Sports journalism historically Inspired by my favorite podcast, The Road to Now, and some work I’m starting looking at the historical roots of access in sports journalism, I’m publishing parts of my dissertation that describe the history of sports journalism.
The history of newspaper sports journalism in the United States dates back to the nation’s early days, and is intertwined with both the history of newspaper journalism and with the growth of sport as an American cultural institution. As newspaper journalism grew from a highly partisan avocation into a commercialized profession, and as sports grew from a regional pastime to a national industry, so sports journalism developed into a profession with its own norms, values and routines [^1]
Sports journalism in the United States began in earnest in the 1820s and 1830s, with specialized sports magazines covering primarily horse racing and boxing. At the time, newspaper sports coverage was sporadic, and tended to focus on events with greater social context rather than just games themselves, like a race between horses from the North and the South, or a boxing match between American and British fighters [^2]. But by the end of the 19th century, newspapers would become the primary medium covering sport in America.
The 19th century saw two major developments in the evolution of American newspaper journalism. The first was the emergence of the Penny Press in the 1830s and 1840s, when newspapers expanded their circulation by dropping the price of an issue in an attempt to appeal to a new demographic of middle-class, urban readers. This was also when newspapers began relying on advertising, rather than circulation, to pay for their costs. The second was the Industrial Revolution in the mid-to-late 19th century, during which urbanization grew in large part to waves of European immigration. This was the era of yellow journalism and sensationalism.
Both of these influenced the development of sports journalism as a profession. The growth of the Penny Press saw publishers looking for content that would be popular to the masses. Sports fit that bill perfectly. The New York Herald, published by James Gordon Bennett, was one of the first papers to begin showcasing sports coverage — though Bennett apparently expressed regret that he had done so [^3]. The profession continued to grow throughout the 19th century. Henry Chadwick, writing for The Clipper in New York City in the 1850s and 1860s, is widely considered to be the first full-fledged American sports writer.
The Industrial Revolution, with increased urbanization and technological innovations that reduced the cost of gathering and printing news, created conditions in which newspaper circulations soared. “Sport, with its proven capacity to attract readers, became a logical area of emphasis in this era of yellow journalism.” [^4]. Newspaper sports coverage expanded greatly in this era. The New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, became the first American newspaper with its own sports department in 1883. In 1895, the New York Journal, owned by William Randolph Hearst, introduced the first distinct sports section, in which sports coverage had its own part of the paper.
[^2]: Bryant & Holt, 2006
[^3]: Bryant & Holt, 2006
[^4]: McChesney, 1989 p. 53