Once and Future Newspapers 1!

The Virginia Gazette published in Williamsburg in the 1770s by Clementina Rind.

A plan devised by Ted Gioia to save newspapers got me thinking. More than that, it got me irritated. Ted Gioia writes culture criticism on Substack under the name ‘The Honest Broker’ and I’ve liked many of his essays. ‘Honest’ he certainly seems to be, but his plan to ‘save newspapers’ is as dumb as a bag of wet hammers. Basically, he’d hire a bunch of ‘smart’ writers and pay them to do a lot of social media to promote their writing. It’s not clear how this would be different from, say, Vox, except I assume he would pick different smart people. In any case, I assume Vox is profitable, so I guess his plan would ‘work’, but having a few profitable national money-making websites doesn’t rescue the newspaper business at all, because what we need is profitable local newspapers whether in print or online. Is that possible? Let’s get into it.

Where Did Newspapers Come From?

First of all, how where did newspapers come from and how did they get successful? As to the first question, they’re a side-effect of the printing press. When Guttenberg and his imitators developed moveable type in mid-fifteenth century Europe, they set up print shops to print bibles and classic Latin texts, and on the side they found they could make a few extra bucks (or guilders, ducats, or shillings) by printing popular books and poems, calendars, pamphlets, account books, etchings, and eventually hand bills and posters for business advertising. Print shops were an exciting mix of bookstore, stationary shop, office supply store, publishing house, and copy shop all rolled into one. They were versatile and dynamic. If a printer heard that a printer in another city was making a few bucks (or guilders, ducats, or shillings) off something, they’d imitate it.

In this spirit of imitation, printers found they could sell sheets of local news, announcements, and ads that later (in 1670) came to be called a ‘newspaper’. The first ‘correspondents’ were letter writers from somewhere else writing the printer with descriptions of the far-off places and events. Sort of like postcards from Paris or phone videos of a car crash. This combination of newspaper and printing business persisted for more than 300 years, so historically it was a very stable, reasonably-successful way to make a living. If you were a printer in 1720 moving to a city in colonial North America, you’d bring your press and your set of moveable type, open a shop, print some books and pamphlets, try to drum up advertising business, and publicize it all–and yourself–by issuing a weekly newspaper. The cost of type-setting and hand-pressing each page meant publishers couldn’t sell newspapers for less than about $1.50 an issue in modern dollars. So that limited readership. Some newspapers got financial support from political or religious organizations–more or less like Fox News in print–but even these were mostly local in content.

What Make Newspapers Rise?

This centuries-old product suddenly soared to become the first true ‘mass media’ in the 19th century due to changes in technology, demographics, and communications.

1. Technology. Printing presses got rigged to steam power in the early 1800s, so pages could be printed much more cheaply. (Although the old hand presses persisted in small towns throughout the most of the 19th century.) Basically a lot (but not all) of the changes in life in the 19th and early 20th century were about adding fossil fuel energy to stuff people and horses used to do. This had cascading effects. So fossil fuel + metallurgy meant mass produced machinery which further improved efficiency. So printers came up with faster and cheaper typesetting methods (Though I don’t know much about that). Eventually printers devised affordable methods of color-printing and photographic reproduction too.

2. Cities. So fossil fuels directly and indirectly reduced costs of production, but they also increased the size of the market. The massive populations of growing industrial-age cities meant cheaper newpapers had huge potential readerships, and the concentration of those readers in urban areas made newspaper distribution cheap too. Just print the papers, bundle them, and drop the bundles at ‘newstands’ or with ‘newsboys’ and they’d distribute them for you. Moreover, the increase in public transportation (omnibuses, trolleys, trains, and subways) gave the public a wonderful context for newspaper consumption. People could pick up a paper (or 2 or 3), hop on a trolley, and read on the way to work, much as people on subways or buses today read their smart phones.

3. Communications. The third major breakthrough, the telegraph, allowed news to be sent from city to city instantly. ‘Wire services’ could contribute content to multiple newspapers in multiple cities at once. The winner of an election or an account of a natural disaster could be described hours after it happened. Publishers could put out those ‘Extra Extra! Read all about it!’ special editions shown in old movies within a few hours. For the first time news could really be new!

