Skip to main content
[ "article:topic", "mass media", "license:ccbyncsa", "showtoc:no" ]
Social Sci LibreTexts

15.1: Technological Advances - From the Printing Press to the iPhone

  • Page ID
  • Learning Objectives

    1. Summarize the technological advances of the print, audiovisual, and Internet and digital media ages.
    2. Identify key effects of various mass media on society.
    3. Discuss how mass media adapt as new forms of media are invented and adopted.

    It is only through technology that mass media can exist. While our interpersonal interactions are direct, our interactions with mass media messages are indirect, as they require technology or a “third party” to facilitate the connection. As you’ll recall from Chapter 1, mass communication involves transmitting messages to many people through print or electronic media. While talking to someone about a movie you just watched is interpersonal communication, watching the Academy Awards on a network or in clips on the Internet is mass communication. In this section, we will trace the development of various forms of technology that led to new channels (media) of communication and overview the characteristics of some of the most common mass media.

    As we trace the development of different forms of mass media, take note of how new technologies and competition among various media formats have made media messages more interpersonal and personalized. In short, the mass media that served large segments of the population with limited messages evolved into micromedia that serve narrow interest groups (Self, Gaylord, & Gaylord, 2009). The brief discussion here of these recent changes in how media operate in our lives will be expanded more in the following chapter on new media and communication. It is also interesting to note the speed with which technologies advanced. As we move closer to our current digital age of media, we can see that new media formats are invented and then made available to people more quickly than media that came before. For example, while it took 175,000 years for writing to become established, and about 1,000 years for printing to gain a firm foundation as a medium, audiovisual media (radio, television, and movies) penetrated society within a few decades, and digital media gained prominence in even less time (Poe, 2011).

    Print Mass Media

    The printing press and subsequent technological advances related to paper manufacturing and distribution led to the establishment of print as the first mass medium. While the ability to handwrite manuscripts and even reproduce them existed before the print revolution, such processes took considerable time and skill, making books and manuscripts too expensive for nearly anyone in society except the most privileged and/or powerful to possess. And despite the advent of many other forms of mass media, print is still important as a channel for information and as an industry. For example, in the United States, about 3.1 billion books, 1,400 daily newspapers, and 19,000 magazines are published a year (Poe, 2011). Let’s now look back at how we progressed from writing to print and trace the birth of the first mass medium.

    The “manuscript age” is the period in human history that immediately predated the advent of mass media and began around 3500 BCE with the introduction of written texts and lasted until the printing revolution of 1450 CE (Poe, 2011). Of course, before writing emerged as a form of expression, humans drew cave paintings and made sculptures, pottery, jewelry, and other forms of visual expression. The spread of writing, however, as a means of documenting philosophy, daily life, government, laws, and business transactions was a necessary precursor to the print revolution. Physical and technical limitations of the time prevented the written word from becoming a mass medium, as texts were painstakingly reproduced by hand or reproduced slowly using rudimentary printing technology such as wood cutouts. The high price of these texts and the fact that most people could not read or write further limited the spread of print.

    The German blacksmith and printer Johannes Gutenberg, often cited as the inventor of the printing press, didn’t actually invent much, as most of the technology needed to print, such as movable type, already existed and had been in use for many years. In fact, the mass reproduction and distribution of texts began in East Asia around 700 CE, more than 700 years before Gutenberg, as the Chinese used a wood-block printing method to mass produce short Buddhist texts (Poe, 2011). However, Gutenberg’s use of a press to mash the paper against the typeset, as opposed to the Chinese method of manually rubbing the paper against the typeset, made the process faster and more effective. Additionally, the rise of printing in East Asia didn’t become a “print revolution,” because the audience for the texts was so limited, given low literacy rates.


    Although the technology needed to print mass quantities of text had existed for many years, increasing literacy rates in Europe created more of a demand for printed text, which led to the “print revolution.”

    Mighty June – wood letter blocks – CC BY 2.0.

    Increasing literacy rates in Europe in the two centuries before Gutenberg undoubtedly contributed to the success of his printing efforts, since literacy creates a market for printed texts. The impact of the printing press, as introduced to Europe by Gutenberg starting with his first printing shop in 1439, should not be underestimated. His press helped usher in the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution that swept Europe during the 1600s. This spread was aided by aristocratic and religious leaders who turned to the printing press as a way to both spread Christian thought and seek to improve society by educating individuals. In 1454, Guttenberg’s famous forty-two-line Bible was the first book that was mass produced by modern methods and not transcribed by hand, which had been the practice for thousands of years. With this, the “print age” began, which extended from 1450 to 1850 and marked the birth and rise of the first mass medium (Poe, 2011).


