Printers acted as editors from the origin of printing in eastern and western society. But Gutenberg’s press in the mid-fifteenth century gave birth to journalistic printer-editors who published news regularly and informed a wide public. These early journalists used book production techniques to generate broadsheets, pamphlets, mercuries, intelligencers, gazettes, and newsbooks (Boyce et al. 1978). Under the eye of monarchs and their censors, they disseminated reports on war, discoveries, and omens, and campaigned for or against political and religious movements across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as part of an emerging western print culture (Eisenstein 1979).
These printer-editors emerged in two stages (Briggs & Burke 2002). From the second half of the 1500s to the early 1600s, before the establishment of a periodic press, printereditors were relatively obscure, were scattered widely, and operated small presses under strict censorship. Their occasional publications tended to focus on one topic or event.
The second stage extended to the eighteenth century, when printer-editors became periodic journalists, publishing well-known weekly or biweekly papers in major cities.
Printer-editors gleaned their material from many sources: officials for court gossip, soldiers for accounts of battles, alleged eyewitnesses for marvels, and correspondents for foreign news. Printer-editors operated on both sides of the law. Some were used by monarchs to defend their claims or actions, and others operated secret presses for religious dissent, much of it propaganda inspired by the upheavals of the Reformation, including Luther’s 95 theses. In Mexico City, during the early 1500s, newsbooks called hojas volantes (flying pages) appeared in the streets, well before the first press in North America.
A periodic news press took root in the seventeenth century, encouraged – at different rates in different countries – by a more tolerant political climate, a literate public in growing cities, a network of publishers and correspondents linked by a postal service, and the stimulus of print capitalism. In England, the evolution of a Parliament-restrained monarchy allowed for periods of greater press freedom than in France or Germany. In the colonies of North America, printer-editors labored at first under old-world governors.
Conflicts such as the Thirty Years War fueled readership and encouraged periodic publication, but news of commerce also mattered. In the freer political climate of trading centers such as Amsterdam, printer-editors published brusque corantos or newssheets on business and politics (Shaaber 1967). In England, under the censorious Stuarts, a cautious weekly news press took root in the London of the 1620s, imitating the Amsterdam newssheets. A vigorous periodic press arose during the Civil War, as royalist and anti-royalist printer-editors quarreled (Smith 1994), but the Restoration brought back censorship. The English periodic press could not grow beyond a few official papers until the restrictive Printing Act expired in the late 1600s. Outside of England, authoritarian governments licensed a small periodic press while struggling to contain an illegal underground press. German principalities imposed strict regulations on printers. In France, Cardinal Richelieu, wary of inflammatory newsbooks, granted a monopoly on news publication to Théophraste Renaudot and his Gazette de France.
Printer-editors had a dubious social status well into the eighteenth century. They did not fit existing social categories: part craftsperson, part entrepreneur, part bookseller, part printer, part editor, and part writer. Their ephemeral papers were neither serious books on history nor crude broadsides. Conservative clergymen and officials regarded them as crass opportunists or dangerous voices of criticism and immoral ideas.
In the eighteenth century, the role of the printer-editor changed, divided, and declined. The growth of periodic news to serve the many sites of the Enlightenment public sphere – the English coffee house, the French salon, the German scientific association – required a division of labor (Habermas 1989). By the late 1700s, daily newspapers such as the London Times were expanding newsrooms for thousands of readers (Rea 1963). The newspaper was a corporate product, requiring separate contributions from printers, publishers, editors, and news writers. The printereditor, as author of many forms of journalism, was replaced by specialists – the essayist, the factual reporter, the reforming editor, the revolutionary polemist. Nineteenth-century newspapers became large commercial enterprises. The printer-editor of a small, personalized paper had receded into history.
- Boyce, G., Curren, J., & Wingate P. (eds.) (1978). Newspaper history from the seventeenth century to the present. London: Constable.
- Briggs, A., & Burke, P. (2002). A social history of the media. Cambridge: Polity.
- Eisenstein, E. (1979). The printing press as an agent of change, 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Frank, J. (1961). The beginnings of the English newspaper, 1620–1660. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (trans. T. Burger). Cambridge: Polity.
- Rea, R. (1963). The English press in politics, 1760–1774. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
- Shaaber, M. A. (1967). Some forerunners of the newspapers in England, 1476–1622. London: Frank Cass.
- Smith, N. (1994). Literature and revolution in England, 1640–1660. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Stephens, M. (1988). A history of news. New York: Viking.