Some of the most iconic American newspapers have been around for two centuries.Library of Congress
Newspapers revolutionized communication and the way people receive news.
- Some of the first newspapers emerged in the 1800s and have been so successful that they continue to reach millions of readers two decades later.
- Here are nine of the very first editions of famous American newspapers like New York Times and Washington Post.
Many of the most iconic American newspapers have been around since the 1800s, when the Industrial Revolution took off and made print more accessible to readers.
To break into such a robust industry as newspapers in the 19th century was no easy feat, according to W. Joseph Campbell, media history professor at American University and author of “Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism.”
“Multiple newspapers in major cities were slugging it out, and it was a very challenging market for newspapers to break into,” Campbell told Business Insider. “The casualty rate was very high.”
Once established, remaining stable through the introduction of digital media in the late 1900s brought on another layer of challenges for print publications, and print advertising revenue began to decline by the billions, AEI reported.
According to Campbell, a few legacy brands have been able to withstand the influence of digital media due to key components they possessed early on, like a strong point of view, a publisher with deep pockets, and a competitive price, that allowed them to go the distance.
You wouldn’t have guessed that from the front pages of their first issues, though, which looked drastically different than they do today.
Here’s a fascinating look at the first issues of some of the most iconic American newspapers that still reach millions of readers today.
1. New York Times
First issue: September 18, 1851.
The New York Times was founded as a morning newspaper in the mid-19th century among stiff competition. Its first front page had six columns of nothing but tightly packed text — not even a headline.
“There was no effort until the second half of 19th century to make the front page have some eye appeal for the reader,” Michael Schudson, media historian and professor of journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism told Business Insider.
In 1896, former publisher and owner Adolph Ochs saved a struggling Times from bankruptcy by introducing photographs, the Sunday magazine, and a new slogan — “All the News That’s Fit To Print.”
The turning point of success came two years later, when Ochs lowered the paper’s price to one cent. Circulation tripled from 26,000 to 76,000 within a year, and advertising revenues took off.
2. Washington Post
First issue: December 6, 1877.
The Washington Post debuted as a four-page daily that cost three cents. Like the Times, it bore a headline-free front page covered with text.
The first issue reported news from Washington DC and beyond, including the war in Constantinople, the failing health of Pope Pius IX, a column devoted to New York City news, and “an old bachelor [who] died of the combined effects of a cat-bite with his own folly.”
The paper flip-flopped from strongly Democratic to conservative Republican while trying to establish its identity. “The Washington Post was not the leading light in DC until well into the 20th century, when Eugene Meyer bought it at a bankruptcy sale” in 1933, Schudson said.
3. San Francisco Chronicle
Before it was the San Francisco Chronicle, this famous newspaper was called The Daily Dramatic Chronicle.The San Francisco Chronicle
First issue: January 16, 1865.
During the heyday of the Wild West, teenage brothers Charles de Young and Gustavas de Young borrowed a $20 gold piece to launch their newspaper, The Daily Dramatic Chronicle, which eventually became the San Francisco Chronicle. A third brother, Michael, later helped Charles run the paper.
Their ambitious mission was to “enlighten mankind … and San Francisco … of actions, intentions, sayings, doings, movements, successes, failures, oddities, peculiarities, and speculations, of us poor mortals here below.”
Though it reported the news of the San Francisco Bay Area, the front page was predominantly advertisements, which were crucial to its survival, Schudson said. “My assumption is that people read newspapers like they read books. You look for the heart of the matter inside,” he said of the cover.
4. Baltimore Sun
The Baltimore Sun’s slogan, “Light for All,” has remained the same since the start.The Baltimore Sun
First issue: May 17, 1837.
The Baltimore Sun‘s inaugural design may have followed the pattern of its peers — no headline, columns of dense text — but its slogan, “Light for All,” has remained the same. Debuting at four pages, the first edition was yours for one cent.
“The Baltimore Sun was an interesting precursor [to modern newspapers] because it was one of the so-called penny papers, all of which began in the 1830s,” Schudson said. “Those newspapers sold cheaply on the street rather than by subscription only to reach a broader audience.”
Founder Arunah S. Abell’s recipe for success may have been his nonpartisan political agenda, which was a rebellious approach for that era, according to Britannica.
5. Los Angeles Times
The Los Angeles Times was originally a penny paper.The Los Angeles Times
First issue: February 4, 1881.
Originally a penny paper, The Los Angeles Times launched as a four-page broadsheet — slighter bigger than a tabloid — called the Los Angeles Daily Times.
The front page of its first edition was split vertically: editorial on the left-hand side and the ads to pay for it on the right.
Los Angeles Times had a strong political influence and helped shape the culture of southern California.
It had a rocky start leadership-wise and changed hands a few times, but in 1882, former military officer Harrison Gray Otis came on board as editor and slowly reversed the paper’s fortune by toning down its Republican voice to make it more centrist, hiring respected journalists, and opening news bureaus worldwide to broaden the paper’s scope.
6. Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal capitalized on a niche audience, business and financial news, which drove its success.The Wall Street Journal
First issue: July 8, 1889.
Like many of its predecessors, the Wall Street Journal launched as a four-page newspaper. But unlike many of its peers, it had a niche — business and financial news — and media historians believe that’s what set it up for success.
“The Wall Street journal was a business paper from the beginning. It identified a small and elite population to cater to,” Schudson said. The paper’s first-ever front page reported stock market activity, of course, and features such as “bankers exerting their power.”
Founder Charles H. Dow didn’t stray from this vision until the Great Depression, when the paper started to include a few features on other topics.
7. Detroit Free Press
It was one of the first newspapers to publish a Sunday edition.The Detroit Free Press
First issue: May 5, 1831.
The Detroit Free Press launched as a politically independent paper, though it was called The Democratic Free Press and Michigan Intelligencer until four years later, when it switched to its current name.
It became a daily while Detroit was still a frontier town. It advocated statehood, became one of the first newspapers to publish a Sunday edition, and went on to see success covering the Civil War.
8. Boston Globe
The first edition of the Boston Globe featured advertisements, promotions for religious congregations, and local and international news.The Boston Globe
First issue: March 4, 1872.
Six businessmen — led by Eben Jordan, founder of retail store Jordan Marsh that is now Macy’s — launched the Boston Globe as the Boston Daily Globe.
Its front page appeared to mix promotions for local religious congregations with advertisements, and it had local and international news inside. The paper didn’t start seeing success until about five years later, when, under new leadership, it started publishing twice a day and incorporating big headlines, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
At the same time, the paper also ramped up its local coverage and started buying into “yellow journalism,” or sensationalist news — mostly crime. These became common tactics for reaching a broader audience around the end of the 19th century, Campbell said.
9. Houston Chronicle
Shortly after its launch in the early 1900s, The Houston Chronicle’s circulation covered about one tenth of Houston.The Houston Chronicle
First issue: October 14, 1901.
The Houston Chronicle was a success from the start, when it was founded by a strong-willed newspaper reporter who funded it using a money from a wise investment — and from a few of his like-minded friends, according to the Texas Historical Association.
It sold for two cents — by 20th century standards, this was cheap — and shortly after launch, its circulation was about one tenth the population of Houston.
The front page of the debut issue boasted headlines like “Sampson’s Mind Badly Shattered,” referring to a Navy admiral from the Spanish American War, and “Powderly and the Anarchists” about an American labor union leader.