    The explosion of printing following 1450 definitely proves that print was the first mass medium. Books of the time were often shorter than today, but they were still the earliest form of communication to be distributed to the masses, which led to significant cultural and social transformation. Between 1454 and 1500, 30,000 books and pamphlets were published in Europe. In the 1500s, between 150,000 and 200,000 separate titles were printed. Remember, these numbers represent each separate book and not the total copies of each of those titles that were printed. The total number of copies is much more staggering. Between 1450 and 1500, 20 million individual books were printed. During the 1600s, between 150 and 200 million books were printed in Europe. Given that Europe’s population at the time was only 78 million, that’s about three books for each person (Poe, 2011). Of course, books weren’t evenly distributed, since most people couldn’t read or write and had no use for them. At the same time, though, cheaper, shorter materials were printed that included content that catered more to the “common” person. These early publications were similar to tabloids in that they were sold as news items but featured stories about miracles, monsters, and other sensational or fantastical events. Although not regarded for their content or positive effect on society, these publications quickly grew into what we would recognize today as newspapers and magazines, which we will discuss later.

    The printing and distribution of books led to cultural transformation, just as radio, television, and the Internet did. The rise of literacy and the availability of literature, religious texts, dictionaries, and other reference books allowed people to learn things for themselves, distinguish themselves from others by what they read and what they knew, and figuratively travel beyond their highly localized lives to other lands and time periods. Before this, people relied on storytellers, clergy, teachers, or other leaders for information. In this way, people may only be exposed to a few sources of information throughout their lives and the information conveyed by these sources could be limited and distorted. Remember, only a select group of people, usually elites, had access to manuscripts and the ability to read them. Publishers still acted as gatekeepers, just as mass media outlets do today, which limited the content and voices that circulated on the new medium. But despite that, the world was opened up for many in a way it had never before been.

    Demand for books quickly expanded in the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Technological advances in the manufacturing of paper and cheaper materials for binding books—for example, using cloth covers instead of leather—helped reduce the cost of books. Dime novels were very popular in the United States in the mid to late 1800s. These books, also called pulp fiction, had content that was appealing to mass audiences who enjoyed dramatic, short fiction stories. During this time, publishing became more competitive and profit driven—characteristics that still apply to the industry today. While radio and magazines flourished in the first half of the twentieth century, the book industry didn’t fare as well. Many people turned to these new media over books, since radio and magazines were generally cheaper and provided more timely information about major world events like the World Wars and the Great Depression.

    The book industry today caters to a variety of audiences and markets. The following are the major divisions of book publishing and their revenue from 2009, which is the most recent Census data available:[1]

    • Textbooks (K–12 and college)—$9,891,000,000
    • Children’s books—$2,522,000,000
    • Reference books—$625,000,000
    • Professional, technical, and scholarly books—$3,838,000,000
    • Adult fiction, nonfiction—$5,862,000,000

    These numbers show that the book industry is still generating much revenue, but books, like other forms of media, have had to adapt to changing market forces and technologies. Whereas local bookstores used to be the primary means by which people acquired new and used books, the expansion of chain bookstores and the advent of online book purchasing have led to a dramatic decline in local and independent booksellers. Well-known independent bookstores in larger cities—for example, Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado; Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon; Strand Book Store in New York City; and Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri—compete against national chains to attract customers. The closure of nearly four hundred Borders bookstores in 2011 after the company filed for bankruptcy also shows that even chain bookstores are struggling. In terms of technological changes, many book publishers have embraced e-books in the past few years as a way to adapt to new digital media and devices such as e-readers, but they have also had to develop new ways to prevent unauthorized reproduction and “pirating” of digital versions of books. In 2011, for the first time, e-books became the number one format for adult fiction and young adult titles, surpassing print (Sporkin, 2012). Despite this fact, brick-and-mortar stores are still the primary channel through which books are sold—but for how much longer?


