www.common-place.org · vol. 3 · no. 1 · October 2002
"Over the course of the nineteenth century, freedom of the press shifted from an emphasis on the right of an editor to criticize the regime to an insistence on the right of an abstract readership to unimpeded access to information--the right, in other words, to live in a world where journalists are hard at work, perpetually casting light on the shadowy realms of American life."
Copernicus at the Newsstand
The original New York Sun initiated the era of mass journalism by pioneering the economic model that continues to underwrite modern mass communications. If you can create a sufficiently popular, repeatable spectacle, you can sell the buying power of your spectators to advertisers at potentially limitless rates. Benjamin Day devoted considerable energy to staging this spectacle. For a week in 1835, Day printed a series of articles allegedly reprinted from a Scottish scientific journal, describing telescopic discoveries of life on the moon. As it turned out, these highly detailed reports of spherical amphibians, blue goats with single horns, two-legged beavers, and short hairy men with bat wings, were the handiwork of Sun reporter Richard Adams Locke. Still, by the time the Moon Hoax was exposed a couple of weeks later (Locke admitted as much to friend who wrote for a rival paper and the Sun coyly suggested the possibility that the story was a satire on local journalists), Day's circulation had soared to almost twenty thousand, making it in all likelihood the best-read daily newspaper in the world. Adopting a stance that would become more famously identified with P.T. Barnum, Day urged "every reader of the account [to] examine it, and enjoy his own opinion." He understood that for a daily paper each issue supersedes its predecessor. You could print the confessions of a murderer on Tuesday and call them bogus on Wednesday—collecting revenue on both items. You could sell the Moon Hoax one day and its retraction the next.
The following year saw Day at the forefront of the Helen Jewett controversy, as the brutal murder of a beautiful prostitute in New York became the cause célèbre of the young penny press and the model for a new focus on the city as an object of reportage. In covering the murder, New York's dailies articulated the now familiar view that important questions should be tried in the court of public opinion. The Sun was a leading voice calling for the conviction of Richard Robinson, a dry-goods clerk with wealthy connections, linked to Jewett's murder by a mountain of circumstantial evidence. After Robinson's acquittal (produced largely by a judge's instruction that the jury ought to disregard testimony of sex workers), a disappointed Sun declared that "a popular opinion formed upon a fair report of the trial in the public papers, is a solemn authority which every judicial functionary . . . is bound to respect."
Day's naïve populism may sound quaint, but his equation of the popularity of the newspaper with the democratic nature of its function remains central to our notions of a free press. Over the course of the nineteenth century, freedom of the press shifted from an emphasis on the right of an editor to criticize the regime to an insistence on the right of an abstract readership to unimpeded access to information—the right, in other words, to live in a world where journalists are hard at work, perpetually casting light on the shadowy realms of American life.
It's hard to see Seth Lipsky as a worthy successor to the populist, working-class entrepreneur who ran the Sun during the first five years of its existence before selling out to his brother-in-law. It is also hard to see what specific lessons the visionaries at the new Sun have drawn from its now classic eponym. The new Sun's putative local focus tends to use the city not as a canvas, but as a peephole through which to view national and international issues. The city council makes the front page, for example, primarily when it debates symbolic resolutions about the Middle East. And far from rendering the city as a mystery in need of unveiling, the Sun's interest in the peculiarities of urban life seems fairly muted. "Queens Democrats Live in Lawrence, L.I." is hardly the equivalent of a sensationalist murder story.
Finally, the new Sun's dependence on subsidies from patrons rather than high circulation aligns it more with the six-penny journals that Day's brash, pocket-sized paper eclipsed. Perhaps Lipsky and his supporters were more inspired by Day's postbellum successor, Charles A. Dana, whose conservative politics and stylistic simplicity find stronger echoes in today's Sun. More likely, however, the appeal of the Sun pedigree lies more in a vaguer nostalgia for a time when New Yorkers read multiple newspapers and held them proudly in public space as badges of political and ideological identity.
Should this newspaper fail, as it seems likely to do, perhaps an alternative nostalgia might be in order. The original Sun appeared not at the dawning of the last century in the heyday of Pulitzer and the Yellow Kid, but in a golden age of a different sort, when it cost very little to launch a daily newspaper. To call the 1830s a golden age is misleading, though, since the porthole of opportunity was really quite small. Benjamin Day began his paper in 1833 without any capital, relying on a slow, hand-cranked flatbed press. James G. Bennett claimed to have founded the rival Herald two years later with only $500. By 1838, however the Sun (devalued after the Panic) sold for $40,000. Thirteen years later, Henry Raymond's New York Times was launched with the support of $100,000. By 1855, an informed observer estimated that twice that figure might be required to get a daily going in New York.
In the span of less than twenty years, then, New Yorkers demonstrated the potential profitability of a popular daily journal, creating applications and markets for advances in print technology and effectively raising the price of admission to the field. Newspapers became far more expensive to produce soon after they became far less expensive to consume. Since 1850, producing a mass daily has been an expensive proposition and an elite trade. Lipsky was certainly under no illusions on this score, attacking New York with an arsenal of $20 million. But unlike Dana, Pulitzer, or William Randolph Hearst, he has to attract readers who may not be convinced that they need to read a daily print paper at all, let alone several.
The Sun has not released any circulation figures, and industry audits won't be forthcoming for a few months, but the buzz around town is not optimistic. If they want to build a successful newspaper on nostalgia or on a New York-centered theory of the universe, the folks at the new Sun will probably need to think harder about why readers might want to see their city on the front page of a newspaper. For no obvious practical reason, newspapers continue, by and large, to be urban entities, their identities tightly tethered to particular cities of publication. USA Today stands alone in severing the link between the city and the daily paper, reminding mobile and deracinated readers in hotel lobbies and airport lounges all over the country that there is no inherent reason why daily print news ought to gravitate around a metropolis. As Lipsky's Sun seems poised to demonstrate, the link between cities and dailies may be simply a vestige of an earlier historical moment that has survived for no good reason into an era when most American readers live in suburbs or small cities and most of the news they read is of a regional or national character. The original penny papers built America's first mass medium around the possibilities and problems of urban environments. Attempts to claim their tradition inherit the burden of making new sense of that legacy.
See Frank M. O'Brien, The Story of the Sun (New York, 1918); Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690 to 1940 (New York, 1941); Andie Tucher, Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium (Chapel Hill, 1994); Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York, 1978); Gunther Barth, City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1980); Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (London, 1990).
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