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The Penny Press

‘Penny Press’ was the name of a style of newspaper first created in New York by Benjamin Day in the 1830’s. Penny press newspapers have long been credited with the creation of modern journalism (Brazeal, 2005, Pauly, 1987). Although there is some contention as to the cumulative impact of the penny press style on society, it has been recognized as providing mass accessibility, innovations in content, and a focus on timely reporting. Penny newspapers have also been linked to progressive technologies in printing presses and telegraph machines.


Before the innovation of the penny press, there were several varieties of newspapers including both weekly and daily papers (Nerone, 1987). In this discussion, I will concentrate on comparisons between the daily papers. Prior to the penny press, urban daily newspapers had low circulation and didn’t generate a great deal of revenue. In fact, even in New York, the largest daily newspaper had a circulation of about 4,500 a day (Brazeal, 2005). This was due to several aspects. Daily newspapers were expensive, averaging six cents a copy. This expense meant that people had to be moderately wealthy in order to afford this luxury (Straubhaar, LaRose & Davenport, 2009). Since only the elite bought them, the tone and information covered in the papers tended to reflect the ideals and sensibilities of the upper class (Straubhaar et al, 2009). They also tended to promote the views of a specific political party or commercial interest (Williams, 1993). Therefore, for middle and lower class people, daily newspapers were uninteresting and boring (Brazeal, 2005).

However, shifts in the social and cultural consciousness of the time resulted in the world being ready for changes in the presentation and format of newspapers (Nerone, 1987). The rise of the printed textbook set the scene for more widespread educational opportunities and caused an increase in the amount of literate and partly literate people in the general population. Many factors such as technological advances in the printing press making printing papers cheaper, social changes bringing more people into the cities and cultural changes leading to the ideals of free speech and freedom of the press set the tone for a shift in the focus and content of newspapers. These changes would enhance the newspaper industry and attract a wider readership.

The New York Sun 1834

The First Penny Newspaper

When Benjamin Day started his newspaper, he wasn’t looking to revolutionize the genre, he just wanted to ensure the successful future of his business. Many of the innovations that his paper achieved were unintentional and based on trial and error (Williams, 1993, Nerone, 1987), but they did result in changes to the industry and a significant increase in daily newspaper readership (Brazeal, 2005, Williams, 1993). Day’s penny paper, The Sun, began on September 3, 1833 in New York City. The first copies were unglamorous, with news stories and even advertisements copied from other, more expensive newspapers. The printing press used to produce the paper was crude, hand operated model that was time consuming and technologically outdated (Brazeal, 2005, Nerone, 1987). The instant success of the newspaper came from its low cost, one cent per paper, and was heightened when, after a week in operation, Day hired a talented reporter to write the police reports (Brazeal, 2005). Although other dailies had covered police incidents before (Williams, 1993), this reporter, George w. Wisner, had a knack for turning the police and courtroom situations into interesting and sensationalized stories that read almost like fiction. This innovative style of writing was more interesting for readers and caused sharp increases in the readership of The Sun, allowing the paper to sell in excess of five thousand copies in only a few months (Brazeal, 2005, Williams, 1993). The change in writing style was one of several innovations which initiated a change in the definition of what news is and how it was presented to the public.

Another innovation was a change in the content of the newspaper. Previous six cent dailies contained articles consisting of static political commentary with no expiration date and news from other cities that was old before it was published (Brazeal, 2005). This type of information didn’t become outdated as fast so readers didn’t have to purchase a new paper every day to keep up. The penny papers presented news as dynamic, something that becomes outdated and needs replacing each day. As The Sun expanded in content and readership, news was made immediate, with an emphasis on local stories which were changed each day (Williams, 1993). Since more news was always forthcoming, people wanted to buy the new copy in order to be updated about the gossip and current events of the community. Day wasn’t the creator of timely news but his use of it encouraged the general public to change their thinking about what constituted news and how long it remains current (Brazeal, 2005, Williams, 1993). Day’s definition of what news is continues to be the norm to this day.

