only two years after Morse's successful demonstration, Bennett organized a consortium of newspapers to fund a pony express from New Orleans to Charleston, which was connected to New York by telegraph. The reports the New York papers published were often days ahead of the official reports arriving in Washington.
By the time of the Civil War the "Herald" was, by far, the largest and most influential newspaper in the country, and all other major papers had followed its model, profoundly transforming the newspaper business. Its daily circulation during the war reached as high as 400,000, many times the total circulation of all American newspaper combined fifty years earlier."
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