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Those Dangerous Daily Newspapers

Dailynews runningmanHISTORY MATTERS

George Lunt is nervous about the latest high-tech media. The news is coming out way too fast for anyone to keep pace, he says. Besides, most of what passes for news these days is trivial and irrelevant. Editors can't edit. Writers can't write. Worse yet, the media is creeping into our bedrooms, destroying our privacy, sucking up our valuable time, and focusing on lewd and violent topics.

George Lunt is not talking about news on the Internet or social media. He’s not nervous about movies, television, or radio. Those things haven’t been invented yet. The year is 1856 and George Lunt is warning us about the seductive dangers of -- wait for it -- your daily newspaper.

A lawyer and newspaper editor himself, George Lunt longs for the good old days when newspapers came out only once a week. The weeklies were sober, reflective, and informed, Lunt says. They were designed to educate the mind, instead of “scattering the thoughts.” Weekly newspapers gave readers the chance to contemplate important worldwide topics rather than distract and entertain us with “the rapid flood of moving events.

“We all read newspapers!” Lunt admitted. The daily newspapers wre “as common as air.” The morning edition helps us “wipe the misty cobwebs of dreamland” from our heads and gives us our discussion topics for the day. But often we cannot even recall what we just read in the paper moments before, he wrote, and “we fling them aside with indifference.”

Rise of the penny press

George LuntGeorge Lunt was no shrinking violet. Born in nearby Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1803, his ancestors were among the city’s first settlers. He never failed to note that his grandfather, Henry Lunt, had sailed aboard the warship RANGER with John Paul Jones. As a poet, politician, writer, and public speaker, George Lunt let his opinions fly. His lecture on the uses and abuses of the daily press was first presented in 1856 and published the following year. This lively “lyceum” talk given in Boston was similar, though much longer, than the inspirational TED talks of today.

What frightened Lunt was how quickly Americans in his era had become addicted to the shocking new daily papers. Cheaply printed for a growing and literate middle-class, these “penny dailies” offered sensational "true" stories about shipwrecks, pirates, strange foreign lands, cannibalism, distant wars, massacres, newly discovered animals, sexual intrigues, strange inventions -- and especially, tales of actual crimes.  

While traditional weekly newspapers had given little ink to these taboo topics, by the mid-1800s they had moved to the front page where they remain today. The new media delivered content tuned to the interests of the working public. Those interests included such lowbrow topics as police reports, theater reviews, sports scores, and want ads. And while traditional weekly newspapers tended to support a single powerful political party, the cheap new “independent” dailies promised to report fearlessly and candidly.

The more sensational the stories, editors soon discovered, the more newspapers they sold.  In New Hampshire's only seaport, for example, a healthy rivalry evolved between the Portsmouth Daily Times, begun in 1852, and the Portsmouth Daily Chronicle that followed soon after the Civil War.    

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