The Daily Newspaper and Urban Popular Culture

By Walter Fox

readersCommenting on the expressive photographs of European peasants by the noted Czech photographer Josef Koudelka in an issue of the now-defunct Camera magazine, the writer Daniele Sallenave made this mordant observation on the effects of mass media on European popular culture:

Without knowing it or without agreeing with it, we are witnessing the most formidable process of standardization that the world has ever undergone since the beginning of history: which the populations of the Third World are still withstanding, and possibly for a long time yet. Not those of our own Third World—the European Third World—which, under the pressure of the mass media, has lost the free use of its languages, and sometimes even the memory of its traditions.

A similar assault on popular culture took place in the United States more than 100 years ago. It occurred in all of the major urban industrial centers, and the leaders of this assault were the new mass-circulation daily newspapers of that period. Unlike the more recent European experience, however, the assault on American popular culture during the late 19th century was met with little or no resistance from a badly disoriented urban populace. The outcome, predictably, was a total victory for mass media, but it was a victory that some observers—among them the author of this article—are not inclined to celebrate.

Students of American history have long been aware of the vital role that newspapers have played in this country’s cultural life from Colonial times to the present. They have learned that the Colonial press, although limited in circulation and primitive in technology, became a powerful instrument for moving the colonists to revolt against England. And it is common knowledge that the “penny press” era of the 1830s, which produced the first newspapers designed for the common man, had an impact in journalism comparable to the Jacksonian revolution in politics. Consequently, the reader may well ask, “What makes the years from 1880 to 1900 so decisive a period for media historians as well as for students of popular culture?”

The answer is this: In these two decades, a change occurred in the relationship between newspapers and their readers so profound that it permanently altered the basis of popular culture in America.

The net effect of this change was a dramatic transformation of the role of the daily newspaper. Before this period, newspapers occupied an ancillary position in the formation of public opinion; after 1900, they would become the primary determinants of public opinion. Before this period, newspapers were one of many expressions of popular culture in America; after 1900, they would become the arbiters and generators of American popular culture.

What I am suggesting in a somewhat roundabout way is that the changes that occur in the newspaper press between 1880 and 1900 represent nothing less than the birth of mass media in the contemporary sense of that term. In the face of such a sweeping assertion, two questions naturally arise: (1) What is so peculiar about this 20-year period that it should be set apart so sharply from other phases of American media history? and (2) What has changed in the relationship between newspapers and their readers to account for such a transformation? I will attempt to answer these questions in that order.

First, the period from 1880 to 1900 is significant not only for what was happening in journalism, but also for what was happening in society at large. The three most powerful social forces of the 1800s—mechanization, industrialization and urbanization—both reached their zenith in the waning decades of that century. Technological innovation, which had been progressing geometrically ever since the Civil War, took a quantum leap in the final two decades of that era, and nowhere was this fact more evident than in the press rooms of the nation’s leading newspapers.

The time-consuming process of setting type by hand was eliminated in 1886 with the introduction of the Linotype, a typesetting machine that permitted its operator to cast whole lines of type in lead from a keyboard. At roughly the same time, an engraving process that could convert line drawings into zinc etchings in four hours’ time, opened the way to the widespread use of illustrations by the daily press. Then, in 1897, the visual impact of newspapers was further enhanced by the application of the halftone process to the rotary press. From that year on, photography would become an integral part of news reporting.

By the 1890s, full-color printing on rotary presses gave birth to what has since become an essential component of American popular culture: the Sunday comics. Finally, the rapid advance of printing technology during this period led to the development by 1900 of an electrically powered press that could turn out 150,000 copies of a 12-page newspaper in one hour from a continuous roll of newsprint. Even the cost of newsprint had been reduced from $246 a ton in 1870 to $42 a ton in 1899 through a process that substituted chemically treated wood pulp for the more expensive rag stock. Thus, by 1900, a galaxy of technological achievements had given the daily press not only unprecedented productive capacity, but also—and rarely taken into account—awesome power over the consciousness of its readers.

