Forces at play as newspapers evolved

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By John Stang

Communications 546

Past- and present-oriented term paper

University of Washington

ABSTRACT: The theory of disruptive innovation was in play as

the newspaper world evolved from Gutenberg to the present.

Technological advances greatly influenced the growth of newspaper readership -- and that readership's current decline.

The relationship with between laps in news technology and news readership have been classical instances of Clayton Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation -- cases of technological advances favoring hungrier, nimbler operations rather than the stodgy entrenched establishment that has less interest in upsetting the status quo.

This is just like the Biblical story of David and Goliath. The huge and heavily armored Goliath could easily overwhelm any Israelite warrior who would challenge him in a conventional duel of swords and shields. Small and without armor, David used a sling and stone -- something that Goliath was not mentally prepared to deal with -- to kill the giant one-on-one. David was the innovator. Goliath was complacent with no incentive to adapt.

This paper will look how the theory of disruptive innovation played a major role in huge changes in newspaper readerships. Beside the theory of innovative disruption, this paper will also acknowledge that society had to be economically, sociologically and psychologically ready to embrace an innovation before the new technology could take off -- as theorized by Brian Winston.

This paper will look at only how technological advances have affected newspaper readership -- with the caveat that other forces are also in play. This particular paper is just the first of two parts -- the first part being a historical recap of how technological led to today's readership, and the second part being an attempt to chart how newspapers have begun to evolve in an increasingly online world.

Although the newspaper world gone through numerous technological changes, this paper will address only a handful of leaps that dramatically helped increase or -- as the 21st century approached -- helped decrease circulation.


Christensen’s theory of innovative disruption is that a small, low-cost innovative venture has the potential to technically and financially leave a stodgie, less innovative competitor in the dust – by reinventing the market or correctly reading how the market will evolve.

Winston enters the picture with his theory that society has to be ready to adopt a new technology before that technology can take off – a process that can happen quickly or take centuries.

The start-and-stop nature of newspaper technology and newspaper readership growth follows these theories.


Lets start at the beginning with the technological advance that made newspapers even possible.

That's the Gutenberg printing press.

Johannes Gutenberg was a German goldsmith who created a functional version of movable type by 1439 in Strasbourg before continuing to improve it with at least two partners over the next several years. It took even more years before Gutenberg advanced beyond pamphlets to printing a full-fledged book -- that being the Gutenberg

Bible believed to be first printed in 1454 or 1455. The earliest historical reference to a Gutenberg Bible is a March 1455 letter from Catholic Bishop Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius II.

But it took 150 years or more between printing the first Bible to the first regularly published newspapers.

A handful of government- and Vatican-sanctioned news reports popped up in the 16th century, but they were monthlies or one-time publications. (World Association of Newspapers) Then private printed newspapers began to slowly surface in Europe in the 17th century. The first was Relation in 1605, published by Johann Carolus inthe then-German, now-French city of Strasbourg. The first English paper, Corante, came in 1621, and the first French paper, the Gazette, surfaced in 1631. The first American paper, the intended-to-be-monthly Publick Occurrences, lasted one issue in Boston in 1690 before the government shut it down because the governor didn't like publications he could not control. The world’s oldest paper still in circulation, Post-och Inrikes Tidningar, showed up in Sweden in 1645.

Following Winston’s theory, the public had to catch up to the new printing technology for it to become adopted enough to provide sufficient readership to justify publishing the first newspapers.

Poverty and illiteracy were rampant in the 15th, 16th, 17th centuries and later. For the 15th century, it can be argued that since only a few hand-copied books existed, only a bare subsistence literacy -- recognizing a few words as symbols used in day-to-day life -- was needed by most of the population. Since the Bible and other religious texts – the main literature of 15th century Europe -- were in Latin which most people did not even speak, the European world needed the Reformation and other splits from the Roman Catholic Church to encourage translating the Bible into other languages than Latin.

I contend that the printing press contributed to its own growth. The press made the creation of reading materials more prevalent, which in turn gave people more incentive to become literate, which again increased the demand for more pamphlets, books and eventually newspapers.

Meanwhile, travel among cities and nations was slow, causing most Europeans, Asians and Africans to live in very small worlds sheltered from most that occurred beyond their immediate borders.

