Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 22. Public Activities of Newspapers

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XX. Newspapers Since 1860

§ 22. Public Activities of Newspapers

Enterprises in social service have become an established activity of the newspapers. From lending aid to police officials in investigating crime and detecting criminals, reporters have proceeded on behalf of their papers and the public to many notable exploits of this kind. These have been in large measure, like Stanley’s search for Livingstone, undertaken to create sensational news. Related to this conception of the uses of a newspaper go the departments of personal aid, giving advice in matters of health, courtship, manners, law, greatly helpful, though sometimes reminiscent of the Athenian Mercury. More ambitious have been such undertakings as the long-continued campaign carried on by the Chicago Tribune for a “sane Fourth” and the Good Fellow movement at Christmas time, the series of free lectures and other educational endeavours of the Chicago Daily News, the municipal projects of the Kansas City Star, the fresh air funds, ice funds, pure milk funds, and other philanthropic projects supported by many papers. These had become an established function of American newspapers long before the calamities of Europe made of them the wonderful collectors of charitable gifts they have been throughout and since the war. The newspapers have made efforts to prevent swindling by excluding questionable advertising and exposing frauds. Some have gone so far as to guarantee their advertisements. Others have established “bureaus of accuracy and fair play” and made systematic plans to publish corrections of their mistakes.

While the newspapers have been finding new ways in which to serve the public, the public through state and Federal laws has been manifesting a similar interest. In 1900 the Associated Press gave up its charter in Illinois and secured a new one in New York because the Illinois Supreme Court held that it had “devoted its property to a public use … in effect, granted to the public such an interest in its use that it must submit to be controlled by the public, for the common good, to the extent of the interest it has thus created in the public in its private property.” In somewhat this spirit, laws have been enacted within the present century requiring the publication of ownership and circulation of newspapers, stipulating that all advertisements shall be labelled, and in various states curtailing the right of papers to emphasize the evil exposed in divorce and other trials.

These manifestations of a desire to make the newspapers as clean and useful as possible are in part a development of, in part a reaction from, the era of sensationalism. The excesses of that era, together with the growing wealth of the larger papers, and a clarifying realization of the vital need for honest newspapers with more than a commercial purpose, are beginning to show secondary consequences.