A Brief History of Newspapers

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Phil Barber, Post Office Box 8694, Boston, Mass. 02114-0036 Telephone (617) 492-4653
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Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. -Thomas Jefferson, 1787.

For my part I entertain a high idea of the utility of periodical publications; insomuch as I could heartily desire, copies of ... magazines, as well as common Gazettes, might be spread through every city, town, and village in the United States. I consider such vehicles of knowledge more happily calculated than any other to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry, and ameliorate the morals of a free and enlightened people.- George Washington, 1788.

Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press... -Article One, Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution, 1789.

Here is the living disproof of the old adage that nothing is as dead as yesterday's newspaper... This is what really happened, reported by a free press to a free people. It is the raw material of history; it is the story of our own times. -Henry Steel Commager, preface to a history of the New York Times, 1951

What is "News"?

Some preliminary remarks are in order on the subject of just what "news" is, anyway. We normally think of news as a particular kind of historical reality, which could probably be defined analytically. That is a mystification of the subject. If journalists are experts on anything, it is their audience, and not some other aspect of reality. Viewed "pheomenologically," news is simply what made it into today's paper or news broadcast. There are now 188 countries, 5 billion people, and thousands of things that "happened" yesterday. Only the ones that actually made the paper became news. Tomorrow will have its own news, so the rejected events will never be news. Of course they might be part of later historical reconstructions of our time. One might think, in such a case, that the journalists just blew it - if you really thought that news was of the same nature as history. But news is not about history, really, but about profits, when publishers are thinking clearly, and newspaper publishers were thinking clearly from the very beginning.

Definitions should come from general usage, and this is what we mean by "news" when we are not being confused with such notions as unimportant news or unreported news. There is no such thing as unreported news, because news is not natural. Events are natural but periodical news is a manufactured product. Of course, that is true of "history" too. History is what historians make out of everything left from the past. News is what newswriters squeezed into today's paper. If there is a point to histories, it is ultimately philosophical; the point of newspapers is to be recycled - the first product with planned obsolescence

Our second preliminary point is that there is no necessity of thinking of news as daily. It used to come along irregularly when people, exercising their own judgment, decided that something they heard was unusually interesting or important, and passed it on. People maintained their normal standards of honor and truth in spreading this news, so everyone knew about how far to trust the information. They were not awed by the institutional stature of giant news corporations. That changed in the seventeenth century, when people got used to the idea that there was an absolutely regular quota of news, which was vouched for by transcendent sources. Daily news then became a steady stream of perceptions, the stream of society's consciousness. One participated in society in a new way.

Third, not all of the content of the many kinds of periodicals published over the years is news, in the accepted sense of important social or political events. This study will be interested in all of it, however, because it all partakes of the same urgency with which we invest politics. There have been many occasions in the history of journalism where opinion has been published as news, where comments have been presented with the authority of facts. Everything becomes strange when it is cut out of reality in the same way as political or commercial reports are, so that our science, religion, ethics, and arts are becoming as curious as our politics. And it bears remembering that this cultural tempo, like our political tempo, is for the convenience of publishers.

Fourth, our most common mistake in thinking about news is to imagine that the most important events are those that get the most publicity. The reverse may be true. Powerful people do not usually like publicity. Celebrities like publicity, and the media have learned that customers will pay as much or more to read about celebrities as about the powerful. Given the accessibility of celebrities, reporters may concentrate on them while the powerful go about their business. So there is a good chance that the news will not cover what historians will later write about our times. The founders of this nation had a seemingly naive faith i9n the power of the "free" press to responsibly inform the nation's citizens of ongoing events, yet the press has never been "free" in the sense that it take money to purchase a press, and only its owner is guaranteed the right to publish with it anything he or she wishes.

