Chapter 21
Journalism Comes of Age

Chapter 21 - Journalism Comes of Age

The 19th century was the time when modern journalism took shape. The system of communication we had in America was revolutionized during that century by speed and pictures. Human beings developed the technological means of sending and receiving information faster than anyone in previous centuries had conceived.

Along with the technology, we developed a greater sense of the necessity for immediate news. James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, sensed this and made special efforts to get news into the Herald before any other newspaper could do so.

Modern photography was developed in the 1830s, and its popularization transformed our vision of the world. Photography produced images of people and places that had never been seen before. It produced them quickly (compared to previous methods). Most photography was black and white, so the images were stark and highly informational. Photography was also highly believable. Once photography became widely available, we never looked at the world in the same way again.

The greatest debate of the 19th century -- slavery and abolition -- culminated in 1861 with the century's greatest news story -- the Civil War. The war transformed America in many ways. One was in the increasing demand for news. The war affected many people personally, and citizens on both sides of the war were starved for information. Newspapers and magazines did their best to keep up with those demands, and in doing so, they changed the operation of journalism.

Study questions

  • What are some of the major changes that occurred in the 19th century -- particularly those that affected the practice of journalism?

  • The journalism of the 19th century is filled with major characters. Who were some of them, and what roles did they play in the development of journalism?

  • What contributions did James Gordon Bennett make to the practice of journalism? What was his greatest contribution?

  • What was the great political and social issue of the first half of the 19th century? What effect did this issue have on journalism?

  • Who was Samuel Morse? What was his contribution to journalism?

  • Why did the growth of magazines occur in the mid 19th century?

  • Discuss the impact of the Civil War on the practice of journalism.

Chapter notes

The battle of Fredericksburg was fought in December 1862, not December 1863 as stated on page 391 of the book.

History of photography.
One of the profound changes in communication -- and journalism -- in the 19th century, as we have noted elsewhere, was the development of photography. By the early 1840s, cameras, film and developing procedures were in place, and many people were using photography both commercially and as a hobby. We still had not developed a way to mass produce photographs, however, so publications that wanted to use pictures had to use woodcuts. Getting pictures ready for a printing press would not come until a half century later with the development of the half-toning process. If you are interested in learning more about the history of photography, here are a few web sites to check out:
• A timeline of the history of photography from (
Museum of American Photography (
• The American Memory section of the Library of Congress (

What did Lincoln look like? The sidebar on page 389 tells about a famous photo of Abraham Lincoln that was used in the election campaign of 1860. The photo is very flattering to Lincoln, but is that what he really looked like? That's the question this short essay with photos considers.

History of the telegraph. Communication and journalism were changed by the increase in speed in the 19th century -- particularly the invention of the telegraph. Few scientific developments have changed life for everyone so radically. A sidebar in the book on page 384 talks about the role that Samuel F. B. Morse played in the development of the telegraph. Learn more about the history of the telegraph beginning at the web site. (

Battlefield coverage. What was it like to be a reporter covering a major battle during the Civil War? A number of good books about reporters in the Civil War are available. Also recommended is the chapter on news coverage of the battle of Fredericksburg in George Rable's award winning Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (In fact, you should read the whole book.) Rable notes how difficult it was to cover such an encounter between armies and how hard it was to get information from the field to the publication for which the reporter worked. One other difficulty that reporters had: figuring out who won. It was not always apparent. A winning army might not pursue a retreating one, leaving the outcome in doubt. Picking a winner and loser was important, however, because how the public perceived the war was going had important implications for political support for the war.

Antietam. One of the most dramatic stories of a correspondent covering a battle in the Civil War is that of George Smalley of the New York Tribune and his adventure in getting his description of the battle of Antietam back to New York. Smalley's first accounts of the 1862 battle were read by President Abraham Lincoln before they got to New York -- simply because they were sent by the telegraph operator to the wrong place. But that mistake was small potatoes to what Smalley had to endure during the next few days. Read this short article about what happened to him.

Key terms and concepts

• The 19th century was a time of enormous change in the lives of Americans. One element of that change was the speed at which they were able to communicate. Another element was the development of photography, which opened up a visual world that humans had never known.

• Journalism changed its very nature during the 19th century. Newspapers went from being organs of opinion to organs of information, and their audiences expanded to include more Americans than ever.

• Journalism of the 19th century is often defined by the personalities that dominated the field – people such as James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley, and later in the century Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.

Penny press – inexpensive newspapers (which often sold for a penny) that first appeared in the 1830s and that appealed to a large audience with stories of crime, human interest and sports.

Abolition – the term used for the movement to abolish slavery; the fight over abolition was the great political issue of the first part of the 19th century affecting everything in political life, including journalism.

• By the middle of the century, magazines had found their form and audience.

• Photography was invented in 1839, and although it would be many years before photographs could be easily mass produced, photography began to change the way journalism was practiced by mid-century.

• The Civil War, 1861-1865, demonstrated profoundly the value of news to American news organizations and to their audiences.

Related web
sites for
Chapter 21

Library of Congress American Memory archives


Media History Project


American Women's History Project

Media History Monographs

United States Newspaper Project

Black Journalists History Project

Media History Monographs

Section I | 1: News and Society  |  2: Culture of Journalism  |  3: Becoming a Journalist
Section II  |  4: Newspapers  |  5: Magazines  |  6: Television and Radio  |  7: News Web Sites
Section III  |  8: Reporters  |  9: Reporting  |  10: Writing news and features  |  11: Style  | 
12: Editors13: Editing and headline writing  |  14: Visual Journalists  |
  15: Graphics Journalism  |  16: Photojournalism  |  17: Publication Design  |
  18: Broadcasters  |  19: Writing for Broadcast
Section IV  |  20: Beginnings of Journalism  |  21: Journalism Comes of Age  | 
22: New Realities, New Journalism  |   23: 20th Century and Beyond
Section V  |  24: Law and the Journalist  |  25: Ethical Practices  |   26: Present and Future
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