Johann Gutenberg, inventor of Europe’s first printing press in the 1450’s, unexpectedly created a demand for knowledge and news. Impressively, over 50 years after his invention, “an estimated 500,000 books were in circulation, printed on about 1,000 presses across the continent” (Nelson, 1998, p. 1). His invention caused a revolution made by repeated advances in technology that have freed the information exchange into the mass population. Thus, information exchange through new forms of communication has made the acquisition of knowledge more accessible.
Therefore, the print media, since the 18th century has become essential for people to connect with their environment. Newspapers occupied an important role in informing the lower social class that had been left behind since the commercialization of printed books.
Print Media and Literacy: Societal Developments
A Need for Order and Standards
Through the 18th century, due to economic prosperity, people had more time to read, so it affected the book business and generated a need for “order and standards” (Sutton, 1997, p. 37). Manifestly, it was a time where printing was growing and consequently “written English became standardized” (Sutton, p. 43). Despite the interest for knowledge and standards, all information remained objective.
With the 19th century emanated two major developments: “the rise of popular partisan politics and the appearance of a market economy” which meant for newspapers “politicization and commercialization” (Nerone, 1987, p. 377). At the time, papers were political; journals with respectability had to have the consent of politicians and pecuniary help of political parties prior to establishing themselves. Indeed, they had to respect some formal standards as the papers were directed to a certain audience.
The Apparition of the Penny Press
In the middle of the 19th century, the penny press, low-priced newspapers, which mainly covered news stories of crime and adventure, made its apparition in the East coast. Penny press papers “revolutionized content by declaring their independence from political parties and concentrating on news rather than opinion” (Nerone, 1987, p. 378). The most important innovation of the penny press was its price; thus, it provided access to a larger audience of readers, indeed to the lower class. According to Nerone (1987), “by concentrating on news, it is argued, the penny press performed a function that conventional papers had ignored: it presented a picture of ordinary social life” (p. 380). For the first time, a newspaper was reflecting the simple life and activities of the middle class society.
The penny press’ journalists quickly realized that the type of news the upper class was interested in was different from the lower class. Therefore, publishers progressively added to the penny press newspapers novelties including new sensationalism. They were using human stories, observation and interviews, to provide realism to the stories. Even though Nerone (1987) stated that “the development of American journalism is more properly understood as an evolutionary development rooted in shifts in social and cultural environment” (p. 377), the rise of penny saver, due to cheap cost and its way of treating information, seems to have indorsed the development of the modern newspaper.
Neutrality and Objectivity in Journalism
Furthermore, one of the most famous penny newspaper, The New York Daily Times, created in 1851, later changed to The New York Times, has made its trademark at keeping neutrality when developing a story, so the audience could debate with objectivity over its content; opinions were determined without being influenced by one side or the other. The objectivity in journalism was later adopted by future newspapers.
Ultimately, the quality of The New York Times made it very popular and it rapidly reached a large audience. Nerone (1987) argued that “the strategies–editorial, political, and commercial–adopted by penny press operators were responses to changes in specific environments rather than discoveries of fundamental human truths (e.g., the people want news, not opinions) or of new principles (e.g., political independence)” (p. 377). Finally, it is clear that innovations in penny papers’ structures and techniques are part of evolution changes coming from society.
Development of Technologies in the Printing Press
The penny press promoted the development of technologies such as “the steam press and the telegraph” (Nerone, 1987, p. 382), which allowed news to spread faster to a larger audiences (Turner, 1998). Thus, it opened the door for innovative ideas in the evolution of technology in the printing press.
In earlier times, print media were more favourable to the people living in cities because of costs of information and transportation. Therefore, adopting printing press meant to utilize the proper and most recent technologies and have the mechanical and intellectual skills to run them. In addition, the diffusion of printing press necessitated the availability of the paper which was most rare at this time (Dittmar, 2011).
Later on, before the 1950s and the advent of television, operators in newspapers were using Linotype machines, invented by Otto Mergenthaler in 1884, to type “by hand, a letter at a time” which was making the composing room “noisy, dirty and overheated” (Southwick, 2004, p. 1). However, the new invention allowed newspapers to have more than eight pages, an evolution at the time. Interestingly, “it took a few generations for printers to realize that they could create a new writing space with thinner letters, fewer abbreviations, and less ink” (Bolter, 2001, p. 8).
Popularization and Freedom of the Information
After the development of newspapers with topics reaching the interest of all classes of society, information suddenly became free and accessible to all. It clearly provided people new interests and openness to opportunities.
