Commonplace
-
www.common-place.org · vol. 3 · no. 1 · October 2002
-

An erstwhile New Yorker, David Henkin lives in San Francisco, teaches at U.C. Berkeley, and is the author of City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York, 1998).

 

 

"When an AP story on an errant buffalo in Ulster County or a canine candidate for statewide office in Florida is not available, Sun reporters produce their own accounts of dogs rescued at sea or giant turtles recaptured by German police."

Copernicus at the Newsstand
David Henkin

Part I | II

In the face of more than a century of competition from all sorts of faster and more flexible media, the daily newspaper has proven remarkably enduring and resilient. Long after radio, film, television, electronic billboards, and the World Wide Web have diversified and accelerated the pace of official news transmissions, many Americans still regard the morning paper as an indispensable feature of public life. Just how deep this cultural attachment runs is difficult to assess, however, not least for those trying to nudge their way into the daily print business, an industry that has become exceptionally unwelcoming in recent decades.

The question of why people continue to be drawn to the ritual pleasures and symbolic associations of reading the daily paper may or may not have occurred to the people responsible for the well-funded reappearance of the New York Sun on New York newsstands 169 years after its original founding and a half century after its much-lamented demise. Since rising in April 2002, the Sun has faced an uphill battle to carve out a niche in a city where few residents can recall the era when dozens of papers (in several languages) jostled profitably for the daily attention of New Yorkers.

Weighing in at only twelve pages, the new daily has none of the reassuring heft of the major New York newspapers with which it seeks to compete, but in other respects the Sun is familiar, if a bit idiosyncratic. Small type and a relatively large number of discrete articles on each page might incline some readers to suppose that they are consuming a headier journal than their neighbors on the subway. But a few minutes' perusal ought to dispel such feelings. Much of the Sun's news is drawn from wire services (this was especially true during the early weeks), and most of the articles written by the Sun staff adopt a similarly disembodied tone.


Fig. 1. Masthead for The Sun, May 7, 1838. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

The paper's patently conservative politics resemble those of the New York Post, though editor Seth Lipsky's extraordinary preoccupation with a few issues (terrorism, Israel, school vouchers) gives the new daily the kind of strident ideological focus more typically associated with a weekly magazine. Prominent and typical headlines announce that "NYPD Greets Muslims with Terror Ties," or delight in the specter of "Farrakhan Praying for Iraq." The word "appeasement" recurs with perverse and numbing frequency, invariably in reference to the Arab world. The only consistently light note on the front page is the regular appearance of a short item about a distressed member of the animal kingdom. When an AP story on an errant buffalo in Ulster County or a canine candidate for statewide office in Florida is not available, Sun reporters produce their own accounts of dogs rescued at sea or giant turtles recaptured by German police.

None of this, of course, is part of the paper's public self-perception, nor would such distinctions in typography and tone account for the founders' decision to rehabilitate an ancient and venerated player in the history of New York journalism. Press releases insist that the new Sun's distinctive mission is to give "a priority focus to the city it serves," and this turns out to be the larger significance of the name. While the masthead reaffirms the traditional motto, "it shines for all" (which the original editor had appropriated from a much older tavern sign from across the East River), emphasizing the democratic function of the newspaper as a source of illumination for the masses, advertisements for the new Sun opt for a more Copernican gloss. "Every issue revolves around New York," potential readers are reassured at the local newsstand.

Since there is relatively little room in this minipaper, as critics have pointed out, for serious coverage of life, politics, sports, entertainment, or anything else in what is still America's largest city, one must take the trope of heliocentrism as a symbolic statement about newspapers. The Sun may not have the resources to remedy the failure of the Times to devote adequate attention to its local base, but at least it will offer a lesson in journalistic priorities. A newspaper, Seth Lipsky seems to be reminding us, ought to be about a great city.

Here, history is on Lipsky's side. The American daily print newspaper has always been metropolitan in character, and remains, even in its modern form, an artifact of urban life in the nineteenth century. Newspapers originated in early modern Europe as periodic merchants' letters, circulating information about prices, shipments, and commodities among far-flung commercial entrepôts. As journals attained greater regularity and wider readerships in eighteenth-century North America, they continued to be the exclusive property of cities, which had a near monopoly on printing presses and long-distance market activity.

These urban papers during the colonial and early national periods were still a far cry from the modern newspaper. They were expensive, sold mainly by annual subscription, and addressed to an elite readership of merchants and lawyers. In the nineteenth century, however, an altogether different species of daily journalism appeared. Spurred by the economic possibilities and the social needs created by massive population explosion in America's major urban centers, newspaper editors created an inexpensive product that would be sold in the streets by the issue, and could be supported by advertising. The new breed of paper focused on sensational stories about city life and trumpeted the value of a popular press as a bulwark of democracy.

Conventionally, historians date the advent of this era in modern print journalism with the arrival of the first issue of the penny press on September 2, 1833. On that day a twenty-three-year-old journeyman printer named Benjamin Day offered New Yorkers a paper called the Sun.

The Sun's mission was both simple and bold: "to lay before the public, at a price within the means of every one, ALL THE NEWS OF THE DAY, and at the same time afford an advantageous medium for advertising." This alternative newspaper invoked a public that included those without property and Day addressed his readers as a set of city dwellers rather than as fellow businessmen. Day's paper also looked different from what typically circulated in the coffeehouses and merchant exchanges. Like Lipsky's Sun, the first penny paper made a virtue of its reduced size, which was less than one third the height and width of the standard newspaper page—about one-fourth the size of the new Sun, and, at four pages, only a third as long.

Within a few months, Day's paper was the most popular in the city, and soon thereafter cheap dailies in Boston and Baltimore achieved similar distinctions. All told, dozens of penny dailies emerged in the immediate wake of the Sun, though most collapsed during the depression of 1837. A few of them survived to make a major imprint on the daily life of American cities, among them the New York Herald (1835), the New York Tribune (1841), and the New York Times (1851).

next this issue home

-
-
Copyright © 2002 Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved