Hal Roth: December 2005
“When you started the Old News column,” I was recently admonished by a reader, “you should have started with an overview of the history of newspapers.”
In 1789, in Article One of our Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution, it was written: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech or of the press….”
Such rights for the news media were all but unprecedented at the time, but anyone paying attention could have seen it coming.
In that same year, George Washington took the oath of office as first president of the United States. “For my part,” he had said the year before, “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.”
And the year before that, Thomas Jefferson, draftsman of our Declaration of Independence, had written: “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.”
While reporters can and do misinterpret and err, and both they and publishers sometimes slant events to suit their agendas, news reported by a free press to a free people is the raw material of history––the ebb and flow of the times. Without it, some believe, we are an uninformed and floundering society.
The first “newspapers” were handwritten and privately circulated some five centuries ago in Renaissance Europe by merchants with an interest in sharing information. They contained news about the weather, economic conditions, wars and items of human interest.
The first printed forerunners of today’s newspaper appeared in Germany in the late fifteenth century in the form of broadsides or pamphlets, often highly sensationalized in content. Some of the most famous of these reported atrocities against Germans in Transylvania, perpetrated by a sadist named Vlad Tsepes Drakul, who became popular in folklore as Count Dracula.
In the English-speaking world the first printed news publications were single-sheet broadsides, produced only when an event worthy of notice occurred. The earliest that has survived announces the British victory over the Scots at Flodden Field in Flanders in 1513. Such bulletins continued to appear throughout the 16th century, evolving into pamphlets between 1589 and 1604 when England was at war on the continent and the public hungered for news.
The editions published during this time hold a special interest for literary scholars because they are recognized as a major source employed by Shakespeare in writing his plays. He borrowed numerous plots, events, names, quotations and paraphrases from them.
What is apparently the first newspaper in English was published in 1620, not in England but at The Hague in The Netherlands. It was followed by some 349 separate English corantos or newsbooks, as they were called, between 1620 and 1642. The Weekly Newes [sic] of 1622 was the first successively published title.
During the English Civil War in the 1640s, a public thirst for news spawned the first true periodical press in England, and government censorship was temporarily abandoned.
Through the1650s a plethora of titles appeared in the newsbook format, but the first true newspaper in England––the London Gazette––began publication in1666, though government censorship was again imposed on its contents.
The first daily, England’s Daily Courant, appeared in 1702, and all the common features we find in today’s papers––news, editorials, advice and advertisements––came into being before the decade was over.
America’s first newspaper was published in Boston on September 25, 1690. Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick [sic] was edited by Benjamin Harris and printed by Richard Pierce on a twelve-by-ten-inch sheet of paper, folded to make four, six-by-ten-inch pages, only three of which bore news in the first edition. In it, Harris promised to issue the paper “once a month, or, if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener,” but the first edition of Publick Occurrences was also its last.
Massachusetts was a Puritan colony, and those sanctimonious folks who were about to bring you the Salem Witch Trials immediately suppressed Harris’s unauthorized attempt to inform the public. He was arrested and his press run was confiscated and destroyed.
The Puritan bureaucracy, which claimed that Harris had published “reflections of a very high order,” then issued a broadside warning against future publications of any kind without “licence [sic] first obtained from those appointed by the Government to grant the same.”
The only surviving copy of Publick Occurrences was discovered in the British Library in 1845.
Fourteen years elapsed between the appearance of America’s first and second newspapers. The debut issue of the Boston News-Letter was dated “Monday, April 17 to Monday, April 24, 1704” and was published by John Campbell, postmaster of Boston and a former bookseller.
The first issue of the News-Letter contained a single advertisement: “This News-Letter is to be continued Weekly, and all persons who have any lands, houses, tenements, farms, ships, vessels, goods, wares or merchandise to be sold or lett [sic]; or servants runaway, or goods stoll [sic], or lost, may have the same inserted at a reasonable rate; From Twelve Pence to Five Shillings and not to exceed. Who may agree with Nicholas Boone for the same, at his shop next door to Major Davis’s apothecary, in Boston, near the Old Meeting House. All persons in Town and Country may have the same News-Letter, Weekly, upon reasonable tearms [sic], agreeing with John Campbell, Post-Master, for the same.”
