Jason Currie

Electronic Publishing

Research project

An Electronic Penny Press?: Forecasts for the Future of Online Publications

The field of electronic publishing is only in its third decade, yet forecasts concerning its future have abounded in recent years. Some, noting a study which argues that only 10 percent of online publications turned a profit in 1996 [1], doubt the viability of a paperless media industry. Others point to a bright future, citing the recent extraordinary growth of electronic publishing -- from less than 10 online newspapers in 1991, for instance, to over 1600 by the end of 1996 [2]. An examination of the history of the press, however, reveals similar concerns and patterns during the early years of the newspaper. A daily newspaper was considered an extravangance as late as the 1820s [3]; it was only in the 1830s that newspapers began to achieve a mass market readership. The penny press and other less cheap presses helped bring about this expansion of the newspaper industry -- from a little over 65 papers in 1835 to well over 350 in 1860 [4]. Is electronic publishing about to experience a period of growth similar to that of the penny press? Will it be possible for online publications to achieve a mass market as the newspaper industry did during this era of the penny press? If so, how might this expansion of the online publishing industry differ from that of the cheap papers?

Historical parallels can be inaccurate, but it seems that online publications are in a stage of growth similar to that which the newspaper industry experienced during the party press era. This period, prior to that of the penny papers, is one of partisan journalism, in which almost all newspapers were controlled by political parties and dominated by coverage of the government. While not controlled by political parties, early experiments in online publications were the products of government agencies such as the BBC and the British Post Office. Moreover, the Internet has not yet been fully commercialized, just as the newspaper industry prior to the penny press was more of a party organ, rather than a strictly commercial press.

According to John C. Nerone, the penny press era serves as a "myth of origins" for contemporary journalism[5]. During this period several major developments in the history of journalism took place: the advent of early forms of both objectivity and sensationalism, an increasing amount of illustrations, a caveat emptor advertising policy, and distribution through express and carrier services. Donald Lewis Shaw, in his study of American press news from 1820 to 1860, notes that these years also witnessed "development of the role of the reporter as professional. In the early part of those years reporters accounted for about one story in 10 but by the end for one in five (20%)" [6]. Editors became more vociferous during this period; Shaw mentions that editors' opinions became more common in stories, increasing from 13 to 25% during these years [7].Coverage of local stories also increased significantly [8].

Historians have offered various explanations for the development of the penny press. The growth of literacy during the period allowed for increased readership, while technological progress (including the manufacturing of paper from wood pulp instead of rags and a faster, type-revolving press), and the rise of middle-class entrepreneurs also contributed to the advent of the penny papers[9]. Each of these factors have parallels in the field of online publishing.

Of these explanations the first two would seem to be the most pertinent for online publishing. Robert Weber, a Senior Technology Consultant in the Office for Information Technology at Harvard, stresses political regulations and technological factors rather than advertising as being important for online publications' achievement of a mass-market readership. He considers the technological issues to be "the rate of new investment in advanced technologies, the rate at which the telephone system is upgraded, and the rate at which existing research networks are integrated into a national networking infrastructure" [10]. Standardized workstations with a "set of basic user interface standards", in addition to standards for encoding text and graphics, are also crucial for the "evolution of a mass consumer market" in the field [11].

The increase in entrepreneurship may seem less pertinent than technological factors for mass-market growth of online publications, but it is equally important. Unlike the publications of the penny press era, though, contemporary newspapers rely much more on advertising for revenue, rather than subscriptions. Hoag Levins reports that recent polls of online editors indicate that "many American newspaper companies are operating on business plans that call for their Web sites to become profitable two years after start up" [12]. The problem with these expectations, he explains, is that the advertising market on the Internet hasn't developed on the "local level." The difficulty that national advertisers find in putting ads on several newspaper sites in a particular region, coupled with the lack of local advertisers on the Internet to support local newspaper sites, inhibits the growth of the industry [13]. E-zines have attempted to adapt to these problems with different strategies: through ad pricing in which the advertiser is charged for each time the ad is actually seen, as the magazine Feed currently does, or through a partnership with a more visible business, such as the one Salon initiated with Borders bookstores [14].

In terms of staffing, online publications may also come to demonstrate parallels with the penny press. With the advent of the cheap papers the roles of both editors and journalist were radically altered. The personalities became much more prominent during the era -- the sensationalism of James Gordon Bennett (of the New York Herald), the crusading spirit of Horace Greeley (of the New York Tribune), and the sober judgments of Henry Raymond (of the Times)all contributed to the growth of their papers. How might the roles of both editors and journalists continue to alter during the expansion of online publications? In a study of the effects of "new technology" on the "writer-editor relationship", Kathleen L. Andres and Ann B. Schierhorn note that a significant effect of the "virtual workplace" is increasing "decentralization" -- "the magazine editorial offices are beginning to be decentralized. Staff writers at remote sites are hooked electronically with the home base. . .with the shift toward decentralization, electronic ties are strengthened"[15] This decentralization parallels the increasing departmentalization of news throughout the penny press era. But Andres and Schierhorn also foresee trouble for freelancers, who may end up becoming a "technological underclass" because of lack of access to technology.

The political changes which occured during the era of the penny press were also fundamental. Michael Schudson argues that the cheap presses were essentially the product of America's transformation into a "democratic market society," a transformation which increased during from the 1830s onward [16]. But as with freelancing, here rapid growth of electronic publishing may not entail the same consequences as that of the penny press. In his essay on cyberdemocracy Mark Poster claims that

If the term democracy refers to the sovereignty of embodied individuals and the system of determining office-holders by them, a new term will be required to indicate a relation of leaders and followers that is mediated by cyberspace and constituted in relation to the mobile identities found therein. [17]

A new term would be required because of the unique forms of interdependence which the Internet provides, such as the "virtual workplace." Moreover, copyright difficulties also pose problems which the penny papers never faced -- Weber believes it is the greatest obstacle to the growth of online publishing. Even though the penny press era may offer several insights into forecast for the future of electronic publishing. the ultimate result of this achievement of a mass market seems much more unpredictable.


1. Hoag Levin, "In search of: Internet Business." Editor and Publisher Interactive, Feb. 4, 1997, pp. 4-26.

2. Ibid.

3. W.D. Sloane, The Media in America: A History (Vision, 1993), p. 154.

4. Ibid, p. 154.

5. John C. Nerone, "The Mythology of the Penny Press" Journal of Communication 29 (Summer 1993), 376.

6. Donald Lewis Shaw, "Change and Continuity in American Press News, 1820-1860. Journalism History 8:2 (Summer 1981), 41.

7. Shaw, 41.

8. Ibid.

9. Sloane, 155.

10. Robert Weber, "The Clouded Future of Electronic Publishing." Publishers Weekly, June 29, 1990, 77.

11. Ibid, 80.

12. Levin, 4.

13. Levin, 6.

14. "Can the Paperless Magazines Make it?" Columbia Journalism Review Online, Jan.-Feb. 1996.

15. Kathleen L. Endres and Ann B. Schierhorn, "New Technology and the Writer/Editor Relationship: Shifting Electronic Realities."Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 25 (Summer 1995).

16. Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York, 1978), 30-50.

17. Mark Poster, "Cyberdemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere." Internet.