All of these technological advances would have been meaningless if there were not a mass audience of readers accessible to the newly mechanized newspapers. But by one of those historical coincidences that seem to defy normal expectations, the same industrial revolution that gave newspapers their technical prowess also provided them with a mass readership in the form of urbanized cities. If the period from 1880-1900 was a high water mark for industrialization, it was also a flood tide of urbanization. The industrialized cities of America became magnets for a vast human pile-up—a chaotic expansion fueled by immigration from Europe and the American hinterland. Millions of displaced persons poured into the older American cities while tens of thousands flocked to smaller manufacturing towns. As a result, between 1880 and 1900 the number of American centers of 8,000 or more population doubled, and the total population of the country’s urban areas rose from 11 to 25 million.

In some cities the influx was spectacular: New York’s population expanded between 1880 and 1890 from a million to a million and a half, and Chicago in the same decade doubled in size. While the growth in Philadelphia was not quite as explosive, the city’s population nearly doubled between 1880 and 1910. Yet numbers alone do not tell the whole story of urbanization. As American cities underwent dramatic expansion during this period, their fundamental character changed as well. It is estimated that in 1890, approximately 80 percent of New York City’s residents were foreign-born or the children of foreign-born parents. It can also be assumed that a goodly portion of the remaining 20 percent consisted of immigrants from rural America or the children of such immigrants. New York’s name, its avenues and its landmarks remained, but if Horace Greeley had come back from the dead in 1890, he would have found himself in a different city teeming with people who, if they spoke English at all, did so in a wide variety of accents.

As a port of entry, New York absorbed far more than its share of immigrants, but even in other American cities the proportion of foreign-born residents ranged anywhere from 25 to 40 percent. The urbanized cities of America teemed with foreign and domestic refugees who spoke in a variety of accents and dialects, and who jostled each other for a secure perch in an unstable and chaotic environment. As immigrants, the new urban residents not only lacked the psychic support that comes from family, community and ethnic or regional tradition, but also were isolated from the informal information networks that a stable society offers to its members. Under these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that American cities during this period took on many of the aspects of a contemporary refugee camp, particularly with regard to the high incidence of random violence and suicide.

Urbanization, therefore, provided the daily press of this period not only with a vast potential readership, but— even more significant—with a new kind of reader, a reader whose own precarious position in society made him or her more dependent on media for basic information. Although sheer audience size is an obvious factor in assessing the influence of mass media, a less apparent but equally instrumental element of its power is the degree of dependency of the audience on the information provided by the medium. Gunther Barth, in his book City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth Century America, summarizes the new role of the urban newspaper:

By identifying and explaining the role of diversity as the way of life in the American modern city, the metropolitan press helped to make diversity comprehensible and acceptable. Its news and stories covered, in flagrant violation of former newspaper practices and social convention, everything that happened in the modern city. The mass audiences craved this new journalistic fare. Their experience of living with capricious chance and constant changes conditioned them to embrace the assumption that anything could happen in their lives. That attitude made the newspaper reports plausible, justified them, and gave them significance as object lessons on how to cope with the vicissitudes of life.

In earlier periods, newspapers—even those with impressive circulations—were considered by their readers as a means of extending their own experience and information. But faced with the rising discontinuity and isolation of city life, the new urban resident would turn to the daily press, first, as Barth suggests, as an interpreter of his or her experience, and eventually, as a substitute for it. When publishers, starting with Joseph Pulitzer in New York, perceived this new situation and designed newspapers to capitalize on it, “mass media” was born. In his book, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, Alan Trachtenberg describes this new relationship between newspapers and their readers:

The most common, if most subtle, implication of transformed human relations appeared in the steady emergence of new modes of experience. In technologies of communication, vicarious experience began to erode direct physical experience of the world. Viewing and looking at representations, words and images, city people found themselves addressed more often as passive spectators than as active participants, consumers of images and sensations produced by others …

