How Did the Invention of the Telegraph Affect Journalism?

Early journalists used the telegraph to send important news.
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Journalists relied on messengers and the mail service to supply story information before using telegraph services. The height of both professional and personal telegraphs occurred in the 1920s and 30s, but the use slowed with reporters' increased access to telephone and radio services. News services continued to use the telegraph in regions without a network of telephone lines to transfer calls. Gradual use of satellite signals and Internet service signaled the end of the telegraph for most professional journalists.

1 Early Communication

Early journalists relied on collecting information through government and private mail or messenger service, and mail service used steamships and trains to transport story information. The speed of the material arriving from the American far west increased from 1860 to 1861 with the formation of the Pony Express, which provided service from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. Story information took 10 to 16 days to travel between the two cities using the express, depending on weather conditions and the talents of the horseback riders. Information sent by stagecoach doubled this time. By the time reporters in the eastern part of America received story details, the news was almost a month old, information from international sources needed months to arrive by train or steamship. Before the use of the telegraph, American audiences read history by the time the stories appeared in the press.

2 Early Telegraph Use

Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message on May 24, 1844, but the communication system required electrical wires from the sender to the receiver and this physical network took until 1861 to tie the American coasts together. While Morse's message "What hath God wrought?" didn't directly refer to journalists, the use of the telegraph revolutionized the field of journalism. Telegram messages, however, still needed to travel from the telegraph office to the reporter in many areas. Telegrams sent through the regular mail service arrived several times each day to journalists living in large cities, but the printed message on a telegram could take a week for delivery to rural news reporters. Large urban telegraph offices had cable messenger services staffed with young boys on bicycles to deliver telegram messages to reporters. Major news bureaus, newspapers and radio services purchased telegraph machines to scoop the competition.

3 War Information

Early news stories included accounts of the Civil War, but reporting was limited due to government seizure of commercial telegraph offices and equipment in 1861. Government officials sent telegraph transmissions that anyone with a receiver could collect, but reporters weren't privy to the secret codes necessary to translate the official war messages. The federal War Office developed a simple code to avoid the enemy, and any reporters, intercepting telegraphic transmissions. Other than firsthand accounts sent by messenger, the government controlled the news about the war efforts by controlling the telegraph service.

4 Foreign News

Journalists received a boost from the ability to receive information from foreign countries through overseas telegraph service. Newspaper owners joined together to pay for telegraph services from international sources by forming the Associated Press in 1846. AP, a nonprofit cooperative, also contributed funds for the Pony Express to bring telegraphs about the Mexican War to cooperative member newspaper offices.

5 Final Telegraphs

The world's last telegram was sent in India on July 14, 2013, marking the end of the communication channel for millions of people and some journalists. The Indian government-owned service Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) closed its offices in the face of economic losses as a result of the increased use of email and text messaging. Western Union, the largest private telegraph service, sent the last message in the United States on January 27, 2006, citing losses due to the shift in electronic messaging and telephone service. American journalists, however, regularly used the telephone, text messages and email transmissions to research and send stories well before this final transmission date.

Lee Grayson has worked as a freelance writer since 2000. Her articles have appeared in publications for Oxford and Harvard University presses and research publishers, including Facts On File and ABC-CLIO. Grayson holds certificates from the University of California campuses at Irvine and San Diego.