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The Penny Press Signals the Formation of a New Social Group

The Penny Press were the first “modern” newspapers in America. They introduced a new approach to advertising. Other newspapers cost six cents and relied on political parties or commercial interests to support them financially; Penny Press papers cost a penny and supported themselves through sale of advertising space to anyone willing to pay (Schudson 1978; Wilson & Gutierrez 1995). People and businesses sought ad space from the publications with the greatest readership. The Penny Press’s new business model changed the economic foundation of journalism; it required owners, in effect, to sell their audience to advertisers; to any advertiser; to a “free market” of advertisers. As a result, the sway political parties held over media content in the blanket sheet papers—the precursors to the Penny Press—and their interests over newspaper publishers began to diminish (Schudson 1978). The interests and desires of advertisers4 could now put constraints on what publishers produced in their editorial content (Bagdikian 1983).

Political party affiliation no longer determined newspaper readership. Publishers now had to be is much less mediated than that in contemporary advertising, the texts are still cultural representations or artifacts from a community that were accepted as legitimate by that community. Hence, introduction of advertising in newspapers serves as an indicator for a new social relationship between media entrepreneurs and representatives of community-based associations and individual members of the public. The ads in these newspapers provided a barometer for the formation of racial groupings in the communities and served to reinforce, legitimate, and reproduce these group formations.

The research of some race and media scholars who have explored the early modern newspaper and race (Wilson & Gutierrez 1995) suggests that the formation of modern newspapers in the United States in the early nineteenth century is tied to the formation this new social group in the U.S. Wilson and Gutierrez argue that

The first “penny press” took on a new form that was uniquely adapted to the free enterprise system. The newspaper sold for only a penny, but its primary income did not depend on subsidies from a political party, a government in the form of public notices, or the subscription of readers. Instead, the newspaper’s revenues and profits were to come from advertisers who would pay for the space in the Sun (the first penny paper) to place commercial messages to reach the large readership attracted by the low price... . Mass society in the United States did not necessarily mean a society of the masses, but a society in which the people were amassed into an audience for the messages of the mass media of communication (39—40).

Constructing the newspaper readership in the nascent Penny Press meant using all the organs of the newspaper—editorial content, advertising, production, and distribution—to meet the needs of the audience the publisher wanted to attract while simultaneously ensuring the paper’s survival. Who was this audience?

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