Breakthroughs in technology during the nineteenth century, predominantly the replacement of mechanical presses by steam-powered presses, combined with the rise of the middle class and mass literacy, allowed for the growth of a more popular and inclusive press that favored human-interest stories. The steam-powered printing press was able to churn out newspapers more quickly and more easily, but they were very expensive. Publishers needed to pay off the debt they accumulated after buying a press, which required them to reach a larger audience and sell more copies. The way they did this was by printing what the public wanted to read about. Crime, in particular, was a very popular subject. However, besides capturing the interest of paying customers, the discourse on crime in late nineteenth and early twentieth century newspapers influenced society in another way: it shaped the public’s notion of who “the criminal” was.
Marie-Christine Leps identifies three main formats that were used for the reporting of criminal activity in late nineteenth and early twentieth century newspapers and discusses how each of them contributed to the public’s understanding of “the criminal.” Although Leps’ argument focuses on newspapers that were published in European cities (primarily Paris and London), evidence found in newspapers demonstrates that it also applies to those published during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century in New York City.
The media industry that pervaded public life the most during the late nineteenth century was print media, which includes the creation and publication of novels, magazines, and newspapers. A particularly influential writer was Jacob Riis (1849-1914), who paired his writing with pictures taken with flash photography, a feature that was developed during the late 19th century. This allowed Riis’ work to have a more significant effect on the public’s understanding of the themes of his work, which focused on revealing the poor living conditions and the poverty of New York City’s crime-ridden slums. While the purpose of his work was to initiate social reforms, Jacob Riis’ exposés of criminal activity also helped the public to understand the nineteenth century criminal.