Penny Papers Tell All

by |
10/10/2007 12:00 AM |

Vamp Tartlet Found Dead in Bed! Headless Body in Topless Bar! Extra, Extra! Read all about it! Where would New York City be without the tabloid press? Where else could a fast-moving, speed-reading, deftly urbane population get its quick fix of headlines, bylines, entertainment, sports, sex and death, all in eye-popping black and white? And get it in the middle of the Victorian era? Most importantly, where else could New Yorkers get it from first page to back cover, complete with artists’ interpretations of all the gory scenes? In the penny press, pal, that’s where. From the first newspapers in America, developed entirely for the aristocratic upper crust, to the populist about-face brought by broadsheets, which transformed what was solely a highbrow milieu into a smeared, smudged extravaganza for all of New York’s literate population; we can thank the penny press.

New York’s first newspapers were basic political broadsheets, catering to slim yet growing pre-Revolutionary slices of political reactionaries, discontents, Loyalists and Royalists. William Bradford, a prominent Philadelphia publisher, printed the very first paper, a Royalist weekly titled The New-York Gazette, on November 8, 1725 (New York was the third colony to have its own paper, following Massachusetts and Pennsylvania). The most famous pre-Revolution publisher was undoubtedly John Peter Zenger, who, displeased with the Gazette, established The New-York Weekly Journal, a revolutionary rag that operated from 1733-51. After printing licentious words about the tyrannical British crown, Zenger was arrested on charges of libel; it was his acquittal that helped establish what we in the journalism biz now call Freedom of the Press. Other notable pre-war publications included John Holt’s New-York Journal, which ran from 1766-82 and printed the “Journal of Occurrences,” a series of anti-British screeds by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty.

Post-Revolution, as the various colonies were trying to get their act together, a number of manifestos, both anonymous and authored, saw publication in the economic downtowns of major cities. These broadsheets echoed popular political opinion of all manner, both local and national, serving as the primary locus of debate among the American people during the time when our democracy was in its infant stages. In an early form of tit-for-tat, which would resurface with regularity, the papers of the 1790s provided accounts of street fights between Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Anti-Federalists. Still, other than basic rabble-rousing, these publications weren’t utilized for informing the public of daily events — just political points of view. After the nation’s HQ relocated to the swamps of Washington, D.C., the papers of the Northeast changed their tones to reflect the new focus: the economy. Most publications were either mercantile broadsheets of goods and services for sale, or single-party political agenda lists; regardless, these papers were only available as expensive annual subscriptions. Advancements in printing came about in 1827 with the Washington hand press, and then steam-driven presses a few years later. And yet, with all these publications, there was nothing available for the common man, no daily accounts of the vivid, vibrant street life he walked through, worked in, and slept above. Enter Benjamin Day, September 3, 1833.

The morning his paper, The Sun, hit the streets, hawked by newsboys at the absolutely unheard of price of one cent, Day knew he was on to something. The Sun was more interested in depravity than bureaucracy, with lurid tales of debauchery, sin, violence, details of backroom saloon deals and other entertaining news and reviews. The Sun provided play-by-play accounts of major, minor and illegal sporting events, complete with lithographic line drawings. From its coverage of the burgeoning sport of baseball to the far more populist rat- and bear-baiting competitions, The Sun was truly a democratic publication, the first that took pride in its combined readership of both the working class and an aristocracy that reveled in slumming. The Sun’s slogan, “It Shines For All,” symbolized its universal aspirations. The paper is also famous for an 1897 editorial in response to an eight-year-old girl’s questioning of her family’s faith. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” written by editor Francis P. Church, is impressive in introducing a florid and profoundly patriotic style that’s slathered all over today’s tabs. The Sun ran essentially uninterrupted from 1835 until 1950, at which point it was absorbed by the New York World Telegram.

Following Day’s rewriting of the rules of journalism, a number of other papers followed suit, including The Transcript (1834-39) and James Gordon Bennet Sr.’s New York Herald (1835-1924), which moved into Broadway and 35th Street in 1890, rechristening the neighborhood Herald Square. The Herald pioneered the use of railroads, steamships and the telegraph to gather news, but its star journalistic turn was in the sensationalist coverage of the murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute and frequent lover of many high society gentlemen. Although the city proclaimed disgust with the paper’s coverage, which led to a boycott in 1840, by 1860 The Herald had the largest circulation of any daily in the country. Two other papers that entered the fray, but in far more restrained fashions, were the New York Tribune, in 1841 and the New York Times, in 1851. These penny press wars (who remembers the musical Newsies?) not only amped up competition, which demanded better (or, at least, more outrageous) journalism, but they also presaged the tabloid wars in our more recent era.

Who could produce the more scandalous sensation to print on the front page? Which editor could secure the voice of a well loved preacher/politician/neighborhood character to expound wisdom? Which lithographers better encapsulated the lurid, leering, dimly lit world of tenement crime and dancehall destitution? Although the Sun was much more vibrantly democratic, the Herald took the cake with wholesale enticement of its readers, outshining the former with graphic glory. Those New Yorkers who plunked down a penny and raced off with their copy got their scandals sultrier, their politics dirtier, their murders bloodier and their high-society sex crimes more outrageous.

These methods used by the tabloids in their ongoing battles — price wars, more coverage, shorter articles, gorier pictures (thank the magnesium flash powder, first used by Jacob Riis in 1877, for bringing newspaper graphics to an all-new plateau) eye-catching headlines and outrageous editorials — are still very much with us today. We can look at the never-ending hilarity of the New York Post and the Daily News as valiant charges of the former penny press. And with the upcoming transfer of the Wall Street Journal to Mr. Murdoch’s ever-increasing portfolio of freedom-loving, American-flag waving, liberal-bashing conservative-populist media empire, it’s always important to realize: the battles between the rags and their digs in every century are as important to the ongoing development of media in the modern age. At worst, we might not have any news left, but we’ll always have headlines like “Hicks nix Knicks in six” (Daily News, 2000). And thank god for that.