While discussing the effects of mass printing, Sutton (1997) stated, “by making many more texts available, an increasing number of ideas and options were opened up to the readers. Moreover, no single text could have as dominating an influence as a single manuscript could.” (p. 33). Since readers have to individually interpret the texts they are reading, since they are left without the possibility of interacting directly with the writer like they would have orally, it allows diverse interpretations possible, making it harder for the reader to find the ‘real’ truth. Ong (2002) suggested that “oral communication unites people in groups. Writing and reading are solitary activities that throw the psyche back on itself.” (p. 68). Indeed, the freedom of the information is positive but at the same time it may allow ambiguities to increase as the reader debates the author’s meaning in a given text.
Implications for Literacy and Education
Ong (2002) stated that “print reinforces the sense of language as essentially textual. The printed text, not the written text, is the text in its fullest, paradigmatic form.” (p. 128). In order to decode a printed text in its entirety, readers must be literate. Thus, minimal skills are necessary to render a person literate; “by 1952, six years of school was considered the minimal literacy threshold” (Scribner, 1984, p. 4). If we consider that literacy “is a social achievement” where a writing system is in place and individuals are participating in socially organized activities with written language (Scriber, p. 2), it is safe to say that the penny press, in particular, “solidified its role as public educator” (Turner, 1998, p. 44).
The mass distribution of penny press advanced the progress toward mass literacy by making available, at low cost to all readers, information in the form of printed texts that people from diverse social classes can read, discuss, and debate. McLuhan (as cited in Turner, 1998, p. 55) stated that this type of paper also built communities. Moreover, the new medium of transmitting information allowed discussion within people and became a vehicle to initiate different reforms; ideas spread effectively, quickly and widely. For instance, unconsciously, Pulitzer, a Jewish Austrian American newspaper editor at World, brought the concept “of the newspaper as agent of social reform” (Turner, p. 46). The fact that Pulitzer encouraged the journalists to use a simple language that everyone could understand played a strong part in literacy rates in New York; “it also helped solidify a democratic consciousness in its readers” (Turner, p. 48).
Clearly, some newspapers like the World have demonstrated that they were not only acting as an agent on culture, but also as a product of that culture.
The power of the writing press is real when it comes to shaping public opinion. In the past, literacy was kept as a tool to maintain “hegemony of elites and dominant classes in certain societies, while laying the basis for increased social and political participation in others” (Scribner, 1984, p. 4). Therefore, with the onset of printed press and the emergence of newspapers, we assisted the divulgation of information that was previously kept secret. From these new media of mass communication might come what Ong (2002) called ‘the literate minds’ where decisions are “shared among writers and readers” in the way it can be used to communicate (Bolter, 2001, p. 17). People are no longer isolated with their own thoughts; knowledge and information shared together with communities of people may expand in directions unknown to a single perspective.
Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Brazeal. D. K. (2005). Precursor to modern media hype: The 1830s penny press. The Journal of American Culture, 28(4), 405-414. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=f59313d7-f199-4774-bf6b-91f66274806d%40sessionmgr4&vid=2&hid=11
Dittmar, J. E. (2011). Information technology and economic change: The impact of the printing press. The Quaterly Journal of Economics, 126, 1133-1172. doi:10.1093/qje/qjr035.
“Johan Gutenberg”. (n.d.) In English Bible History. Retrieved from www.greatste.com/timeline-english-bible-history/gutenberg.html
Nelson. H. (1998, February 11). Gutenberg’s Press Started a Revolution. The Washington Post. Retrieved from
Nerone, J. C. (1987). The Mythology of the Penny Press. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 87(4), 376-404. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=68dd4da9-ade6-467c-8175-fb6645982605%40sessionmgr10&vid=2&hid=11
Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word. London: Routledge.
Scribner, S. (1984). Literacy in Three Metaphors. American Journal of Education, 93(21). Retrieved from http://eserver.org/courses/spring97/76100o/readings/scribner
Southwick, A. B. (2004, October 17). Newspaper evolution: Hot lead to cool computers. Sunday Telegram. Retrieved from http://www.lexisnexis.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/hottopics/lnacademic/?verb=sr&csi=155406&sr=HLEAD%28Newspaper+evolution%29+and+date+is+October+17%2C+2004
Sutton, I. S. (1997). The impact of the printing press on literary criticism in the eighteenth century and its relevance to the internet. [Master of Arts from the University of Houston Clear Lake]. (UMI number 387999). Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/docview/304417727
Turner, D. L. (1998). From Classes to Masses. A comparative Study of the Penny Press and Public Journalism. [Master of Arts from the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Graduate School of Journalism]. Retrieved from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk2/tape15/PQDD_0005/MQ30703.pdf