    Newspapers, more than books, serve as the chronicle of daily life in our society, providing regular coverage of events, both historic and mundane, and allowing us to learn about current events outside of our community and country. While radio, television, and online news serve that function for most people now, newspapers were the first mass medium to collect and disseminate such information. The first regularly (weekly) published newspaper emerged in Paris in 1631, and others popped up in Florence, Rome, and Madrid over the next few decades. The first daily newspaper was published in Leipzig, Germany, in 1660. In just a little over a hundred years, in the late 1700s, large European cities like London and Paris had around two hundred newspapers, some published daily, some weekly, and some at other intervals. Not surprisingly, literacy rates also increased during this time (Poe, 2011). Also around 1700, newspapers were published in the colonies that would later become the United States. The following timeline marks some of the historical developments in newspaper publishing from colonial times to the Internet age.

    Timeline of Events in Newspaper Publishing (Breig, 2012; Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007)

    • 1690. First newspaper in North America is published in Boston. Due to its anti-British tone, it is banned after the first issue is printed.
    • 1704. The Boston News-Letter is the first newspaper in the colonies to be published regularly. Its content is not timely, since its focus on European events means the information is weeks to months old by the time it is published.
    • 1721. James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother, publishes the New England Courant in Boston, which caters to business and political leaders.
    • 1729. Benjamin Franklin runs the Pennsylvania Gazette, which is well respected for the quality of its contents and also generates revenue through advertisements.
    • 1784. The first daily newspaper is published in the United States—The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser.[2]
    • 1833. Benjamin Day, founder of the New York Sun, changes the pricing, distribution, and content of newspapers by cutting the cost of the paper to one penny per issue and selling them individually on the streets and through vendors rather than through subscriptions, which are cost prohibitive for many people. The Sun focuses more on “human-interest stories,” which attracts readers and begins a surge of other competing “penny papers” using a similar model.
    • 1848. The Associated Press is formed when six New York City papers agree to share incoming information from dispatched reporters and other news sources far away. The news is transmitted through telegraph and other cable/wire services—the label “wire service” or “news wire” is still used today.
    • Late 1800s. Many newspapers practice “yellow journalism” to be competitive, meaning they publish sensational news items like scandals and tragedies and use attention-getting (in terms of size and wording) headlines to attract customers. The New York Times begins to distance itself from yellow journalism and helps to usher in a period of more factual and rigorous reporting and a split between objective and tabloid publications that begins in the early 1900s and continues today.
    • 1955. The Village Voice is published in Greenwich Village, New York, which marks the beginning of the rise of underground and alternative newspapers.
    • 1980. The Columbus Dispatch is the first newspaper to publish content online.
    • 1982.USA Today is launched, which challenges long-standing newspaper publishing norms and adopts a more visual style. The size, layout, use of color and images, and content is designed to attract a new newspaper audience, one used to watching television news.
    • 1998. The Drudge Report, an online gossip and news aggregation site, gains national attention when it breaks a story about Newsweek magazine delaying the publication of a story about then-president Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky (Rogers, 2012). Although online news sites have been around for years, this marks the beginning of the rise of Internet-based news gathering and reporting by people with little to no training in or experience with journalism. Traditional journalists criticize this practice, but such news outlets attract millions of readers and begin to change the way we think about how news is gathered and reported and how we get our news.

    Newspapers have faced many challenges in recent decades—namely, the increase of Internet-based news, leading to a major decline in revenue and readers. In recent years major papers like the Rocky Mountain News have gone out of business completely, and others like the Seattle Post Intelligencer have switched to online-only formats. Additionally, major newspapers like the Chicago Sun Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune have declared bankruptcy due to heavy debt burdens (Grabowicz, 2012). To deal with these financial issues, papers have laid off employees, cut resources for reporters, closed international bureaus, eliminated rural or distant delivery, reduced frequency of publication, and contracted out or partnered on content. This last strategy received national attention recently when it was found out that hundreds of newspapers were using the services of a company called Journatic to create hyperlocal content for them to publish (Sheffield, 2012). Hyperlocal content includes information like real-estate transactions, obituaries, school lunch menus, high school sports team statistics, and police activities, which are a considerable drain on already strained newsrooms. However, readers and media critics were surprised to learn that Journatic was paying people in the Philippines to write this content and then publish it under fake names. After news of this spread, many papers announced that they would go back to generating this content using their own resources (Folkenflik, 2012).


