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The Newspaper Industry: A Brief History

Updated on March 15, 2019
Dr Jerry Allison profile image

Dr. Jerry Allison is founder of Kairos Advising and Consulting and has worked with businesses and teaching students business for 30+ years.

The history of the development of newspapers in the United States is a record of an industry affected increasingly by technology. Changes in printing technology, paper technology, and communication technology all have revolutionized newspaper publication. The following paragraphs provide a brief synopsis of the U.S. newspaper history as told by Barnhurst & Nerone (2001), Blondheim (1994), and Mott (1941).1,2,3

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Prior to the year 1600, there were no newspapers in the new British colonies. Printing presses in the colonies were unheard of until 1638 when the first was set up at Harvard University. Letters of news written by individuals, packets of newspapers from other countries, and official publications founded upon news events were the delivery channels at this time.

The circulation of any one paper during the eighteenth century ranged from a few hundred to a thousand; Boston papers had an average circulation of about 600. There were three reasons for low subscriptions; two of these were the price of paper and illiteracy. The third reason was that while the paper had few subscribers, there were many more readers. Newspapers were often passed hand to hand as if they were durable goods.

In the late eighteenth century newspapers began publishing on a large scale, most notably in rural areas. This was primarily due to the increase in the literacy rate, the awareness by people of the importance of news and the papers that delivered it, the increase in advertising (the main revenue stream for a news firm) helping to promote the start of additional papers catering just to advertising, and entrepreneurs beginning to view the newspaper industry as a place to make money.

The Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century saw the newspaper industry evolve from a simple craft to an intricate entity. Circulation of newspapers continued to grow in the nineteenth century. The reasons for this growth was the more than doubling of the U.S. population, the increase in the literacy rate, and the invention of the petroleum light. Oil and gas lamps became commonplace, making reading indoors possible after dark. This created a new market to people who worked all day and came home after dark.

Innovations in the newspaper industry created additional channels for getting news in a timely manner. First, steamships were now in service over the Atlantic Ocean. This mode of transportation cut travel time from abroad down from months to less than three weeks. Consequently, news reached America much quicker than before. The second innovation that helped newspapers was the introduction of the railroad. The locomotive allowed news to travel much more quickly in parts of the U.S., particularly in the developing West. However, the most vital invention was the telegraph. When the U.S. government invested heavily in the telegraph and opened it up to the public in 1844, the newspapers instantly took advantage of it. News could be transmitted instantly from one telegraph terminal to another.

There are distinctive similarities between the telegraph and the Internet. Reasons for developing and employing the telegraph by newspaper firms were to eliminate the detrimental effects upon news by space and time2. News could travel instantly from one place to another provided there was a telegraph on both ends. The competitive landscape was to become a level playing field for all firms now had access to the same timely information. These statements about the telegraph are almost identical to the statements made about the Internet.

These transformations in the delivery of news and the creation of the penny paper marketed to lower class Americans introduced something that had been missing in the industry prior to this time: competition. Since there were several papers to choose from, individuals had to be persuaded to buy a particular firm’s paper. This persuasion took one of two forms: specialization and timeliness. The specialization strategy focused on advertisements and had little news. The goal was to provide specific knowledge about such issues as goods for sale or bargains at stores. The timeliness strategy is what dominated much of the newspaper industry. Getting and printing the news before any other paper was of paramount importance for firms adopting the timeliness strategy.

The structure of a newspaper firm changed due to competition. Cities were no longer small enough for news to travel by word of mouth. Local news became more important as a city’s population increased. This led to the reporter being added to the newspaper staff. A second change occurred due to the strategy to get news out first. Newsboys who would sell newspapers on street corners became a distribution channel as well as carriers who would deliver the paper to the doorstep of long-term subscribers.

The Twentieth Century

Throughout most of the twentieth century, developments and changes in the newspaper industry were rather subdued. However, in 1994 the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer published the first electronic version of a newspaper for the Internet. By the end of the century, most dailies and the larger weekly newspapers had electronic versions. While at first the electronic version was very plain, recent versions have attributes that are new and some old print attributes are finding a new channel. For the first time the newspaper firm can track how many people look at the paper and what articles are being read. Advertising has found a new channel to convey its message and in such a way that the subscriber cannot easily ignore it. Multiple editions are easy to produce electronically. It is now possible for news to be linked to other information on the Internet, creating added value for the consumer.


The newspaper industry had dramatically changed over the last 300 years. Technology in printing and publishing has helped to increase availability of newspapers. Technology, government policies, competition, and entrepreneurship all combined to not only create an entire industry, but to define the industry’s structure and the individual firm’s structure.

In the early 1700s the industry was a group of simple printers who published papers as one of many tasks. There were two types of paper publication: only news and only advertising. Through the growth of the population and competition, the industry has become focused upon news with some advertising incorporated. Competition has pushed the industry away from the two-person operation to highly specialized news departments. The industry has evolved from a collection of simple operations to a collection of complex organizations that utilize independent services to remain competitive.

Firm operations have changed dramatically as well. With every advance in technology, firm production costs have decreased while productivity has increased. Advances in paper technology, press technology, and communication technology have led to a more efficient news organization.


1Barnhurst, K. G., & Nerone, J. (2001). The form of news: A history. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

2Blondheim, M. (1994). News over the wires: The telegraph and the flow of public information
in America, 1844-1897
. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3Mott, F. L. (1941). American journalism. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.


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