The Founding of the Associated Press
By Rick Brown
Ten men, representing the six most important New York newspapers at the time, sat around a table in the office of the New York Sun one day early in May, 1848. They had been in session for more than an hour and all that time they had been in stubborn argument. Some of them were belligerent, some were conciliatory, some were unconcerned, some were worried. They were the autocrats of the city's newspaper world and one room never had been big enough before to hold them.
James Gordon Bennett was there with his assistant, Frederick Hudson, for the New York Herald. Webb attended with his managing editor, Henry Raymond, of the Courier and Enquirer, Gerald Hallock and Hale represented the Journal of Commerce, Horace Greeley of the Tribune, Moses Beach, publisher of the Sun, and Eustace and James Brooks of the Express completed the ten.
The meeting was the outcome of Hale's efforts over a period of months to bring the competing publishers together. He and Bennett had been pleased with the success of the co-operative effort which grew out of their meeting the year before, and Hale gradually had come to see a possible union of the foremost New York Newspapers, each contributing its share to a general fund which could be used in a concerted effort to provide readers with wider coverage of all important world events. Now at the critical moment of his campaign he was tired and ill. He knew how difficult it would be to persuade the news titans to forget their antagonisms in the interests of the common good. But he faced the meeting and talked of news, its problems, and his proposal. There was plenty of news to talk about. In Europe there were revolutions in progress and others brewing. At home the Mexican War was over, but the drums of another presidential campaign were beating for the war heroes, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. The antislavery movement was growing daily; out in the wilderness of Utah the Mormons were establishing themselves on the shores of Salt Lake, and from Chicago the railroad was pushing slowly into the West.
But, aside from Hale and Bennett, the overlords of the New York press were suspicious and reluctant. Hale outlined his plan and saw marked signs of resentment. The rival publishers had not been pleased at the stories of the Herald and Journal of Commerce through the co-operative efforts. There were gruff questions and vigorous dissent. James Watson Webb heard the plan through impatiently and reared to his feet. he had never forgiven Hale for breaking the harbor news monopoly with his sailboat years before, and he never would forgive Bennett for violating established newspaper practice by publishing a penny paper which gave the readers more than they paid for. His Courier and Enquirer, he said, never would join any association which contained Bennett and his Herald. He accused Hale and Bennett of concocting a scheme which had been so costly that they were now trying to bamboozle other into paying the bill. Puffing and angry, he turned to Henry Raymond for approval only to find Raymond's attention fixed on Hale, who had picked up the interrupted discussion.
Hale turned patiently to another phase of the problem. The situation on telegraph news was highly complicated. Each paper arranged for this news independently and paid the full rate to the company. There was only one wire available to serve all the New York papers and it had its terminus across the Hudson River on the New Jersey shore. The papers had to take fifteen minute turns on the facilities, and all but the first in line were out of luck. News was read aloud from the crude Morse ticker to a representative of the receiving paper and there was deliberate eavesdropping and pilfering. The telegraph companies were in a precarious position because of their own competitive struggle and consequently they charged every penny the traffic would bear.
Although telegraph news was already expensive, Hale warned it might even become more costly. It was common knowledge that the telegraph companies were selling news from their various offices to anyone in spite of the fact that it had been gathered by representatives of the papers themselves. Hale also had been reliability informed that certain wire enterprises were secretly toying with the idea of setting up regular subsidiary organizations to gather and transmit news for sale. The dangers were obvious; with no governmental supervision, the telegraph companies would make it virtually impossible for any news but their own to move on limited wire facilities. Papers would be forced to surrender the vital function of news gathering and news itself would be reduced to a purely commercial and unreliable commodity dished up for a price by outsiders on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
As Hale concluded, Webb was drawn aside from the group by his able assistant, Raymond, who founded the New York Times three years afterward, was convinced of the wisdom of the proposal Hale had just made. A few minutes later the old stalwart of the Courier and Enquirer returned to the table and one glance told Hale and the others that the battle was over.
So in the Sun office in May, 1848, the first real co-operative news gathering organization was formed. Its concept was limited and largely selfish. There was no immediate thought of benefiting any but these six papers and there was no disposition to look upon the collection of news as a great public service. The organization was by no means all that it might have been, but it was a beginning.
They called it the Associated Press.
