In the US, the first newspapers essentially were commercial papers and, as in Europe, underpinned markets and pricing systems. Indeed, financial communications proved to be a precondition for capitalism itself. Dow Jones & Company, the future parent of The Wall Street Journal, started as essentially a news-relay service on Wall Street. The dour Charles Dow and the dandy Edward Jones would dispatch messenger boys from the dingy company offices on Wall Street with pieces of paper conveying the latest corporate news to Wall Street investors. The company’s big competitive advantage was a special stylus developed by a third, and now-forgotten, founder, one Charles M. Bergstresser (I think of him as the third tenor of Dow Jones), which could produce more than two-dozen copies with a single impression. Then, as now, speed meant the difference between relevance and the lack of it. Reporters staked out corporate board meetings, and, if phones weren’t available, would run to a window to signal a colleague in the street through some prearranged system: one wave of a handkerchief might mean, “no extra dividend”; four might mean, “merger off.”

Then, as now, access to insiders was essential. Jones, who would go on to work in a stock brokerage, was known for his contacts up and down the Street. Lloyd Wendt’s 1982 history of The Wall Street Journal recalls this chance encounter between Jones and William Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller’s brother and a Standard Oil executive, on Broad Street one day:

Rockefeller: “Edward, would it mean anything to you to get a little advance Standard Oil news?”

Jones (beaming): “Kind sir, would you dare say that again?”

Rockefeller: “Here’s something I jotted down for you, if you care to use it. Only, please, keep your authority confidential!”

And Dow Jones had another scoop (about a dividend increase).

This was highly specialized, elite communications targeted specifically at investors and not intended for the general public—which, understandably, stayed away in droves. The Journal’s circulation in the first decade of the twentieth century languished under 10,000; it was a glorified newsletter.

The muckraking periodical, McClure’s, by contrast, peaked at nearly half a million, bigger, proportionally for the size of the US population, than The New York Times is today. And while the early financial press could be surprisingly good—accurate, reliable, sometimes skeptical—it displayed no ambivalence about its role as a servant to investors. Its pages reflected that approach: a jumble of the latest corporate news, government data, commentary, analysis, and editorials (and many ads) presented with little context and with an assumption that the reader knows the lingo and the players. It was rather like an hour of CNBC today.

A page-one item on February 3, 1905, under the headline: “United States Leather,” begins this way: “There is authority for saying that a majority of the capital stock of the US Leather Co. has been deposited with the Central Trust Co. for the purposes of carrying out the proposed reorganization plan.” And here’s a page-one headline from May 28, 1906:

Northwest Crops: Favorable Conditions Except in Red River Valley—Discouraging News from Iowa and Missouri

It’s not that the early business press opposed muckraking or public-interest reporting. As I’ve noted in CJR’s pages before (“Confidence Game,” November/December 2011), the fledgling Wall Street Journal covered parts of Ida Tarbell’s monumental McClure’s series on the Standard Oil monopoly, and, sometimes, editorialized in support of it. But it took a narrow view of its journalistic mandate. After a Tarbell installment that offered evidence that Standard had conspired with railroads to cut competing refiners from markets, for instance, the Journal called on Tarbell to present more evidence and declined to do its own reporting:

We shall not attempt to follow her in this field of inquiry. It is a field which the United States Government, through its Bureau of Corporations, has already entered. If the Standard Oil Company has entered into a conspiracy in restraint of trade in Kansas, the Bureau of Corporations ought to discover the fact….

It was only much later that the business press took on a more public-interest-oriented mission as well. And it was business news’s ability to achieve—finally—some distance from the institutions it covers that allowed it to broaden its appeal to large segments of the middle class after World War II. Scholar Andrew Yarrow chalks up the metamorphosis to the postwar expansion of the American middle class and the creation of a managerial class. The business press knew a new market when it saw one, and broadened its scope to serve it.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.