News For All: America's Coming Of Age With The Press by Thomas C. Leonard

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Thomas C. Leonard
Oxford University Press, USA
Date of release


News For All: America's Coming Of Age With The Press

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Book review

"The American," wrote Victorian journalist Edward Dicey, "might be defined as a newspaper reading animal." Nineteenth-century taverns boasted of their newspapers as much as their drinks. Indeed, Americans' news-consumption habits were so obvious that Omaha Indians, on visits to St. Louis, mimicked newspaper reading as a courtesy when in the company of white men. But today, countless papers have closed or consolidated, and magazines built on mass readership seek to limit (or "target") their subscriber base. Now Thomas C. Leonard captures this sea change in American history, exploring the reality and critical importance of print journalism in daily life.
In News for All, Leonard provides a fascinating account of the love-hate relationship we have always had with the news, from the early nineteenth century to the present. Reading the news was once a central social function, as citizens eagerly gathered in taverns, inns, post offices, and elsewhere to hear the latest reports. During an era when travel was slow and when geography, religion, class, race, and language divided the nation, all shared the universal habit of taking a favorite paper. Readers formed an alliance with publishers, declaring their politics by what they read in an age of highly partisan editorial policies: there were papers for the women's movement, antislavery, temperance reform, political parties large and small. Men and women courted by exchanging their beloved papers. Other hot-blooded readers protested items that offended them politically, even forming mobs after publication of unfriendly news. The press prospered with the democratization of news: they welcomed the pennies of succeeding waves of immigrants, and engaged in devastating circulation wars that slashed the price of the daily paper. Press barons learned to adjust to the desires of readers (the young William Randolph Hearst, for example, learned that what his subscribers wanted was more advertising). The end of the twentieth century, however, has seen journalists pull back from readers. Magazines seek to limit their readers in order to the affluent public to attract advertising dollars; publishers market subscribers' names ruthlessly, often cooperating with big advertisers. And the development of other major media threatens the role of the printed page as the ultimate word. The idea of news for all, it seems, is a faded dream.
America's insatiable appetite for news played a critical role in the growth of democracy, but never before have the readers, rather than the periodicals, been examined in detail. News for All bridges this critical gap, bringing to life the nation's cantankerous love affair with the press.

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