Taking advantage of these opportunities publishers hired and promoted specialized talent in writing, editing, investigating, reviewing, drawing comics, etc. Competition between newspapers1 gave that talent bargaining power to gain decent wages. Newspapers promoted their workers from within or hired from rival newspapers in the same city, giving these new ‘journalists’ a chance to develop ‘beats’–areas of expertise and sources. New daily newspapers came packed with original content every morning or afternoon. Smaller town newspapers emulated the successes of the city newspaper model and local populations took pride in being a town that had a ‘real’ newspaper with columnists, reporters, comics, and all the rest.

Recipes, fashion reports, advice columns, poetry, quizzes, and astrology shared pages with court dockets, department store ads, personals, estate sale announcements, obituaries, sports scores, opinions, play reviews, movie listings, cartoons, comics, and of course political news. A newspaper was a marketplace, public gathering, and event rolled into one. I think of the Roger-Kanners-Prince song sung by Louis Armstrong, I Guess I’ll Get the Papers and Go Home. The singer picks up the papers–plural–to assuage his loneliness because the newspapers offered an entire world.

Strain and Drain!

The postwar triumvirate of television, automobile, and suburbanization, which pulverized so much of American life, halted per capita growth in newspaper readership but they retained basic solvency. Growth in population and educational attainment even kept total newspaper circulation on a slight upswing until about 1970, and there it plateaued till about 1990.2 But while newspapers were fine on the surface, TV, the suburbs, and accumulating debt were them hollowing out. They were secretly becoming more fragile.

Strain 1: the suburbs: Distributing daily newspapers in the growing suburbs was more challenging than dropping bundles in front of newsstands and gangs of newsboys. Publishers needed to cultivate subscribers, but the mail service couldn’t handle that level of daily distribution so publishers had to create entirely new distribution systems. That is inherently expensive, and from the 1970s when the US shifted from oil exporter to importer, expenses only increased. And afternoon ‘extras’ weren’t feasible.

Strain 2: TV: Television and radio could instantly announce the winner of the Olympics or an earthquake in Turkey. By the 1960s, when something big happened, Americans turned on their TVs, even if they were newspaper subscribers.

Drain: debt: Newspapers had been buying up one another from the beginning. In good times publishers saw an opportunity to grow. In bad times distressed papers wanted to avoid bankruptcy. Publishers bought out other publishers often with the hope that centralized news gathering and shared features would reduce costs or increase profits. One result of this was the gradual, steady increase in newspaper monopolies. In the 1920s 500 U.S. cities had competing daily newspapers; by the 1990s only 10 did.3 Another result of newspapers buying up one another was debt, which meant either cutting costs (usually staff), or needing still more ad revenue.

But newspapers stayed profitable by increased reliance on wire services to provide opinions, movie reviews, comics, and other content, slight increases in retail price that rising postwar wages easily absorbed, and more than anything else increased advertising revenue. This arose partly from the massive postwar boom in consumer and advertising-driven business activity, and partly from higher prices that monopoly and near-monopoly allowed. Every business advertised in print, and sooner or later every person relied on newspaper classified ads for finding jobs or apartments.

Most newspapers were the old city newspapers still read by loyal suburbanites long-since relocated to exurban subdivisions, but revenue depended almost entirely on a near-monopoly on print advertising and an absolute monopoly on classified ads. Content came mostly from national wire services and papers were thinning pages, staff, and beats. In economic terms they were largely rent extractors.


Daily newspaper readership began its downward arc in the 1990s which became a Wile E Coyote cliff plummet in early 2000s. Today after more than a century of technological wizardry, publishers are once again somehow back to selling newspapers for about $1.50 a pop in constant dollars–just like Ben Franklin would have–readership is down, circulation is down, budgets are tight, and profits are down. The bottom is more or less falling out.

So what happened? And is there any hope of recovery?

Next time we’ll go through the suspects (Including, of course, the internet) and then look for hopeful sources of potential news futures.

  1. Another major change in communications was the growth in railroads and postal roads, neither of which impacted newspapers directly, but these created magazines, which improved opportunities, income, and training for writers.
  2. Pew Research. Newspapers Fact Sheet.
  3. 85% of newspapers are owned by publishers who own other newspapers. Dirks, Van Essen, and April. History of Ownership Consolidation

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