I argue that the most 15th century people would be considered “non-consumers” (Christensen, Anthony and Roth, 2004) in that they lacked the ability, wealth and easy access to the early products of the printing press. Travel became more commonplace in the 16th century. Trade grew, which boosted more people out of poverty. Blossoming local and international trade required more and more information from other places to flourish.

Winston's "supervening social necessities" (Winston, 1998) also came in play during that 150-year gap between the first printed Bible and the first printed newspaper. In simple terms, that meant the world had to socially, economically, politically and psychologically ready to use a new technology in a significant degree measure -- awaiting for a "perfect storm" of circumstances for the public to need and want newspapers.

The disruptive innovations were not technological ones. Instead, they were cultural.

As trade flourished and the need for more information grew, merchants and craftsmen also needed something better than religious and government proclamations to make business decisions. The private sector -- nimbler than the governments -- stepped in to create newspapers to fill a gap not covered by the stodgier church nor state, which did not have to worry about those concerns. Capitalism, not the authorities, was needed to fill those actual information needs of ordinary citizens

Meanwhile, the basic overall design of the printing press remained the same for almost 300 years, although it was also almost continuously tweaked. The model was that human muscle pressed the paper flat against the inked type. While lithography – a major technological advance – first surfaced in France in the 1790s, the newspaper industry did not adopt it for common use in until the 1960s. By then, it had no major direct effect on readership numbers, although it played a major role in cost -effectiveness.

Still newspaper readership grew mostly because of non-technological reasons. More people existed. Literacy increased. The number of presses and newspapers increased. Reading news became normal for most.

Newspaper readership remained somewhat small – at least in England’s American colonies in the 1700s, where a handful of estimates are available.

Hughes at the Web site found some references to 1700s circulation figures. (Hughes, 2009).

The oldest reference was the publisher of the Boston News-letter estimating in 1719 that he sold no more than 300 per press run. In 1754, another publisher wrote that there were four newspapers in New England, with none exceeding a circulation of 600. The New York Gazetteer in 1774 claimed a circulation of about 3,500. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Spy of Worcester dropped from 3,500 prior to the American Revolution to 500 when it ended.

At the end of the 18th century, Hughes noted there were three American papers with circulations of roughly 2,000, plus the Columbian Centinel (sic) being America’s journalism superpower with a circulation of 4,000.

Newspaper publishers now faced a dilemma that their predecessors didn't. More potential readers existed than the publishers had the capability to print for. Now, publishers needed faster and nimbler technologies. The social pressure -- the supervening necessity -- pushed the need for technological improvements.

As the 19th century unfolded, the steam-driven cylindrical press and the later rotary cylindrical press gave newspaper publishers something they did not have before – the speed to print a large number of papers in a much shorter period of time.

Bogart wrote: “The mass press emerged in the 19th century from the improvement of papermaking machinery and the invention of the rotary press, but also from the spread of literacy and the expansion of leisure.

If a newspaper invested in speedier presses -- an expensive disruptive innovation -- it had a better chance of surviving. If a newspaper stuck with a traditional flat press, it would lose the disruptive innovation battle to the publication that could print vastly greater numbers of a single edition.

Here is a rundown of how printing presses improved in the 19th century.

During the Napoleonic Wars, a German engineer and printer, Friedrich Koenig experimented with using steam power, gears and some cylinders to print newspapers much faster than previously possible. He finally teamed up with another engineer Andreas Bauer to replace the printing press's flat plates with more cylinders – all powered by steam. At this invention’s real-world debut in 1814, The Times of London, printed roughly 1,100 sheets an hour. Koenig, Bauer and others continued to modify this redesign for many years.

As a comparison, Scharlott wrote that a flatbed hand press in 1850 Wisconsin -- where the newer cylindrical technology had not yet reached -- could print 250 sheets an hour, taking eight hours to print 1,000 copies of a four-page edition.

The 1840s brought two major technological advances that kicked newspaper readership into overdrive – the long-evolving development of the telegraph that Samuel Morse patented in 1844, plus Richard Hoe’s invention of the rotary press in 1846.

One invention transformed the speed of news. The other boosted the speed of printing – increasing the numbers and pages of papers than could be printed in one shift – again to previously unthought-of levels.

