A Brief History of New Jersey Newspapers

New Jersey was the last of the original thirteen colonies to publish its own newspapers. As a small colony sandwiched between the thriving cities of New York and Philadelphia, it relied on out-of-state newspapers to discover what was happening in the colonies and Great Britain, but learned little about local events beyond word of mouth. The lack of newspaper coverage for the early colonial days has been felt by historians. The State of New Jersey published Extracts from American Newspapers Relating to New Jersey between 1704 and 1775 to compensate. After the Revolutionary War began, it was increasingly difficult for New York and Philadelphia papers to reach New Jersey readers. This spurred the publication of the colony’s first newspaper, the New-Jersey Gazette, edited and published in Burlington by Isaac Collins, beginning December 5, 1777. Full of revolutionary fervor and calls for independence, the paper was endorsed by Governor William Livingston and the legislature. It contained official documents, war news, advertisements, and local news. The next paper, equally zealous in support of independence and the war, was the New-Jersey Journal, edited and published by Shepard Kollock in Chatham in 1779. While the Gazette ended in 1786, the Journal soldiered on, briefly moving to New York before settling in Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth) in 1785. The Journal was published for 212 years before it folded in 1992. It was New Jersey’s oldest continuously published paper and the nation’s second oldest, when it ended. Since the New-Jersey Gazette, over 4,500 newspaper titles have been published in the state.

Morning Call building, 1927 - Paterson, NJ

Morning Call building – Paterson, NJ

By the early 19th century, all of New Jersey’s major cities (Camden, Elizabeth, Jersey City, New Brunswick, Paterson and Trenton) had their own newspapers, with some municipalities sporting more than one. During these exciting and uncertain times, newspapers reported on vital social, economic, and cultural issues like the establishment of railroads and other industrial New Jersey “firsts,” the battle over gradual versus total abolition of slavery, the War of 1812, and New Jersey’s first attempts to distance itself as the step child of New York and Philadelphia. New Jersey’s first daily, the Newark Daily Advertiser was launched in 1832.

In 1857 the editors and publishers of twenty-six New Jersey papers banded together to form the New Jersey Editorial Association, now the New Jersey Press Association, to advance the interests of newspapers and to increase the benefits of newspaper readership. It remains one of the oldest continuously serving professional associations of its kind. The association proposed the first “shield law” in the United States. Passed in 1933, this law gives reporters immunity from arrest as a result of anything they publish. The following year two more important Association-sponsored measures became law, one requiring all actions for libel against a newspaper to be filed within one year of publication, and the second making it a misdemeanor for anyone to interfere with or assault reporters or photographers. By the dawn of World War II, every editor of a New Jersey daily was a member. The minutes of the New Jersey Press Association are published and, with its monthly magazine, form one of the best “insiders’” histories of newspaper publishing anywhere in the nation.

By 1900, hundreds of daily and weekly papers were published throughout the state, including many in foreign languages. This pattern spread and continued until recent years when new news delivery options (cable television, Internet) forced many newspapers to consolidate or close. Today, only nineteen daily papers are published in New Jersey for the state’s nearly nine million residents. The Star Ledger has the largest circulation and is also currently the oldest continuously published newspaper, tracing its beginnings to the Centinel of Freedom in 1797.

(contributed by Ron Becker, Rutgers University Libraries)

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