It’s hard to imagine a Sottish born Catholic inventing the now widespread reporting phenomena, the gossip column, but that’s what happened. It’s easier to understand when you take into account that when James Gordon Bennett set up his own newspaper in New York 1835, the the whole concept of newspaper reporting was ripe for a big change in how it was done.
Up until Bennett changed everything newspapers everywhere were rather boring densely printed columns of ‘news’ that was largely factual but which read more like a court report than the attractively phrased, well laid out news story of today that are relieved by plenty of pictures.
Bennet was a visionary in the newspaper business. Singlehandedly he invented newspaper reporting, having someone, himself as it happened, go out and interview people associated with a news story. It helped that that first story was about the murder of a prostitute in NYC. He realized new technology would help him gather news and he used it whenever he could. He was the first person to interview an American President in person, snagging an interview with Martin Van Buren.
He started using woodcut illustrations to break up the solid wall of print in his newspapers and he started the whole movement towards a more racy form of reporting than had been known before.
He reported a lot about the low life of NYC but then most importantly for the future development of gossip columns he realized that titbits of scandalous news about the elite of NYC would be interesting to his readers. And boy, was he right! By the time he retired in 1866 his paper the New York Herald had the largest circulation of any newspaper in America.
The Herald Square in which Macy’s stands is named after him as that was the site of his newspaper building.
If we could wing Bennett back from the past into the world of today’s newspapers and social media he would undoubtedly be amazed but the best in newspapers that happens now is related to the ability he showed in marrying ‘the news’ to what was of interest to and important to readers. It would be great know what he would think of the New York Post’s Page Six or the online gossipfest Gawker.
But when you see the video interview with Liz Smith a famous New York gossip columnist and hear her talk about her famous scoops in reporting on the devious and scandalous doings of famous new Yorkers you just know that she and Bennett would get along just fine.