The first step taken by the new organization was to perfect operating procedures. Hallock was named president and the office of "general agent" was created. The man to fill this job would be responsible for actively collecting and and distributing the news. A committee was immediately formed to supervise the first news gathering efforts. Frederick Hudson, Bennett's editorial right-hand man, and Raymond, the managing editor of Webb's Courier and Enquirer, were the two men selected. The committee quickly began functioning. First it arranged for the carter of the steamer Buena Vista at Halifax to intercept all European boats, obtain what news they brought and rush it on to Boston, the northernmost terminus of the telegraph. Then it began negotiating with the wire company to secure precedence for the transmission of this news to New York at attractive rates. Raymond outlined what was needed in a letter on May 13, 1848, to F. O. J. Smith, a tight-fisted promoter then in charge of the Boston-New York telegraph line.
Smith realized the increased business such an arrangement would bring and two days later he outlined a plan, quoting tolls. Raymond confirmed the contract on May 1. As the spring days moved on into another summer, it became obvious that Raymond had had definite plans in mind when he mentioned to Smith the possibility of forwarding news to other papers. The Philadelphia Public Ledger and the Baltimore Sun began receiving the dispatches. They were not members of the Associated Press. The New York organization restricted that privilege but they were its first paying clients. As the association grew the profitable practice of selling news to outside papers was greatly expanded.
Once the channel was clear for foreign intelligence, the committee turned its attention to news at home. Already there were independent "telegraph reporters" scattered throughout the country who wrote and transmitted copy to any newspaper that would buy. The system under which they operated was unsatisfactory. There was now a need for a man who was familiar with the free-lance sources as well as the general operation of the telegraph. The Association found the man for its general agent in Dr. Alexander Jones, a graduate in medicine whose early interest in communications had lured him into journalism. He had been a news gatherer on both sides of the Atlantic and he had devised the first cipher code to effect savings in telegraph bills.
Jones opened a simple office at the top of a long flight of seventy-eight stairs at the northwest corner of Broadway and Liberty Street. This served as headquarters of The Associated Press for more than two decades. The annual rental was less than $500 and the weekly administrative expense was less than $50. The general agent's salary was $20 a week and the entire cost of operations the first year was between $10,000 and $20,000. Payment for foreign news was the largest single item.
At first the entire New York staff consisted of Jones and one assistant, but later a second assistant was added. Trained, capable men were few and those available needed months of training. Besides his work in New York, Jones was kept busy engaging correspondents, or "agents" as they were called, to obtain and telegraph news to New York. The major duties of the general agent were to receive and distribute the intelligence received from these men, to pay telegraph tolls and other necessary expenses to conduct the business, and to see collections from the six member newspapers and hinterland clients. Sufficient copies of each incoming dispatch were made on manifold tissue paper to cover the list of subscribers.
The great rush was on to California and fantastic tales of fortunes in gold trickled overland to the east. But gold was only one story. The Associated Press covered its first presidential campaign; a Women's Rights Convention at Rochester demanded suffrage; President Polk offered to buy Cuba for $100,000,000; Garibaldi's red shirts battled the French, the King of Prussia became the hereditary emperor of the Germans. The New York terminus of the telegraph line was still in New Jersey ‹ the problem of bridging wide rivers baffled the wire companies and General Agent Jones intended to get the news from the Whig National Presidential Nominating Convention being held in Philadelphia across the Hudson as fast as possible. Flag signals, he decided, would do it. He went to Jersey City himself to make sure there would be no slip-up. At the pier near the Cortland Street Ferry on the New York side he stationed a boy from the Courier and Enquirer. The youngster had careful instructions. A white flag said Taylor; a red, Clay. Two white flags on the same staff meant Scott, and two reds meant McLean had been nominated.
Forty minutes after Jones crossed the river, the boy saw a white flag being waved vigorously from the New Jersey side. he raced off to notify the New York papers that General Taylor had been nominated. The news fled north along the telegraph to New England arousing great excitement. Unfortunately the signal the boy had seen was the white flag of a broker's representative in New Jersey wigwagging the latest Philadelphia stock quotations to a lookout on the Merchant's Exchange building in New York. Fortunately, Taylor was nominated the next day.
Coverage of the election was an epochal thing. it cost more than $1,000-- an awesome amount in 1848 -- to report General Taylor's election. For the first time telegraph offices remained open all night. Dr. Jones went seventy-two hours without sleep before the story was finished.
Everything considered, the organization was off to a good start, but the man who began it did not live to see The Associated Press through its first crucial years. Hardly a month after the meeting in the Sun's office, David Hale had a stroke. He regained strength for a time but in January, 1849 death came to the pioneer of co-operative news gathering.