Those who hope that the news will keep them informed about the powerful forces in the world should consider that power might be defined as the ability to keep oneself out of the news. And further, an elite can be defined as a group that is able to monopolize a certain class of information, and keep it out of circulation. For even today all important news is transmitted orally, within elites. If important news is what gives one person an advantage over others, then it follows that valuable news is something you have to pay a lot for, one way or another. What is left over becomes the contents of the media.

It is doubtless true that over the centuries media attention has helped the public to monitor and challenge elites. In time, this attention has eroded the power of some of those elites, but only at the point when the press itself became big business, an elite with secrets of its own. What the balance sheet would show of the new distribution of power, and whether the public has a right to feel included in the power structure because of its news consciousness, should get more attention than it has.

The Origins of Newspapers

The history of newspapers is an often-dramatic chapter of the human experience going back some five centuries. In Renaissance Europe handwritten newsletters circulated privately among merchants, passing along information about everything from wars and economic conditions to social customs and "human interest" features. The first printed forerunners of the newspaper appeared in Germany in the late 1400's in the form of news pamphlets or broadsides, often highly sensationalized in content. Some of the most famous of these report the atrocities against Germans in Transylvania perpetrated by a sadistic veovod named Vlad Tsepes Drakul, who became the Count Dracula of later folklore.

In the English-speaking world, the earliest predecessors of the newspaper were corantos, small news pamphlets produced only when some event worthy of notice occurred. The first successively published title was The Weekly Newes of 1622. It was followed in the 1640's and 1650's by a plethora of different titles in the similar newsbook format. The first true newspaper in English was the London Gazette of 1666. For a generation it was the only officially sanctioned newspaper, though many periodical titles were in print by the century's end.

Beginnings in America

In America the first newspaper appeared in Boston in 1690, entitled Publick Occurrences. Published without authority, it was immediately suppressed, its publisher arrested, and all copies were destroyed. Indeed, it remained forgotten until 1845 when the only known surviving example was discovered in the British Library. The first successful newspaper was the Boston News-Letter, begun by postmaster John Campbell in 1704. Although it was heavily subsidized by the colonial government the experiment was a near-failure, with very limited circulation. Two more papers made their appearance in the 1720's, in Philadelphia and New York, and the Fourth Estate slowly became established on the new continent. By the eve of the Revolutionary War, some two dozen papers were issued at all the colonies, although Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania would remain the centers of American printing for many years. Articles in colonial papers, brilliantly conceived by revolutionary propagandists, were a major force that influenced public opinion in America from reconciliation with England to full political independence.

At war's end in 1783 there were forty-three newspapers in print. The press played a vital role in the affairs of the new nation; many more newspapers were started, representing all shades of political opinion. The no holds barred style of early journalism, much of it libelous by modern standards, reflected the rough and tumble political life of the republic as rival factions jostled for power. The ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791 at last guaranteed of freedom of the press, and America's newspapers began to take on a central role in national affairs. Growth continued in every state. By 1814 there were 346 newspapers. In the Jacksonian populist 1830's, advances in printing and papermaking technology led to an explosion of newspaper growth, the emergence of the "Penny Press"; it was now possible to produce a newspaper that could be sold for just a cent a copy. Previously, newspapers were the province of the wealthy, literate minority. The price of a year's subscription, usually over a full week's pay for a laborer, had to be paid in full and "invariably in advance." This sudden availability of cheap, interesting reading material was a significant stimulus to the achievement of the nearly universal literacy now taken for granted in America.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution, as it transformed all aspects of American life and society, dramatically affected newspapers. Both the numbers of papers and their paid circulations continued to rise. The 1850 census catalogued 2,526 titles. In the 1850's powerful, giant presses appeared, able to print ten thousand complete papers per hour. At this time the first "pictorial" weekly newspapers emerged; they featured for the first time extensive illustrations of events in the news, as woodcut engravings made from correspondents' sketches or taken from that new invention, the photograph. During the Civil War the unprecedented demand for timely, accurate news reporting transformed American journalism into a dynamic, hardhitting force in the national life. Reporters, called "specials," became the darlings of the public and the idols of youngsters everywhere. Many accounts of battles turned in by these intrepid adventurers stand today as the definitive histories of their subjects.

