Are organized newspaper sections (in the US) a relatively recent invention?

I was at the library today, looking through microfilm reels of old newspapers to hunt down vintage real estate development ads.

One thing I noticed is that for newspapers before WWII, there was practically no organized sections in the newspaper. National and local news was scattered throughout the newspaper, different clusters of sports news scattered throughout (one for baseball, one for horse racing, one for boxing, and so on), stock listings, commodity listings in a different area, and so on. Even what would be the content found in the equivalent of a “women’s section” in a 1970s-era newspaper was broken up; a few pages of fashion and gossip here, a few pages of society news there, a few pages of recipes and homekeeping tips somewhere else, mixed in with something totally random like departure times for steamships or a schedule of radio shows.

The Sunday papers each had different sections, but again, it was all random, with no organization by topic. Each section had the same masthead, only there was a different news headline and feature article for each section; basically each Sunday section was like its own mini-paper.

I’m curious if this was just a quirk of newspapers where I live (in the United States, pedants), or if it was just the way newspapers were back then.

I grew up in the 1960’s, and by then it was not at all like you describe. I’m referring to several papers in the NYC area, including the NY Times, NY Daily News, Bergen Record, and Newark Star-Ledger.

Were you looking at several papers, or only one brand?

elmwood. I access old newspapers all the time. Unless I’m quite confused, I don’t think most newspapers were as you described. Most had a rather orderly pattern over the years.

By “sections,” do you just mean ranges of pages devoted to certain types of news, but all within one physical bundle? Or are you referring to actual, physically separate chunks of pages folded into easy-to-separate subsets? (as in, “hand me the sports section”)

I’ve never seen a newspaper without a logical organization, but the actual physical “sections” method seems to come and go. Nowadays, with newspapers getting skinnier and skinnier, papers which used to have separate physical sections are switching to the single-stack paradigm. For example, the Chicago Reader.

By “section”, I mean “ranges of pages devoted to certain types of news”. They could be in “physically separate chunks of pages folded into easy-to-separate subsets”, depending on the size of the paper.

All the papers I saw for the area (Buffalo) were like this; it seemed like someone took a modern newspaper, shuffled some of the pages, reassembled them, and then renumbered the pages to reflect the new order. Basically, a few pages of news, some pages of baseball, and then more news, some boxing, stocks, gossip, more news, recipes, horse racing, comics, more news, and so on.

You haven’t said what era these papers were from.

My personal experience begins in the early 1960s, and by then all 4 (!) locally available daily newspapers had the content grouped by topic. They also had separately folded sections for groups big enough to warrant a separately folded section; usually around 4 sheets = 16 page faces minimum.

It was definitely that way in Ohio. I have tried to look up news stories for readers and it was a total crapshoot where something would be, if it was back before the mid-'50s.

ETA: Yes, it is true that there would be a “sports section” and a “business section.” However, if there were a news story coming in about, let’s say a car accident on Main Street or a dog saving a little kid, it would go wherever it fit. And that could be in the sports section, or under the weather, or between recipes on the “women’s page.” Computerized layout, while it did cause some problems, eliminated a lot more.

He did point out that it was pre WW2.


A lot of it depended on the size of the newspaper and what time of day it was printed. Since printing presses only have a capacity of X pages per hour, for larger papers it was logical to break them up into sections, and print some sections early in the day – features, for example. Later in the afternoon, after the stock exchanges closed, they could print the business section, and later still, the sports and news sections. If the paper was running two presses, they could hold two sections until the very last minute (again, usually news and sports). However, on a lot of papers, the last pages to be locked up were the four pages that wrapped around the front section. As a result, the very latest news was in the first two and last two pages of the front section, whether it turned out to be the final score of the home town team’s game on the west coast, a fire on Main Street or some major story from Europe.

A smaller newspaper could be assembled and printed in one continuous run and still be produced in time, so stories could be placed differently. You’d see this most especially in afternoon newspapers, which tended to have fewer pages. The publisher would use that to squeeze in more news that happened closer to deadline.

I’ve been looking through journalism books for the last 20 minutes, and the closest thing I can find to a reliable cite is an old edition of Emery’s The Press and America which says that by the 1880’s, there were Sunday papers which carried “a four-page supplement filled with entertaining features, fiction, and trivia.”, and credits Hearst’s New York Sunday World for adding “many more pages of entertainment to the regular news section” beginning in 1883.

At work I do a lot of looking up of obits for people. Until, say, the very late 50’s they could be anywhere in the damned local paper - by the early 50’s there was a “Deaths and Funerals” page but they weren’t ALL on that one. In the 20’s and earlier they could be LITERALLY anywhere in the paper, like between two items on the price of hog bellies. It’s amazingly annoying.

Early papers (like say up through the 30’s or so) locally sort of had sections - sports articles together, stuff from the surrounding areas together, etc., but there was still a lot mixed all up together. It seems like “where can I fit this in?” was a more important consideration sometimes than “does this really make sense?” I guess people read the whole paper no matter what, so it’s not like it mattered a huge big deal?

ETA - by the way, no numbered actual sections until the mid-50’s - before that the pages were just numbered.