"The meteroic rise of the penny presses and their significant influence on thinking have only been eclipsed by the Internet and hypertext."
(Rich Biel at http://blogs.ubc.ca/etec540sept09/2009/10/19/the-rise-of-penny-newspapers-and-their-influence-on-mass-media/)
The Sun masthead courtesy http://penny-papers.wikispaces.com/file/view/the%20sun%20banner.jpg/375532168/564x242/the%20sun%20banner.jpg.
The rise of the penny press contributed to a rise in the literacy rate in the United States. Previously newspapers had been priced at 6 cents a copy, making them unaffordable for the middle and lower class. However, with the invention of the penny paper, newspapers became accessible to the masses.
By the 1830's, newspapers were being printed by a steam power press rather than handcrafted, speeding up the process. Newspapers relied heavily on subscriptions and political parties for support. However, the penny papers relied instead on advertisements to pay for their expenses.
An early penny newspaper was the Boston Transcript which first rolled off the presses in 1830 featuring articles about literature and the theater. In 1833, the New York City Morning Post offered "all the news of the day and a medium for advertisements" to New Yorkers. The Morning Post followed the London Plan example, using newsboys on street corners to hawk its newspaper.
The same year, Benjamin Day debuted his paper, The Sun which featured human interest stories and prided itself on high quality reporting and writing. It too relied on ads rather than subscriptions. With its simple vocabulary and diction, the Sun developped a readership not just among adults, but also children. It was little Virginia O'Hanlon, in 1897, who wrote her famous letter to the Sun and received the response "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus."
As one writer pointed out, "In the cities of New York and Brooklyn, containing a population of 300,000, the daily circulation of the paper is not less than 7,000. This nearly sufficient to place a newspaper in the hands of every man in the two cities and even of every boy old enough to read." With a rise in readership came a rise in literacy. And with a rise in literacy a rise in the power of the working class. Public education became a part of the American consciousness.
Some would argue that the penny press dumbed down the newspaper. Whereas before articles focussed on politics, public statement and commercial and foreign news, the penny papers featured articles about humour, sex, sports and crime. Yet, the penny press was giving its readers what they wanted. Its owners knew that if the content was interesting, it kept the readers coming back for more.
American comic circa 1881 courtesy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_American_comics#mediaviewer/File:A.B.Frost_1881-07_Harper%27s_monthly_374_vol63_p320_our_cat_eats_rat_poison.png.
The newspaper continued to influence the literacy level in the United States into the 20th Century. A young black boy growing up in the Deep South was denied a library card due to his skin colour, His mother, a teacher, used to dig through garbage cans to find comics for him to read, comics which came from the newspapers of the day. The young man grew up to become one of the most influential writers of his time, Richard Wright.
While some of the penny papers folded, some remain active, including The New York Daily Times, which is now The New York Times, which continues to influence readers, far and wide, young and old, rich and poor. The only difference is that today the paper costs $2.50 rather than one penny.