Newspaper growth continued unabated in the postwar years. An astounding 11,314 different papers were recorded in the 1880 census. By the 1890's the first circulation figures of a million copies per issue were recorded (ironically, these newspapers are now quite rare due to the atrocious quality of cheap paper then in use, and to great losses in World War II era paper drives) At this period appeared the features of the modern newspaper, bold "banner" headlines, extensive use of illustrations, "funny pages," plus expanded coverage of organized sporting events. The rise of "yellow journalism" also marks this era. Hearst could truthfully boast that his newspapers manufactured the public clamor for war on Spain in 1898. This is also the age of media consolidation, as many independent newspapers were swallowed up into powerful "chains"; with regrettable consequences for a once fearless and incorruptible press, many were reduced to vehicles for the distribution of the particular views of their owners, and so remained, without competing papers to challenge their viewpoints. By the 1910's, all the essential features of the recognizably modern newspaper had emerged. In our time, radio and television have gradually supplanted newspapers as the nation's primary information sources, so it may be difficult initially to appreciate the role that newspapers have played in our history.

For Further Reading

I. General Reference. American Journalism History.

-Emery, The Press and America, Prentiss Hall, 1972. A college level journalism text; fairly available, a detailed introduction to the subject, with very useful bibliography listing most important titles on the history of U.S. journalism.
-Thomas, Isaiah, The History of Printing in America. 1810, since reprinted many times. Classic, first work on the subject, by the famed publisher. Some inaccuracies but fascinating reading.
-Mott, Frank L., American Journalism, Macmillan, 1941. The most detailed general reference book on the topic, a one volume library.
-Mott, F.L., A History of American Magazines, Harvard, 1957. Extremely detailed 4 volume set, a marvel of scholarship.,

II. Modern Journalism.

The radical changes in news reporting that have occurred in the final decades of the Twentieth Century are the most dramatic in our history. The following are recommended introductions to this troubling phenomenon that affects us all.

-Crossen, Tainted Truth, Touchstone, 1994. Effectively documents what its subtitle calls "The Manipulation of Fact in America" by the media
-Manoff & Schudson, eds., Reading the News, Pantheon, 1986. A good guide to sifting through media bias and inaccuracy.
-Squires, Read All About It!, Times Books, 1993. Excellent documentary of the corporate buyout of America's newspapers and their influence of what information reaches the public.
-Weaver, News and the Culture of Lying, Free Press, 1994. A chilling study of the consent-manufacturing machine that the author argues has replaced our free press.

III. Union Lists. These are censuses of known surviving copies of early publications, used as rarity guides and general references.

-Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820. American Antiquarian Soc., 1947. Very important 2 vol. set, extensive historical data on these earlier newspapers is included.
-Gregory, American Newspapers: A Union List of Files Available in the U.S. and Canada. Important reference for modern papers, first printed in 1936, listing papers 1820-1935. Reprint available from Kraus Reprint, Millwood, NY 10546, (914) 762-2200. Approx. List price $144.00
-Brown, E.T., Union List Of Serials in Libraries of the U.S. and Canada, 1965. Superb 5 vol. set lists magazines, periodicals of all kinds, U.S. and foreign, incl. some foreign newspapers; 156,499 titles in all. Available in reprint from H.W. Wilson Co., 950 University Ave., Brooklyn, NY 10452, (212) 588-8400. Cost $175.00.
-Stewart, British Union Catalog of Periodicals (1955 and supplements).

We have a modest Book List of new reference books available for purchase.

Internet Journalism Resources

The Internet is rich in resources of history, both of journalism and of the nation. We suggest you visit the following sites to begin your tour. You will discover many others; let us know about good new URLs you may come across!


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