Have Newspapers Really Changed?

Bonnie Godas

During my last trip to the Mass Media office, I talked with my fellow writers about an American Studies class called “Cultural History of US Media,” which is taught by Professor Judith Smith. Although it is still early in the semester, I am finding it quite interesting. One of my first assignments took me into a journey of the past. We were asked to go to the Healy Library and get a copy of a front-page newspaper before 1880 and comment on what we saw. After trying to look for it on my own through a microfiche machine, I decided to hand the task of navigation over to an expert at the library to get my front-page news before I accidentally destroyed irreplaceable archives. I chose the Boston Herald dated February 3, 1871. After putting it together (all 16 sheets) I couldn’t believe the size of the front page (I had to lay it on the floor to read it). The front page measured approximately 33.5 inches by 25.5 inches. It is fascinating to read the news from long ago, but in some ways, nothing has changed. To make it more interesting, let’s take it a step further and compare it to the illustrious Boston Herald of today, the newspaper that has become a staple publication in many homes in the Boston area.

I found myself fascinated with this piece of history and curious to see what was happening in Boston at the time. The Civil War had been over for six years and Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States. The city had an influx of immigrants, predominantly Irish. In a section called “News in Brief”, there are bits of articles from around the country and the world with no regards to political correctness. One account, for example, was of a barber described as a “colored man” who was admitted to the bar, thus becoming the first colored lawyer of Nashville. But it was also said he was defending a “negro” charged with murder. Although the Civil War was over and the black man was finally getting his deserved rights as a free man, it was still not accepted by many, leaving a lot of prejudice in this country that unfortunately still goes on today.

There were a lot of other stories, such as references to the blue laws (requiring Boston businesses to close on Sundays) and ads of people advertising their musical talents. Interestingly, there were three columns of entertainment ads coaxing people to enjoy a play, go dancing, or hear some good music; this information was apparently important enough to put it on the front page.

Like the Herald today, the 1871 version also had a sense of gossip and sensationalism, which always sells newspapers even though people don’t want to admit that they like reading these stories. The price was affordable as well: two cents as compared to seventy-five cents today. That’s inflation for you!

One thing I didn’t notice was any information about sports. On most front pages today, there is at least some mention of what our teams are doing; at least a score or two. 1871 was the first year for the new baseball team in town, The Boston Braves, who existed until 1953 when they moved to Milwaukee. But these events just weren’t as important as they are today. Back then, sports were a recreation and provided simple enjoyment. Now it is a business. And if it takes a photo of Tom Brady’s knee to sell a newspaper, that’s what you see, a big picture of the Pat’s quarterback on the front page. Not that I’m complaining…