Hoe, a New York printer and inventor tinkered extensively with the steam-powered cylinder press -- making it bigger with fewer cylinders. In 1847, he patented those improvements, which greatly increased the press speed beyond the Koenig model. In 1870, Hoe finished another technological leap in that he built a rotary press that could print on both sides of a page simultaneously.

The bottom line to these improvements was that a vastly greater number of newspapers could be printed in a day. Consequently, readers’ interest in events, not a press' actual machine limitations, became the dominating factor in the size of a press run.

However, 19th century journalism’s biggest technological leap came with the telegraph – a classic case of disruptive innovation.

This was a case of a totally new technology redefining what readers demanded -- and what publishers now had to provide.

Standage wrote that travel was slow and sporadic between regions in the early 19th century. (Standage, 1998) News often came in months-old letters from elsewhere. News did not travel faster than a horse, carrier pigeon or ship could move. Today's get-it-quick attitudes toward news did rarely existed prior to the telegraph, Standage wrote.

Newspapers and their readers changed their expectations about the speed of news with the telegraph. Non-local news quickly funneled through telegraph offices. A newspaper that could not afford to send a correspondent overseas no longer had to worry about being at a disadvantage. Meanwhile, readers began to think of weeks-old news as too slow -- now expecting their news to be printed within a day or two of it happening. Businesses began to demand vital new information in the quickest manner possible to keep up with their competitors.

The installation of an Albany-to-New York City telegraph line in 1848 led to some New York Newspapers to band together to share New York City and Albany bureaus. (Schwarzlose, 1980) A couple months later, that arrangement expanded to create the New York Associated Press to share dispatches from the Mexican-American War in an effort to get the news more quickly through a combination of ships, horses, stagecoaches and the telegraph. Today, that coalition has grown to a cooperative of about 1,700 papers, 5,000 radio and television stations, more than 200 bureaus – all serving at least 120 nations. It is the backbone of most of today’s news coverage provided by Google, Yahoo and other online services.

The bottom line: The telegraph helped create the world’s most influential newsgathering operation.

Meanwhile, Prussian Paul von Reuter ran a translation and courier service forbusiness news at roughly the same time -- jumping early onto the telegraph bandwagon. The telegraph linked England and France in 1851, causing Reuters to transfer his headquarters to the European financial center of London while beginning sell his dispatches to newspapers, Standage wrote.

This contributed to more foreign news, accompanied by a demand for even more foreign news, with that spiral continuing. Reuters’ courier and translation business evolved into another newswire service. Readers again expected news to be disseminated dramatically quicker than it was a couple decades earlier.

In 1854, British correspondent William Russell used the telegraph to tell the English public about their army’s incompetence and hardships in the Crimean War, providing an unofficial reality check to what the government was saying. If that didn't increase reader numbers, it can be safely argued that it likely increased reader's interest in what the papers were printing.

In another sign of growing reader interest, the short-lived first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1858 sent this message to Europe: “Pray give us some news for New York. They are mad for news."

Standage quoted an unnamed 1859 journalist who made this observation about a battle from the Second Italian War of Independence: "To the press, the electric telegraph is an invention of immense value. It gives you the news before the circumstances have had time to alter. The press is enabled to lay it fresh before the reader like a steak hot from the gridiron instead of being cooled and rendered flavorless by a slow journey from a distant kitchen . A battle is fought three thousand miles away, and we have the particulars while they are taking the wounded to the hospital."

I could not find comprehensive newspaper readership statistics for the 19th century.

However, I believe we can extrapolate that readers became interested in more and more news because publishers felt the market pressures to provide additional and much quicker news.

And news dissemination became quicker. Brooker-Gross looked at the decreasing lag times between news occurring and when that news was published in 15 western Ohio newspapers from 1844 to 1899 -- the boom time of telegraph use. (Brooker-Gross, 1981)

In very rough broad terms, her study showed that the average time between a "local" event occurring and then being published in those 15 papers dropped from three days in 1844 to being published in the next day's paper by from 1899.

"Domestic" – presumably American -- news took an average of six days to being published in those 15 papers in 1844 to being published the next day by 1899. "Foreign" news took an average of 40 days from its occurrence to being published in those 15 papers in 1844.That lag time dropped to three days by 1899.

Brooker-Gross tried to analyze other facets, but too many statistical anomalies popped up to reach any broad conclusions beyond those basic observations, she wrote.

