moon hoax from papers link william and tom.jpg
Great Moon Hoax, The Sun, 1835.

"[T]he penny press changed what we once meant by information.’”(Postman: 8)
It would be remiss to fail to discuss the innovative content of The Sun. To be sure, one need only look into any early edition of The Sun to recognize the innovative writing and news stories targeting the common man in New York in the 1830s.

The introduction of the penny papers created a new kind of news. While the other papers focused on reporting political issues, and week old foreign news stories, the penny presses focused on local news, news about the people that were reading the papers. Of this Shudson says, "[I]n the 1830s the newspaper began to reflect, not the affairs of an elite in a small trading society, but the activities of an increasingly varied, urban, and middle class society of trade, transportation, and manufacturing" (22).

For the first time, newspaper content focused to a great extent on those things that were of interest to the common man: sporting events, local crimes, jobs, and advertisements were what made the front page of the penny papers. While penny papers still touched on politics, it was always events, never issues, and politics rarely made the front page. Even the death of Andrew Jackson was not front and center of the paper; in the June 17, 1845 edition of the New York Sun the article read, "General Jackson is no more! - The soldier, the patriot, the statesman, has gone to his final resting place."

Nerone characterizes the penny papers as a medium of social life, "The penny paper transformed the American newspaper from a political to a social instrument" (380). It is precisely the social aspect that distinguishes the penny papers from the other metropolitan papers that came before. When one reads an edition of the Sun it feels as though you are reading a letter from a friend. The tone is different, engaging, almost neighbourly. It is easy to see how the penny papers, as a new medium of information dissemination would be appealing to the masses. It is after all, human nature to want to read about ourselves, people we know, and where we live. It is even more likely that after we read about these things we will want to discuss them with friends and coworkers.

Let's take a glimpse into an edition of The Sun which is held at the Library of Congress website. (You can view this particular edition up close by clicking on The Sun
The Sun 1835 full sheet.jpg
The Sun
edition to the right.) Page 1 includes advertising (it was typical for 50 percent of the front page to be devoted to advertising - help wanted, businesses advertising their wares, boarding houses offering reasonable rates, etc). The rest of page one typically included shocking news events or horrific tales from other districts. For instance, you will see one article discussing a horrific rifle accident involving an unexplained spontaneous combustion. Yet another discusses how a polar bear in a zoo in Brussels was "hugged to death" by its fellow den dwellers because he had attempted to eat a cake that was for all of them. (Right column under MAIL ITEMS).

Page 2 tended to cover local news and events. This particular edition discusses Night schools that have been started for young men and women who are unable to attend school during the day. "What prospect has a man who can neither read nor write? And to what mortification is a woman often exposed, who lacks the common rudiments of an English education?" (Column 1, page 2). Prize fights, steam boiler explosions, deaths, round out the remainder of page 2 news.

Page 3 is dedicated to "wanted" ads, auction notices, theatre events, steamship arrival and departure information, and of course a column or two dedicated to "amusements". And lastly, Page 4, is predominately advertising again - items for sale, along with an amusing story that reads more like a personal narrative than a newspaper article.

Beyond their news focus on unique human interest stories, the penny papers, particularily The Sun, were infamous for their sensationalism. For instance, in 1835 The Sun ran a 6 day series called the "Celestial Discoveries". Day had hired a writer by the name of Richard Adam Locke to create a a fanciful tale of life on the moon. The series included elaborate images of bat-like men, unicorns, and other bizarre moon creatures. The "Moon Hoax" as it is commonly referred to in journalism circles is documented as one of the earliest and most elaborate hoaxes in media history (Bergman et al.). Day and Locke had many readers convinced that a group of scientists had successfully created a telescope strong enough to see the moon and the six consecutive editions were reporting "live" on what was seen. It was absurd, and many scientists quickly approached Day looking for the facts to back up his story. Eventually Day was forced to come clean to his readership. One would think that such a hoax would be met with anger and loss of readership, but instead, Day's stunt seemed to have the reverse affect. The Moon Hoax seemed to generate even more readership. Goodman refers to this stunt by The Sun as a the first "infotainment" and says that "in a nation of infinite possibilities this was a liberating approach to news - harmless, not yet acidified into the manipulative bite of yellow journalism, coy 'truthiness' a la Stephen Colbert" (Goodman). To view the six series moon hoax for yourself you can visit the Museum of hoaxes website.

Aside from the hoaxes, murder plots, and other sensationalized stories that donned the pages of the penny papers in their first years of publication, over time, the papers grew to take on more serious news stories as well. There was a shift in content along with the ever growing readership that followed. Once a disruptive product gains a foothold in a low-end market, the improvement cycle typically begins. Tied directly to technological progress, the product tends to outweigh the pace at which the new users are consuming it. As a result, the product that was once considered not good enough eventually improves and begins to appeal to those more demanding customers. Christensen describes this process: "Disruptions tend to start as not as good as the existing products or services as judged by their historical measures of performance, and then, over time, they are able to march up market such that they are able to handle more complicated tasks. Many people flock to the disruptive innovation over time as it becomes good enough, as the customers are delighted by something that carries this new value proposition around convenience, simplicity, and/or affordability" (1997). This growth in market over time is evident in the penny papers; in 1860 The Herald, Day's greatest direct competitor in the penny papers was noted as the world's largest newspaper with a circulation of over 77,000(Collins).