    Although newspapers were the first record of daily life in the United States, magazines were the first national mass medium, reaching people all over the growing nation of the late 1700s and into the 1800s. Although the reach of magazines made them the first national medium, they were generally unsuccessful, and the content of the early magazines was not highly regarded.


    Magazine publishers had a difficult time finding success, since postal carriers either refused to deliver magazines because of their weight or charged high postage rates that limited subscribers.

    Sean Winters – Magazines – CC BY-SA 2.0.

    The high cost of transportation and delivery made magazine subscriptions unaffordable for most people, and the content consisted mostly of stories reprinted from newspapers with the occasional essay on the arts or current events. Toward the middle of the 1800s, magazines began to play a more central role in society. At the time, magazines devoted more content to important issues such as slavery and women’s right to vote (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007). Magazines as a mass medium overcame early challenges to enjoy a period of relative success in the early 1900s and then met one of their biggest challenges, the rise of television, in the mid-1900s. The following timeline traces some of the most important developments and changes in magazines (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007).

    Timeline of Events in Magazine Publishing

    • 1741. Colonial magazines are published. As with colonial newspapers, Benjamin Franklin plays a central role getting them started. Unlike newspapers, magazines face more challenges in terms of postage rates and finding an audience. Over the next thirty years, about one hundred magazines are published and go defunct.
    • Early 1800s. The number of magazines increases to about one hundred in circulation by 1825. Although they generate some revenue through advertising, they still face financial struggles. Most magazines serve a specific community or area and still consist of content that is mostly reprinted from other sources.
    • 1820s. Specialized magazines catering to niche audiences begin to emerge. For example, literary magazines feature the writing of people like Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and magazines focus on specific professions or topics such as farming, law, education, or science.
    • 1821. The Saturday Evening Post is founded and becomes the longest-published magazine in the United States and the first general-interest magazine to be successfully marketed to a national audience.
    • 1828. The first women’s magazine, Ladies’ Magazine, is founded and marks the beginning of the trend toward targeting women as a distinct audience.
    • 1850s. Magazines pioneer the use of images in printed texts, reproducing high-quality illustrations and sketches, though not photographs.
    • 1865. The Nation is published, which focuses on political opinion and caters toward a more educated and liberal readership.
    • 1879–early 1900s. The Postal Act of 1879 is passed, which lowers the cost of postage for magazines. This, along with improvements in rail transportation and mass-production printing, leads to a surge in the number of magazines and the number of subscribers. These changes attract more advertisers, which allows magazine publishers to drop the price per issue below what it actually costs to produce the magazine. This attracts more readers, which attracts more advertisers and allows publishers to make up the loss between subscription and production rates with ad revenue.
    • 1900–1960. This is a peak time for magazine success. The early 1900s sees a rise in investigative journalism that goes into much more depth than newspaper coverage. The 1920s and 1930s see the rise of general-interest magazines such as Reader’s Digest, Time, and Life. Magazines play a key role in providing in-depth coverage of the World Wars and start to cover the cultural revolutions of the 1960s when they run into new challenges.
    • 1960s and 1970s. As television explodes as the new mass medium of choice, national magazines lose advertisers to the new audiovisual medium. Audiences (now viewers instead of readers) turn to nightly news programs to follow the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the Vietnam War.
    • 1970s–present day. Magazines adapt to changing times by devoting pages or entire publications to the covering of television and movies. Magazines like People, launched in 1974, provide news on a wide range of celebrities. Magazines also adapt by becoming more specialized, trying to appeal more to niche rather than general-interest audiences.

    While television forced magazines to adapt to an increasingly popular visual medium, radio and magazines coexisted relatively well. But the clash between print, audio, and visual media in the early 1900s marks an interesting time in the history of mass media. The growth and spread of print as a mass medium took hundreds of years, which seems like an eternity when compared to the spread of audiovisual media. The lack of and resistance to literacy made the printed medium spread less quickly than audio and visual media, which is not surprising from an evolutionary perspective. Humans evolved to talk, look, and listen, as evidenced by the fact that we have body parts/organs that help us do these things. We did not evolve to read and write, which is why the process of teaching those things is so difficult and time consuming (Poe, 2011). In general, people enjoy watching and listening more than reading and writing. While we had to adapt our brains to decode written language and our arms, hands, and fingers to be able to produce written text, the turn to listening to the radio and watching and listening to television and movies was much more comfortable, familiar, and effortless.