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[Detail] United States Capitol [ca 1846]

Penny Papers

Mass-produced newspapers costing a penny per issue entered United States cities in the 1830s. Their emphasis on sensational stories of criminal activity and general human depravity established a loyal readership. In 1835, Scottish immigrant James Gordon Bennett entered the growing market by founding the New York Herald. Within two years, he sold approximately 20,000 copies each day.

The New York Herald and other "penny papers" often competed with papers of integrity such as Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. Greeley founded the Tribune in 1841 and provided space for intellectual discussions of politics, social reform, and news. Searches on editor and journalist provide portraits of newspapermen such as Horace Greeley, James Gordon Bennett, and members of the New York Tribune editorial staff. A search on news also results in an 1853 image of a man stranded on a log in Niagara Falls that provides an early example of a news photograph.

  • What sort of information does this news photograph of Niagara Falls convey to the viewer?
  • Why do you think that Greeley posed with a copy of a newspaper on his lap?
  • Why do you think that Bennett did not appear holding a paper?
  • Do you think that these portraits are more similar to the collection's occupational portraits or its presidential portraits?
  • Do you find sensational newspapers today similar to the "penny papers" of the nineteenth century?
  • Do you think that certain media outlets attempt to establish an audience through sensational stories?
  • Which forms of reporting (radio, print, television) are more sensational than others?
  • What do you think are the potential benefits and potential dangers of sensational reporting?