How James Gordon Bennett Transformed Journalism: “He printed what he thought the readers would want to know, not what he wanted to tell them.”

From a column in the Wall Street Journal by John Steele Gordon headlined “Political Neutrality Is What Made American Newspapers Great”:

Many of America’s great newspapers have moved away from even the pretense of political neutrality. That tradition dates to 1835, when a Scottish immigrant named James Gordon Bennett founded the New York Herald. He had $500 in capital, an office in a dank cellar, and only himself as staff.

With a dozen other papers in the city, no one thought the Herald would amount to much. But by the time Bennett died in 1872, the Herald had the largest circulation in the world, its advertising revenue was second only to the Times of London, and his power to shape public opinion was immense, as was the fortune he had earned.

The Herald was something new under the journalistic sun. Newspapers had previously dealt either with narrow subjects, such as shipping or financial news, or were openly partisan, sometimes even subsidized by a political party. . . .

Bennett was always on the lookout for new ideas. At the Charleston (S.C.) Courier, where he’d worked in the 1820s, he learned how the paper scooped the competition with news of the end of the War of 1812. The editors sent a boat out beyond the bar at Charleston Harbor to pick up the news from a passing ship. At the New York Enquirer, the editor admired Bennett’s talents but didn’t like his abrasive personality. Bennett offered to go to the nation’s capital and report from there, thus becoming the world’s first Washington correspondent. . . .

Bennett anticipated the rising middle class that would dominate the Victorian Age. He wanted to move upmarket from the Sun and produce a mass newspaper that carried serious news about the real world for an upwardly mobile readership. . . .

Bennett was responsible for an enormous number of journalistic innovations. The Herald was the first general-interest newspaper to include a weather report, provide sports coverage and include a daily stock table. It was the first to include an illustration in a story. . . .

By the 1850s Bennett’s innovations had utterly transformed American journalism. The Herald had the largest circulation in the country. “No American journal at the present time can compare with it in the point of circulation, advertising, or influence,” admitted the thoroughly respectable Harper’s Weekly.

Newspapers had also become big business. Bennett had started with only $500. The New York Times, founded 16 years later, had needed $70,000 to get started. “The daily newspaper,” the North American Review wrote in 1866, “is one of those things which are rooted in the necessities of modern civilization. . . . The newspaper is that which connects each individual with the general life of mankind.”

The penetration of newspapers into American life made public opinion a powerful force in politics for the first time. But much of the press’s power to influence public opinion came from what was, perhaps, Bennett’s greatest journalistic idea of all: He made the Herald politically neutral, printing opinion columns only on the editorial page. In his news pages he printed what he thought the readers would want to know, not what he wanted to tell them. Bennett realized that a newspaper that was the mouthpiece of one party would be read only by that party’s adherents. He wanted everyone to read the Herald.

The idea spread quickly through the journalism industry, greatly enhancing its influence and prestige. Its abandonment may have the opposite effect.

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