Meanwhile, Scharlott looked for a statistical link between the telegraph boom and an increase in the number of newspaper readers – and concluded the he could back that assumption. In his statistical calculations, he concluded that Wisconsin’s population growth did not account for all of the accompanying increases in newspaper readership. (Scharlott, 1989)

Scharlott looked at the 10 largest cities in Wisconsin from 1844 to 1859 -- dividing them into the biggest five and second-biggest five.

He noted that Wisconsin's use of telegraphs increased from almost nonexistent in January 1848 to reaching all 10 test cities by late 1850.

In the five biggest cities, Scharlott wrote that the number of newspapers grew from seven to 11 from 1844 to 1847, then jumped to 22 in 1850. Then those five cities added 10 more papers through 1859. Milwaukee went from one to seven papers -- including six dailies -- from 1848 through 1850. At that time, it took one day for a telegram to reach Milwaukee from Washington, D.C., compared to 12 days required by a letter.

Wisconsin's sixth through 10th largest cities did not see any similar jumps -- going from zero papers in 1844 to four in 1847 to five in 1850 to eight in 1859.

Scharlott's conclusions: The telegraph's expansion likely led to the dramatic increase in papers in the five largest cities, but did not have a direct effect on the sixth through 10th largest towns.

"Thus, a surge in reader interests, precipitated by the telegraph, probably would have brought about an increase in the number of Wisconsin newspapers. Why was the mid-century surge in the number of Wisconsin papers, which coincided with the spread of the telegraph in the state, confined mainly to Wisconsin's five largest cities. Probably because the larger cities had greater informational needs , especially the need for commercial information. Perhaps smaller cities could not provide enough capital to potential publishers to start or sustain papers," Scharlott wrote.


In the same article, Scharlott wrote: "Before the coming of the telegraph, most information traveled only as fast as people did. Therefore, merchants, farmers, bankers and others in Wisconsin had to wait days or even weeks for distant information they needed, like the price of produce in Eastern markets, or how much out-of-state banknotes should be discounted. After the coming of the telegraph, many Wisconsin readers must have been eager to buy papers that carried such news,"

Scharlott argued that this relationship between booms of newspapers and of the telegraph likely happened elsewhere in the United States at that time.

The telegraph became the internet of the 19th century, but began a long fade-out as the 20th century unfolded. It was just industrial evolution. Radio and television surfaced, and then grew and grew to replace the telegraph as the 20th century's dominant electronic media.

But radio and television news apparently did not replace newspapers.

Newspapers had the advantages of much bigger staffs than radio and television, bigger budgets, the abilities to go many places that the electronic media could not, the capability of disseminating vastly more content -- all while generating huge amounts of revenues.

This would remain the status quo until a new major technological advance would occur.

Newspapers were like the warrior Goliath -- as long as everyone played by his rules, he had no incentive to change. Again, this is another textbook case of disruptive innovation.

The Newspaper Association of America has tracked the nation’s total number of newspapers and their combined circulations – publishing those yearly numbers from 1940 through 2008. Those numbers show the nation’s total number of newspaper copies published on a weekday growing from 1940 to a peak in 1987.

Then the total circulation began to drop, slowly at first while picking up speed as the 21st century unfolded. The decline started just before the 1990s when the Internet was still in its infancy and the economy was doing well. However, the decline’s momentum picked up in the past few years as the Internet has become a significant part of people’s lives. Meanwhile, newspapers struggle with the poor economy, with a becoming-outdated business model, and with their own stumblings in trying to adapt to the online world.

The newspaper association’s annual figures show these snapshots of the rise and fall of American newspaper circulations.

Year Number of papers Total circulation on a weekday

1940 1,878 41.132 million

1960 1,763 58.882 million

1980 1,745 62.202 million

1987 1,645 62.826 million

1995 1,533 58.193 million

2000 1,480 55.773 million

2005 1,452 53.345 million

2008 1,408 48.597 million

The chart shows that less newspapers were being sold on a weekday in 2008 than in 1960.

Bogart noted that the United States’ growing population is far outrunning the sluggish newspaper numbers. (Bogart, 1993)

“Most disturbingly, circulation – both daily and Sunday – has failed to keep up with population growth, and daily readership is becoming more erratic,” Bogart wrote.

He blamed a combination of market forces, technological innovations, a changing culture, “the explosion of video communications”, and other factors for newspapers’ circulation declines.

