How Print Media Became Popular in America


By Patrick AllittEmory University

America in the 20th century was almost universally literate, at least at some level. Thousands of print media throughout the century, including numerous foreign language papers that helped immigrants adapt to the New World, were complemented by radio stations from the 1920s and by television stations from the late 1940s.

Old newspaper from 1903, The Atlanta Georgian announcing Leo Frank is arrested
The rise of newspapers and print media at the beginning of the 20th century became a cornerstone for today’s mass media. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

The Publicization of Newspapers

The mass circulation of newspapers accompanied the growth of something approaching universal literacy. Public schooling ensured the rapid assimilation of new immigrants right from the beginning of the century, as new generations came in from many different parts of the world. Their children would go to public schools and learn how to read and speak at least some English.

In the early 20th century, however, America had a massive foreign language press. For instance, Abraham Cahan was the editor of a Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward. It was a newspaper designed to teach immigrants in Yiddish—which they already knew—about how to start adapting to American life. He was also a prolific writer in English.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Civic Identity

Newspapers could embody the character of late 19th and early 20th century American cities, which had become too big for face-to-face relations. It was the newspaper, then, that could provide some sense of civic unity and civic identity by tracking news from the entire area.

Very often, it was the local news, particularly things like the sports news, where the cities’ sports teams created a focus on local urban energy, which could be followed and explained by the newspaper. Thus, major league sports and cities’ newspapers grew up together.

Pulitzer, Hearst, and “Yellow Journalism”

The most skillful promoters of mass-circulation newspapers were Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. They understood how to turn newspapers from a minority interest used by the most highly literate few into something that nearly everybody would want to buy. It was they who created big headlines, big pictures on the front page, low prices, and high-quality writing that was nevertheless very accessible.

They also introduced cartoon strips. One of the names given to early 20th century newspapers is “yellow journalism”, and the term comes from a cartoon strip called “The Yellow Kid”. In fact, Hearst and Pulitzer competed with one another to get this cartoonist because they understood that readers would turn straight to the funnies, and that would be a way of bringing in readers to the ostensibly more serious news.

Hearst: Dominating the Newspaper Industry

Hearst had been expelled from Harvard for riotous behavior. His indignant father, looking for a way to get his son onto the straight and narrow, gave him the San Francisco Examiner. The father, a millionaire in the mining business, had inherited this newspaper as payment for a gambling debt. 

William Randolph Hearst proved to be superb as a newspaper editor and at developing it for a mass readership. He hired many of the best writers of his era, including Mark Twain, Jack London, Steven Crane, and Richard Harding Davis. These were the great names in journalism at the beginning of the century. Eventually, Hearst managed to own 28 newspapers and 18 magazines.

Before the technique for reproducing photographs was perfected in the first 10 years of the 20th century, it was also important to have illustrators. Artists like Frederick Remington and Gibson and Christy, providing attractive and striking pictures for the newspapers, were also highly paid components of this world. Hearst and his rival, Pulitzer, promoted “crusades” and campaigns of various kinds.

Muckraking Journalism

Image of McClure's magazine cover from 1901
McClure’s magazine took great advantage of muckraking. (Image: User-duck/Public domain)

At the same time, mass-circulation magazines were developing rapidly, too, and they specialized in what was called “muckraking”. One part of the “progressive era” politics of the early 20th century was the exposure of wicked business practices by the great corporations, the trusts, and the monopolies. 

The magazine that specialized in this kind of work, McClure’s, published several of the most famous. Ida Tarbell was a gifted female journalist who wrote an exposé of the Rockefeller Corporation’s Standard Oil, also published in McClure’s in 1904.

Now, of course, the editor’s motive was to sell more copies. In other words, he was also a businessman, and he’d certainly carry advertisements from the corporations.

Consequently, sometimes, the criticism would be a tiny bit muted by the fact that McClure himself understood he mustn’t antagonize the business community too much. However, just as Theodore Roosevelt thought you could distinguish between the good trusts and the bad ones, so did McClure. 

Print Media and Public Awareness

You can accept the business system in general while singling out its faults, and, in fact, there was a longer muckraking tradition in America that persists right up to the present. Additionally, of course, muckraking journalism has a benign function because it brings businesses to notice that they mustn’t deceive their customers, or they’ll get noticed and get exposed for it.

These media enabled ordinary citizens to become extremely well-informed about their immediate surroundings and about more general political and social questions. Moreover, they didn’t just report the news. Often they created it, or at least gave it distinctive shape, undertaking campaigns and crusades, supporting or denigrating political candidates, and, of course, relishing the scandals that sometimes beset public figures.

Media power transformed the nature of politics, lobbying, and even of the military.

Common Questions about How Print Media Became Popular in America

Q: How did yellow journalism help the print media?

At the beginning of the 20th century, print media started to evolve from being something fancy to something that interested the general public. Newspaper moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst used this “yellow journalism”, that is, cartoon strips, to attract readers’ attention to their newspapers.

Q: What is muckraking, and how did it help the print media?

The process of exposing immoral business entities such as corporations and trusts to the public is called muckraking. It became popular in print media at the beginning of the 20th century, with magazines like McClure’s regularly publishing well-written exposés that their audience appreciated.

Q: How did the print media influence public political conceptions?

In addition to reporting the news, print and all other forms of media often played essential roles in shaping it by supporting or criticizing political candidates, and sensationalizing scandals. With its power, the media transformed the nature of politics, lobbying, and even the military.

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