Campbell’s paper was heavily subsidized by the colonial government, so when William Brooker replaced Campbell as postmaster, he wanted to continue publishing under the same name. Campbell refused to give it up, so Brooker inaugurated the Boston Gazette on December 21, 1719.
Understandably, there was great animosity between the two newspapers, and one issue of the News-Letter published the comment: “I pity the reader of the new paper; it is not fit reading for the people.”
The Boston newspaper scene became really complicated seven months later when Philip Musgrave was awarded the position of Postmaster in Boston, replacing Brooker. James Franklin, the printer of the Gazette, was also replaced and introduced his own New England Courant on August 19, 1721.
Campbell, not one to let an opportunity for sarcasm pass, observed in his News-Letter: “…The New England Courant...by Homo Unius Negotii, or Jack of All Trades, and, it would seem, Good at None...giving some very, very frothy fulsome Account of himself.…”
Shortly afterward, when he published an editorial criticizing the government for its lack of interest in ridding the New England coast of pirates, James Franklin was sent to prison, and his thirteen-year-old brother and apprentice, Ben, took over the work of typesetting, printing and delivery of the paper.
The masthead of the New England Courant now carried the name Benjamin Franklin as editor and publisher. Although Ben soon ran away to New York and later to Philadelphia and greater glory, the Courant continued to claim him as editor and publisher until 1726 without anyone being the wiser.
Meanwhile, the first issue of the American Weekly Mercury had hit the streets of Philadelphia on December 22, 1719––one day after Brooker’s first issue of the Boston Gazette. The Mercury was printed on nine-by-thirteen inch sheets and the editor was Andrew Bradford. After primarily reprinting news from London and Europe in the first issues, Bradford ventured a mild comment against the General Assembly, for which he was summoned before the Authority and scolded. Despite the warning, the Weekly Mercury slowly increased its coverage of local news.
The New York Gazette joined the ranks of America’s newspapers on November 8, 1725, and Samuel Kneeland of Boston began publication of the New-England Journal on March 20, 1727, closely following Franklin’s format, which featured the letters, essays and verses of its readers. The Fourth Estate was gradually establishing itself in the New World.
On September 19, 1727, a date of particular interest to Marylanders, William Parks published his first weekly edition of the Maryland Gazette, a banner head that has survived to this day.
Publication of the Gazette was temporarily suspended a number of times, once on October 31, 1765 due to the Stamp Act. A special issue dated December 10 was titled Apparition of the late Maryland Gazette, which is not dead, but only sleepeth.
Between 1813 and 1824 it was called Maryland Gazette and Political Intelligencer and from 1824 to 1826 the Maryland Gazette and State Register.
Advertised in 2005 as entering its 276th year, the Maryland Gazette is currently published on Wednesdays and Saturdays and serves some 35,500 readers in northern and central Anne Arundel County.
The next newspaper was introduced in Philadelphia on December 24, 1728 with the imposing name of Universal Instructor in all the Arts and Sciences; and Pennsylvania Gazette. Within the year, Samuel Keimer sold it to Benjamin Franklin and Hugh Meredith, who had the wisdom to shorten the title to Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin’s first issue was dated “Thursday, September 25th to Thursday, October 2nd, 1729.”
When Benjamin Franklin reentered the world of publishing, there were fewer than ten newspapers being distributed in America. Newsprint was scarce and expensive and the task of printing was extremely time consuming. We need also remember that there were far fewer literate citizens in the 18th century than there are today.
By the eve of the Revolutionary War, about two dozen papers were circulating in the colonies, most of them in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania, and brilliant newspaper articles, penned by revolutionary propagandists, served as a major force to influence American public opinion against the British.