Like the printing press, the Internet took a while after its conception before becoming a factor in changing newspapers and the rest of the media.

The federal government began serious brainstorming for a computer-linked network in the 1960s. This led the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency coordinating the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network -- the first-generation Internet -- that went online in 1969 to connect computers at UCLA, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah.

Again, Christensen's "non-consumers" and Winston's "supervening social necessities" come into play. All the economic and sociological pieces had to fall in place for the Internet to transform newspapers.

And again, this was a gradual, incremental process -- at first.

Larry Pryor, executive editor of the Online journalism Review divided that incremental process into three waves. (Prior, 2002)

Pryor's first wave took place from 1982 to 1986, in which the Times Mirror and Knight Ridder newspaper chains unsuccessfully experimented with failed videotext services. The services were subscription operations with inadequate applications and management discouraging user innovations.

The so-called second wave ran from 1993 to 2001. Search engines, browsers, blogs and Web sites gained their footholds and never lost them. News organizations began posting on the new World Wide Web. This wave rode the boom and died with the dot-com bust; stumbling over the riddle of how to get people to pay for what had been free services while piling up debt..

Pryor's 2002 article -- modified in 2004 -- put the start of the third wave in 2001. Web site owners became more sophisticated, setting up complex partnerships to make money. Users became huge factors in molding what sites offered. Mobile platforms emerged. Software made huge leaps.

Pryor summarized that "In the first wave of online journalism, the owners controlled all, and end-users had little say in how the product was developed. In the second, end-users fought for control, spurning ads and declaring the content be free. In the third wave, control is being shared. Network owners see value in cooperating closely with their audience; the audience is more willing to let the owners make a buck."

By 2006, online-only news media user had gained a foothold, which is still growing – although traditional newspaper still have a shrinking lion’s share of the readership (Ahlers, 2006).

Ahlers wrote in 2006 that online-only users made up 12 percent of the United States’adult population. About 22 percent used both online and traditional news media. And two-thirds of the nation’s adult used online news media infrequently or never. But Ahlers’ models also predicted that another 25 percent of American adults will significantly cut back on their use of offline news media in 2006’s near future.


So Americans appear to be slowly shifting from using newspapers to using online news media.

One question is how fast will that occur. Another question is how this evolution will likely take place. Right now, there are no likely firm answers. But the second segment of this paper will try to make some educated guesses.

What all this does show is that Christensen's theory of diffusion innovation and Winston's supervening necessities -- which had been on the back burner for much of the 20th century newspaper universe, gradually came back into play with the development of the internet.

And what happened in the late 20th and early 21st centuries reflect how these theories can help explain how the newspaper readerships blossomed because of the printing press, from its improvements, and from the telegraph.


Ahlers, D. (2006). News Consumption and the New Electronic Media. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics. 11, 1, 29-52. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications Inc. http://hij.sagepub/cgi/reprint/11/1/29

Bogart, L. (1993). Newspaper of the Future: Our Look at the Next Century. Newspaper Research Journal..14, 2, 2-10. Memphis: University of Memphis

Brooker-Gross, S R. (1981). Timeliness: Interpretations from a Sample of 19th Century Newspapers. Journalism Quarterly.. Vol. 58, Issue 4. 594-598. Washington D.C.: Association for Education in journalism & Mass Communication.

Christensen, C.M., Anthony, S.D., and Roth, E.A. (2004) Seeing What’s Next, 4-10, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

Hughes, T, (2009) Newspaper Circulation in the 1700s,

Pryor, L., (2002 and 2004) The Third Wave of Online journalism, Online Journalism Review, USC Annenberg

.Scharlott, B. W. (1989). The Influence of Telegraph on Wisconsin Newspaper Growth. Journalism Quarterly. 66. 3, 710-715. Washington D.C.: Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication.

Schwarzlose, R. A. (1980) The Nation's First Wire Service: Evidence Supporting a Footnote. Journalism Quarterly. Vol. 57, Issue 4, 555-562. Washington DC.: Association for Education & Mass Communication.

Standage, T. (1998) The Victorian Internet, 146-153, Walker & Co.

Winston, B. (1998) Media Technology and Society, 5-9, Routledge

World Association of Newspapers, A Newspaper Timeline

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