The News Media and the Making of America, 1730-1865

Reform Movements and the News

Private enterprise drove much of the growth of publishing in early nineteenth-century America. Book, magazine, and newspaper publishers in New York, Philadelphia, and other major cities transformed their firms into large-scale businesses, with designs on expanding regional and national markets. Because the new technologies of printing, illustration, and distribution required substantial investments of capital, publishing became more centralized in order to achieve economies of scale.

But commercial enterprise is only part of the story of the communication revolution of the early nineteenth century. Some major publishers were not-for-profit enterprises whose mission was to counteract the commercial market, not to profit from it. In the early decades of the century, these were all religious associations: the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, and the American Sunday School Union. Their goal was to employ new printing technologies and national organizational strategies for evangelism. They believed that market forces would not produce the kind of reading material that people needed. The American Tract Society, for example, was eager to compete in the marketplace of ideas but refused to rely upon the marketplace of commercial trade. It argued that private enterprise was the cause of an evil print culture in America; it could not be the cure. This theme was emphasized routinely in the society’s publications, and the American Tract Society proposed instead to make supply drive demand.

Like the religious publishers, national reform organizations such as the American Temperance Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society also had great faith in the power of print to convert people to their cause. By the 1830s these societies were large publishing houses, producing millions of books, newspapers, magazines, almanacs, tracts, schoolbooks, and other children’s publications, often outside the commercial publishing market. 

Reform Movements and the News