February 11, 2009

Back to the Future of the Penny Press

The New York Herald, Jan. 2, 1898. (Newseum collection)
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The New York Herald, Jan. 2, 1898. (Newseum collection)

The Sun, Aug. 28, 1835. (Newseum collection)
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The Sun, Aug. 28, 1835. (Newseum collection)

A little more than 175 years ago in 1833, New Yorkers woke up with The Sun — a new newspaper peddling a new idea: Common news for common folk, cheap at just a penny.

Printer Benjamin Day was the founder of the country’s first “penny paper.” His recipe of scoops, human-interest stories, tall tales and grisly crimes helped lure average readers to a medium that was once enjoyed largely by the upper crust.

One Sun story — a fantastic tale of batlike creatures living on the moon, discovered by astronomers in Africa using a huge telescope — set a world-record daily circulation of 19,000 in 1835. By 1870, another penny paper, The New York Herald, had the highest circulation — 77,000 copies a day — of any newspaper in the United States.

Fast forward to 2009, where decreased advertising, weak newsstand sales and dwindling subscriptions have forced a growing number of newspapers out of business. Scholars and journalists are offering revolutionary ideas on how to save the dailies from oblivion.

Some editors have contemplated printing solely online, where the sun never sets on the 24-hour news cycle, and content that was once free and available to everyone can potentially be accessed for — guess what? — pennies.

The 21st-century term for that 19th-century idea is called micropayment, a system where readers pay a small fee — practically pennies — for each story they click on. In other words, the penny press with a modem.

For years, The Wall Street Journal has charged for online content. The Christian Science Monitor and U.S. News and World Report are reportedly developing online news for a fee. Perhaps other newspapers will soon follow. Whatever makes cents.

In the meantime, copies of the original penny papers — the Sun and the Herald — are on display in the News Corporation News History Gallery. Learn more about the history of online media in the Bloomberg Internet, TV and Radio Gallery.

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