180 Years

The Inquirer celebrates a proud history of newsgathering in the Philadelphia region.

When The Inquirer cranked to life on June 1, 1829, its editors promised to support the rights of common people and oppose the abuses of corrupt government.

Remarkably, over 180 years, that commitment hasn't changed. The paper still insists that freedom of the press is the fuel that powers the engine of democracy.

What has changed over that colossal span? Pretty much everything else.

And, most of all, this: Time and space have collapsed.

When George Washington died, it took weeks for the news to travel from Virginia

to Kentucky. Word of Abraham Lincoln's death reached the back country within days. On Sept. 11, 2001, people watched the attack on the second World Trade Center tower as it happened.

Today, no one feels as if he or she needs to wait until tomorrow for the news, least of all the people who write and edit The Inquirer. In this region, The Inquirer - as a newspaper and as a news-gathering organization - remains the source where people go to find out who has been elected or indicted, what stock is going up or what building burning down, who won, who lost, and how.

 

The distance of 180 years is best measured not in terms of what was, but what wasn't.

In 1829, Temple University, the Philadelphia Zoo and the Phillies did not yet exist. There was no Academy of Music, no Philadelphia Museum of Art. Eastern State Penitentiary, built for the ages and opened a few months after the newspaper, is today a hulking, haunted tourist attraction.

The Inquirer appeared just after Andrew Jackson was inaugurated as the country's seventh president, and the timing was no coincidence. The paper aimed to support the new president and his vision of democracy, at a time when people were questioning whether having a single, conjoined nation - the United States - was such a hot idea.

The Inquirer started in June and was sold in November - and was better off for it. Increasing rates of literacy, marked advances in printing, and a rising city population - near 80,000 in 1829 - drove the growth of Philadelphia's newspapers. At least seven were battling for readers.

Owner Jesper Harding obtained the first American serial rights for several of Charles Dickens' novels, a grand coup. Later his paper joined others in printing The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. The Inquirer hired Mark Twain - but not to write. Samuel Clemens labored in a back shop as a compositor.

In the newsroom, what was true in Twain's time is true today: The journalists at The Inquirer believe that a free and vibrant press is crucial to providing readers with information they need to be informed citizens.

Inquirer journalists take enormous pride in pointing out an onerous government policy, alerting people that a good cause needs help, or warning about potential harm from tainted foods or dubious investments. Their critical reporting is their patriotism.

It's one reason why, when reporters leave the paper - because they've grown tired or disillusioned, or more often these days, because they've been bought out or laid off - many tend not to do very well in other trades. Journalists aren't good at corporate rah-rah. They are poor fits for companies that have no institutional bias toward truth-telling.

The same technological revolution that created Philly.com, and that speeds news to your BlackBerry, sapped newspapers of some of their most profitable advertising.

In February, The Inquirer and its parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection - perversely, at a time when huge numbers of people are consuming its journalism.

Eventually, the paper may not be printed on paper at all. The Inquirer will change. It has always been changing. For three decades it was called the Pennsylvania Inquirer. The paper founded in Jacksonian democracy was by the 1930s known as the Republican Bible of Pennsylvania.

The people who started The Inquirer printed ink on paper because that was the most efficient means to distribute the news. Today, that's no longer true. But that doesn't mean there's not news. Just the opposite, there's more news - and more demand for information - than ever.

Some people think the miracle known as the Internet is already becoming unwieldy, and could be supplanted by something else, something faster and more convenient. Something that would be the newsprint of its day.

Each new technology succeeds the last. Each generation replaces the previous. But there is always news. There are always people who want to report the news. There will always be truth-tellers.

 


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.