At the war’s end in 1783, forty-three newspapers were in print across the new nation, and the press was poised to play a vital role in the affairs of the new nation.
Newspapers began to spring up everywhere, representing all shades of political opinion. It was no-holds-barred as rival political factions and journalists alike jostled for power. By modern standards much of the reporting was libelous.
With ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, freedom of the press was at last guaranteed, and America’s newspapers began to take on a central role in national affairs. By 1814 there were 346 newspapers nationwide.
During the 15th century, Johann Gutenberg had devised a method that allowed printers to construct a full page of literature from small stamps, each containing a number or letter of the alphabet, which could then be inked and copied numerous times. Although the Gutenberg press was a giant improvement over a hand-held pen, this method still required the manual rearrangement of individual letters each time a new page was to be printed.
Steam was adapted to power newly designed iron presses in the early 1800s, and advances in papermaking technology in the 1830s and the introduction of large rolls of paper to feed the presses further enhanced Gutenberg’s invention. These industrial advances, along with growth of advertising income, led to the emergence of the “Penny Press,” a phrase originated when Benjamin Day dropped the price of his New York Sun to a penny a copy in 1833. Historians have accredited the penny press as the first true mass medium.
Formerly the province of a wealthy, literate minority, newspapers could now be purchased by just about anyone, and the availability of affordable reading material became a significant stimulus to the achievement of the nearly universal literacy that we now take for granted in America.
The industrial revolution transformed all aspects of American life and society, and newspapers were no exception. Both the number of presses and their subscribers exploded in numbers. 2,526 titles were catalogued in the 1850 census.
The first “pictorial” papers emerged in the 1850s, illustrating events in the news with woodcut engravings made from correspondents’ sketches or from the newly developed photographic process. The Civil War brought an unprecedented demand for timely, accurate news reporting and transformed American journalism into a dynamic force.
By 1880 the number of American newspapers reached the astounding total of 11,314, and circulation figures for some presses in the 1890s surpassed a million copies per issue. Such mass production was largely due to the introduction in 1884 of the Linotype, a method of creating movable type by machine instead of by hand.
Ironically, copies of these newspapers are now quite rare due to the poor quality of the paper then in use and the recycling drives for old newspapers during World War II.
Bold banners now shouted the headline news; photographic illustrations became commonplace; cartoons filled entire pages; expanded press coverage generated increased interest in sporting events. In short, the modern newspaper had developed and was flourishing. It was the major source of news in America, but if reported information was inaccurate or biased, the American public had little means of verification.
By the mid 1890s, publishers stood in strong competition with one another for subscribers and advertising revenue. As a result they wielded considerable political power, and some, in order to increase their circulation and expand that power, exploited their position with sensationalized and scandalous reporting tactics that came to be known as “yellow journalism.”
The term was coined to describe the practices of Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) and is derived from a now-unfunny comic strip titled “The Yellow Kid,” but the name of William Randolph Hearst (San Francisco Examiner and New York Morning Journal) has become synonymous with yellow journalism.
While people like Pulitzer and Hearst trumpeted their concern for “the people,” they were, in reality, stealing from them by replacing the news with cheap melodrama.
This was also an age of media consolidation, and powerful chains swallowed up many of the once incorruptible independent papers, regrettably reducing them to vehicles for the distribution of the slanted views of their new owners.
During the twentieth century, radio and then television gradually began to replace the printed word as the average family’s primary source of information. And now the Internet is challenging TV, making it difficult for us to appreciate the role that early papers played in our history. The big question today is what the future holds for the old-fashioned newspaper.
Ten years ago I purchased a lifetime subscription to a weekly that is mailed to me. For some reason, each issue now costs the publisher more than a dollar to deliver, and I have been asked if I would be satisfied to read it online. Knowing how much money my continued breathing is costing him, my conscience bothers me a little, but I still like the feel of the news in my hand.
You can reach Hal Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org