If there was an indigenous popular culture in America, it tended to be rural in character and related to religious events and the seasonal rhythms of agricultural life. Even where it flourished, it contained more than a trace of its European or African antecedents. Nonetheless, it was what popular culture had always been: a body of customs and observances that sprang from the people and was carried along and modified by them over the generations. After 1880, however, this fragile growth, already stunted by a catastrophic civil war and the exigencies of an industrializing society, would be sundered from its roots by the process of urbanization. The new popular culture of America would be an urban culture, and it would be imposed from above by the new mass-circulation daily newspapers on a populace that had lost touch with its own traditions.

The New York World Sunday Magazine

The New York World Sunday Magazine

The formula for this new urban journalism was devised by Pulitzer after taking over the New York World in 1883. He combined good news coverage, heavy doses of sensational and human-interest material and lavish artwork to create an appealing package for the city’s new population. As mesmerizing as Pulitzer’s daily fare must have been for readers, it was the Sunday World after 1900 that provides us with the most striking demonstration of mass media’s propensity for shaping popular culture. This newspaper, and its imitations in just about every major American city, provided residents with a comprehensive guide to urban living. In addition to news, which occupied only a small segment of editorial content, Sunday newspapers offered guidance in etiquette and public behavior, tips on fashion and correct attire for men and women, recipes for preparing food, advice to the lovelorn, household hints, medical counsel, amusements for children, games, puzzles, cartoons and even sheet music for popular songs—in short, all of the information that in previous societies had been provided by family and community.

The persuasive power of this information in newspapers was given added force by the emergence during this same period of display advertising that combined verbal exhortation with explicit illustrations. What began as a simple marketing technique advanced rapidly from pictures of products to visual representations of “normative” situations in which the product was required or, at the very least, desirable. In the process, display advertising became a separate but complimentary information system within the press with enormous influence on public behavior.

The New York World Sunday comics

The New York World Sunday comics

Areas of popular culture that were beyond the direct control of the daily newspaper, such as the theater or sporting events, nevertheless were dependent upon the press for economic survival. The commercial success of Broadway theater in the early 20th century is linked to the daily newspaper through an army of critics who certified the worth of its offerings to potential patrons, and it is impossible to contemplate the evolution of baseball from a Sunday pastime to a national sport apart from the role of the press as chronicler of the game and custodian of its legends. The practice of “public relations,” which originated during these same decades, is the direct result of a media environment that made favorable exposure in newspapers a precondition for public acceptance of almost any large-scale undertaking.

Against such formidable power, it is not surprising that the indigenous popular culture of America and the ethnic traditions of its immigrants could survive only in subcultures or in areas that the new culture judged to be “backward” or “undeveloped,” and, therefore, unprofitable for penetration by mass media. In the early 20th century, folklorists seeking the remains of the old popular culture found them in the valleys of Appalachia or the cattle ranges of the American West, in ethnic and racial ghettos, in prisons and among those who were considered outcasts of society.

The American daily newspaper emerged from these two decades as the undisputed arbiter and generator of American popular culture, and it occupied this position until the advent of commercial broadcasting in the 1920s forced the press to share its power with the new electronic medium of radio. After 1950, both newspapers and radio would stand aside as television assumed the paramount role in setting the American cultural agenda. Even so, the final two decades of the 19th century remain a particularly significant period for media historians and students of popular culture. For it is in this brief span of years that we can perceive the emergence of authentic mass media and the profound—if not irreversible—effects of this phenomenon on the future course of popular culture in America.

 Walter Fox is a freelance writer and the author of Writing the News: A Guide for Print Journalists. ©1999 Walter J. Fox Jr. (for reprint permission contact: The painting “Morning News” (top of page) is by the Uruguayan-born American artist Francis Luis Mora.




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