Use of Technology

Innovations in technology and the creative use of technology go hand in hand. As new inventions are created, people develop ways to use them advantageously. Likewise, as a need arises, there is a demand for a new technological innovation to fill this gap. The development and growth of the penny newspaper demonstrates both of these scenarios. The invention of the printing press eventually led to its application as a tool to get news to more people in the form of the penny newspaper. Once people embraced this form of communication, the increased demand for papers resulted in the requirement for faster printing presses.

Although Benjamin Day started his paper with an outdated printing press, he soon needed to upgrade in order for production to keep up with the demand for his papers. Over the years that he owned The Sun, he consistently upgraded his presses to the cutting edge technology of the time (Brazeal, 2005). The Sun began on Sept. 3, 1833 and in on December 17, 1833, it reported to its readers that the paper had acquired a machine press that could make one thousand impressions in an hour. In August, 1835, the sun again reported a change in printing presses to its readers. It reported that it was having trouble meeting the demands of printing, even thought it was using a “double cylinder Napier machine”, printing 2000-2200 sheets an hour. It also reported that it was in the process of upgrading again to a new steam engine press that printed 3000 sheets per hour (Brazeal, 2005). This innitiative to print papers fast enough to meet the demand of the high readership added to the mounting pressure applied by the newspaper industry to create new innovations in the printing press (Nerone, 1987).

The perishability of the news relied on high speed technology that could generate new stories each day (Brazeal, 2005). Since newspapers now required new content each day, there was pressure to get the news to the newsroom faster. After its invention in the late 1830’s the electric telegraph became an important way of exchanging information quickly. As both penny press and conventional newspapers needed sppedy access to information, both groups provided funds to promote early telegraph line construction (Nerone, 1987).

Implications for Literacy, Communication, and Public Opinion

The innovations of Benjamin Day and others who followed his example by continuing to refine the penny press had great implications for mass literacy. In 1935, The Sun itself stated that it had the greatest circulation of any newspaper in the world. Using innovations in content, technological enhancements, and social elements of the time, it had managed to transform the daily newspaper from an expensive, elitist luxury to a form of writing that was interesting and accessible to all classes (Wilson, 1993). This expansion of newspaper readership to include all people has led many to conclude that it was the first true form of mass media (Brazeal, 2005). The expansion of sales resulted in the newspaper having greater power to shape public opinion. The penny newspaper both shaped and reflected the cultural ideals of big city life at the time (Pauly, 1987).

An example of the impact that The Sun had on public opinion in the city of New York can be seen through changes to the running of the fire department. The fire department in New York in the 1830’s was completely volunteer. When a fire occurred, volunteers would fight to be the first on the scene and for these people, being there first took precedence over actually fighting the fires. The Sun advocated for the idea of a paid fire department using horse drawn fire engines and the people responded. This resulted in a shift to a paid fire fighting force in New York (Lee, 1917 p.206).

Another example of the rise in popularity of newspapers can be seen in this film taken in 1899. People flock to the news wagon and even fight to get to the newspapers.


Brazeal, D. (2005) Precursor to Modern Media Hype: The 1830’s Penny Press. The Journal of American Culture 28(4) 405-414

Nerone, J. (1987) The Mythology of the Penny Press. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 4(1) 376-404

Pauly, J. (1987) Critical Response: The Rest of the Story. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 4(1) 415-419

Straubhaar J., LaRose, R., & Davenport (2009) Media Now: Understanding Media, Culture, and Technology Wadsworth, Cengage Learning Inc.

Williams, J. (1993) The Founding of the Penny Press: Nothing New Under “The Sun”, “The Herald”, or “The Tribune”. Retrieved Oct. 18 from

Lee, J.(1917) History of American Journalism Cambridge. The Riverside Press. Retrieved from Kobo