19th Century "Net"
I first started working in interactive media in 1982 as a newswriter for a small market test that later became Prodigy Interactive Services. I was on leave from the New York Daily News. I didn't go back to the News when my leave was over, and I've not written a walkup at a newspaper since then. I've worked for magazines, websites, newsletters, book publishers, and corporate clients.
But in my heart, I'm still a newspaperman. It's the family trade.
For roughly a century, from the 1830s (when the high-speed press was invented) to the 1930s (when multimedia conglomerates took root) newspapering was a bare-knuckle trade that just about anyone with an idea, gumption, and a willingness to fail could get into.
Just like the Internet today.
The locus of my family's newspapering was New Rochelle, N.Y., where my grandfather, my father, and I were born and the other two are buried, but it includes several other communities. Most of them are fairly close to New York City. Fittingly, New Rochelle was Norman Rockwell's hometown when he was in his prime as a magazine illustrator. Rockwell's appeal, even back in the Roaring Twenties, was rooted in his portrayal of values that people felt all the more attached to because they seemed to be slipping away. It was an idealization. It was not the way life really was, but the way Americans wished it to be, or pretended it had been.
Family-owned newspapers, for all their limits and deficiencies, often crystallized a community's ideals in much the same way. That's not a bad thing. And if a community was of any size at all, it had several newspapers doing so, speaking out for a number of constituencies and fanning debate over what those ideals should be. It was a large part of what made America America.
Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune, stunned a panel of British Parliament in 1851 with a report on the nature of newspapers in the United States. He told them that there was no requirement for a publisher to register with authorities, and that a publisher was not held to any higher standard of libel than, say, a blacksmith. But what was most astonishing to the Members of Parliament, based on the questions they asked, was the multitude of papers that were published and the number of people who read them.
"A county containing 50,000 has five journals, which are generally weekly papers," Greeley told them. "And when a town grows to have as many as 15,000 inhabitants, or thereabouts, then it has a daily paper. . . At 20,000 they have two, and so on."
Because these papers were inexpensive and carried local news, they were widely read. Greeley estimated that seventy-five percent of families took in a daily paper in 1851. He told Parliament that even mechanics and field hands read them.
One incredulous MP asked: "After he has finished his breakfast or dinner, he may be found reading the daily newspaper, just as the people of the upper classes do in England?"
"Yes," Greeley answered.
Just like the Internet today, newspapers of the 19th century were the great equalizers of information. And, lord knows, you took what you read with a skeptical eye.