[A version of the following essay appeared in Journal of the War of 1812 and the Era 1800 to 1840, Fall, 1996 (volume I, no. 5).]
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The national and international newsweekly Niles' Register is well known today only
to those historians and genealogists who have sampled its treasures. But in the first half of the 19th century,
the Register was as well known as the
New York Times and
was founded by Hezekiah Niles in
The editor had large ambitions: he intended to be "an honest chronicler" who "registered" events not just for his contemporaries but for posterity as well. Although politics would be covered extensively, the Register would eschew any partisan slant -- "electioneering," as the editor called it. Furthermore, the paper would ignore local news in favor of national and international news. The paper would be issued every Saturday, and it would cost $5 per annum, a premium price in an era when a dollar might constitute a generous day's wages.
The value that subscribers saw in the
publication is easy to understand. It
was exceptionally dense with material:
there was no advertising, and only a handful of illustrations ever
the pages were packed with text.
In addition to the sheer volume of material, there were two other outstanding aspects of the Register which recommended it.
First was its scope. While the Register emphasized political, commercial, agricultural, and industrial news, and paid only limited attention to cultural or social issues, it reported on events worldwide. Foreign coverage was more abbreviated than domestic reporting, but major events abroad were routinely summarized. Furthermore, Niles drew both domestic and foreign news from a host of sources -- his own reporting and extensive correspondence, foreign newspapers and domestic "exchange papers," commercial correspondence received in the major international port of Baltimore, and private correspondence passed on to him by friends and acquaintances. Finally, he emphasized "getting in" texts of major documents -- texts of treaties, laws, and court decisions, transcripts of speeches, official reports, and records of Congressional proceedings (perhaps a quarter of the 30,000 pages that the Register eventually contained were given over to proceedings in Congress).
Second was its evenhandedness.
One other great advantage favored the Register: the richness of events in the era. The Napoleonic Wars were still going on when
the Register first appeared, and its
pages were soon thereafter crowded with the events of the War of 1812. Indian wars and foreign revolutions erupted
periodically, and the war between
Hezekiah Niles' editorship of the Register lasted 25 years. In 1836, advancing age and declining health obliged him to turn the paper over to his son, William Ogden Niles.
William Ogden Niles had been raised as a
printer/journalist, and was involved with other newspapers both before and
after his term at the Register. His first editorial showed him to be his
father's son: he expressed himself
determined to "maintain the well-earned reputation of the Register" and to "record facts
and events without fear or favor, partiality or affection, -- in brief, to
preserve its national character." However, he quickly showed that he had his
own ideas, too: his first issue expanded
the traditional format of the paper, he changed the paper's name to Niles' National Register, and he soon
moved the paper to
However, the move to
Jeremiah Hughes bought the franchise. A long-time resident of
Hughes' editorship lasted until 1848, when business difficulties and declining health persuaded him that he could no longer publish the Register. It was suspended in March.
The cause of the Register's suspension is not clear. It may have resulted from nothing more than the ordinary ebb and flow of fortune in the publishing business. In a broader sense, however, the Register was clearly losing its special place in American journalism. The paper's cachet had always been two-fold -- its concise news summaries from around the United States and the world, and the relatively non-partisan tone of its political coverage -- but the uniqueness of both these characteristics was being eroded by the late 1840s.
First, improved communications were making it easier for daily newspapers to offer the coverage from elsewhere that Hezekiah Niles had originally had to cull out of ship letters and exchange papers. By the 1840s, faster mail service via steamboats and railroads, as well as spreading telegraph lines, had deprived the Register of its exclusive franchise on this kind of reportage.
Second, partisanship in American journalism was declining. By the 1840s, the newspaper business was established as an industry in its own right. Rising literacy rates were giving the newspapers a growing market at the same time that improved printing processes were yielding a more affordable product to that market. As a result, the newspapers' dependence on remunerative political contracts for public printing and legal publishing was diminishing. The newly independent newspapers began to replace their former dependence on political ideology with a developing journalistic ideology -- "objective" journalism, journalism without an obvious partisan slant. It is ironic that the Register missed this development in journalistic style. Hezekiah Niles had pioneered "objective" journalism -- indeed, he is sometimes called its progenitor -- but Jeremiah Hughes' Register of the 1840s was much more clearly a partisan Whig publication than it had been in earlier years. Any partisan alliance would have hurt a paper such as Niles' Register at a time when partisan journalism was waning, but an alliance with the divided and dying Whigs was particularly unfortunate.
Whatever caused the paper's decline, it
remained suspended until July, 1848. It
then reappeared under the editorship of George Beatty from new headquarters in
In one sense, however, the publication never
died. The full 38 years of the Register's run is a common holding in
libraries (either in paper or in 20th-century-produced microform), and bound
volumes are so common that they turn up even today in used bookstores. Consequently, it remains a standard source
for historians, genealogists, and others interested in the times that Hezekiah
Niles and his successors "registered." As one historian has said, "Probably no
day passes without some researcher digging into the information supplied with
so much care and responsibility by Hezekiah Niles."  The statement was made several decades
ago -- and
 "At a time of partisan journalism, this generally unbiased record of events [i.e., the Register] had a national and international circulation surpassing that of any other American paper of its day...." Thomas H. Johnson (in consultation with Harvey Wish), The Oxford Companion to American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 583.
 The paper was called The Weekly Register at its founding in 1811, but the name became Niles' Weekly Register in 1814. In 1837 it became Niles' National Register, the name that survived until the paper died in 1849. Curiously enough, the name almost invariably used today -- Niles' Register -- is one name that the paper never actually bore.
 Edwin Emery, The Press in America, second edition (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1954, 1962), p. 189.