How Newspapers Work

The Rise of the Newspaper

A newspaper from 1775 may still be readable, but you might not recognize what you're reading as news. It would have been published under the whim of a British colonial government with little tolerance for the free expression of ideas -- particularly radical political ideas. The First Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights added to the American Constitution in 1791, forbids laws abridging freedom of the press; in an era of kings and emperors, this was a heretical unleashing of individual freedom and a frightening challenge to state authority. It remains so in many nations today.

The principles and practices that govern today's newspapers -- journalistic objectivity, concise writing, national and international news -- emerged after the American Civil War. This was the Golden Era of daily newspapers, golden not only in their enormous number, but also in the profits that allowed press barons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer to live on a regal scale. Never before or since have newspapers wielded so much influence on American politics and culture. Hearst, part of whose newspaper empire survives today, was so powerful that he is credited (or blamed) for the outbreak of war with Spain in 1898.


With the growth of television news in the 1960s, newspapers confronted their first formidable competitor, but they continued to play a central role in informing, explaining, uncovering and inciting throughout the 20th century. Richard Nixon's legacy would doubtless be quite different were it not for famed reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and The Washington Post [source: Fisher]. When they broke the Watergate story, it brought down a president.

Today, even with online news edging out the printed version, the newspaper is still a force for revelation and change. When National Security Administration leaker Edward Snowden wanted to reveal what he knew, his first call – er, e-mail -- was to a Guardian U.K. reporter named Glenn Greenwald (who initially ignored him, partly because Greenwald found the encryption process Snowden relied on to communicate to be "really annoying and complicated") [source: Maass].

E-competition and growing pains aside, newspapers are nothing short of miraculous when you consider how much has to happen, in less than a day, to get a finished product into the hands of readers. Many different individuals and departments contribute to a process that resembles a river with numerous tributaries. Among the streams are five with daily importance to a newspaper's readers -- news, editorial, advertising, production and distribution.

Ideally, news comes first.