Cries of “Extra, extra!” could be heard in the morning hours and throughout the day in the early years of newspapers. Getting the latest news and information was not as simple as opening up your favorite news website or tapping an app on your phone.
Instead, people relied on newsboys, also known as newsies or newspaper hawkers, to provide them with the daily news. These street vendors could be found on busy street corners, carrying bundles of newspapers, and calling out the latest headlines to anyone who passed by.
A newsboy’s job was not an easy one. They were responsible for selling newspapers without a fixed newsstand, often selling only one paper, which appeared in multiple editions per day. This meant that in busy areas, there could be multiple newsboys, each representing a different major newspaper. To attract customers, newsboys carried poster boards with giant headlines provided by the newspaper, trying to catch the attention of potential buyers.
Newsboys were not employees of the newspapers but were rather independent contractors who purchased papers in bundles of 100 from a wholesaler, who, in turn, purchased them from the publisher. This meant that they were typically not subject to child labor laws since they were considered independent contractors. Despite this, newsboys often worked long hours, sometimes late into the night, attempting to sell every last paper.
“News butchers” were another form of newspaper vendors who worked on passenger railroads, selling newspapers, candy, and cigars to passengers. Thomas Edison and Walt Disney both worked as news butchers in their youth.
In the United States, newsboys became an iconic image of youthful entrepreneurship, with many famous Americans having worked as newsboys, including Thomas Edison, Harry Truman, and Mark Twain.
The trade of newsboy began in 1833 when the New York Sun started hiring vendors in New York City. The first newsboy was a 10-year-old Irish immigrant named Bernard Flaherty, who turned out to be a talented hawker and later a stage comedian.
Over time, the job of the newsboy began to change. As publishers began to emphasize home delivery, the downtown newsboy started to fade out. Teenage newsboys then began delivering papers on a daily basis for subscribers who paid them monthly. Nevertheless, the image of the newsboy has endured, representing a bygone era of newspaper distribution and a time when entrepreneurial spirit was embodied by young street vendors calling out the latest headlines.
In the 1930s, newspapers were facing declining circulation and advertising due to the struggling economy, and they needed to find ways to cut expenses and increase revenue.
The International Circulation Managers’ Association stepped in to help local newspaper managers boost home newspaper readership by launching a national program in door-to-door subscription marketing. They designed a prepackaged curriculum that taught newsboys new skills in scheduling time, handling money, keeping accounts, and presenting a winning salesman persona.
This movement created the middle-class newspaper boy and transformed the relationship between teenage years and entrepreneurial enterprise. The circulation managers solved their problem by using teenage boys as independent contractors and teaching them to collect and account for the subscription money while also creating a masculine managerial philosophy to inspire their entrepreneurship and work habits.