The first newspapers appeared in western Europe in the seventeenth century, in forms that laid the basis for, and anticipated the form and content of, the contemporary newspaper. While they developed out of sixteenth-century print and manuscript news media, their advent constituted an early modern media revolution that was central to state formation, reading, and politics in this period. The quantity of news provision increased, resulting in a qualitative transformation, and news media became embedded in politics and culture (Zaret 2000).
Newspapers can be defined by six specific characteristics: (1) publication, i.e., commercial availability to a public, (2) regular periodicity, (3) serial publication, (4) continuity in title and physical format, (5) topicality of content, and (6) heterogeneity of content. While the Acta Diurna of ancient Rome, and the newsletters that circulated in Europe from the mid-fifteenth century onwards, are clearly antecedents of the newspaper, they do not sufficiently meet these criteria. Elements of all six can be found in several kinds of news media in the sixteenth century, but these characteristics are first united in the seventeenth century across most of western Europe. The newspaper, as understood here, did not appear outside Europe prior to 1700, though other countries have older news media.
Predecessors In Script And Print
The history of newspapers demands some account of forms of news communication prior to 1600. The first newspapers developed out of the printed pamphlet. Since the Reformation, the printing press had increasingly been used for propaganda purposes by governments and for commercial purposes by printers and publishers. These stationers developed and exploited the public interest in topical events – wars, sensations, disasters, crimes, and punishments – by producing short, printed pamphlets in the vernacular. Printed pamphlets were occasional, but created the business practices, distribution networks, literary forms, and the market that would later be exploited more systematically and regularly by the first newspapers (Raymond 2003).
Newspapers also have their origin in manuscript culture. Manuscript newsletters satisfied interest in remote events, in wars but also rumor and gossip, among Europe’s elite. From the sixteenth century, professional suppliers of manuscript news appeared. The Fugger family, for example, the proprietors of a financial house in Augsburg, supplied Europe’s merchants with political and financial news in a series of newsletters from 1568 (Von Klarwill 1924). Venetian scribes produced avisi or gazette, containing regular updates of local and international news, from the 1530s onwards. These contained digests of other letters, indicating date and place of origin as a heading to the report: the same format that the earliest printed newspapers would follow. University students offered a more personalized news service in England later in the century. Paolo Sarpi gathered news within Venice by ear, and from correspondents across Europe, and supplied it in regular manuscript newsletters supplemented with shrewd political analysis through the 1610s, long before that city had printed news (De Vivo 2006). These were commercially published (publication applies to commercial manuscripts as well as printed items) and distributed at regular intervals, and, while their purpose was to supply privileged information, access to them was limited by cost. Manuscript news, unlike printed news, was not ordinarily subject to censorship or pre-publication licensing, though senders and recipients risked their correspondence being intercepted, read, and pursued with legal actions such as libel (Love 1993).
The Emergence Of The Newspaper Form
Printed news periodicals appeared in the late sixteenth century. Mercurius Gallobelgicus, a semi-annual volume mainly concerned with military conflict, was published in Cologne and then Frankfurt between 1594 and 1635. Serial and consecutively numbered news pamphlets appear in London in 1592, containing news of the French wars of religion; these were followed in the 1620s by corantos, near-periodical, numbered pamphlets of foreign news, printed first in Amsterdam and then in London; and in 1641 the first English weekly newspaper, fitting all six criteria, appeared. A weekly newspaper (Relation) appeared at Strasbourg (then part of the German Reich) in 1605; another at Antwerp in the same year. An official French news periodical, Le Mercure Français, was founded in 1613; a more heterogeneous periodical, Nouvelles Ordinaires, appeared in 1631; the same year, political division and a propaganda war resulted in the Gazette, sponsored by Cardinal Richelieu, which was for many years France’s dominant news publication. Similar developments took place in Basel from 1610, Frankfurt and Vienna by 1615, Hamburg and Berlin shortly afterwards, Amsterdam in 1618, and Sweden from 1645. The Gaceta de Madrid appeared in 1661, initially annually, becoming weekly in 1667. A daily publication appeared in Leipzig in 1650. The first newspaper in Russia appeared in 1703. An attempt was made to found a newspaper in Britain’s American colonies in 1690, but Boston’s Publick Occurrences was suppressed after a single issue; the Boston News-Letter was established with greater longevity in 1704 (Dahl 1952; Solomon 1972; Chartier 1982; Clark 1994; Raymond 1996; Raymond 2003, 106 –108).
The pattern, in most countries, is to move from occasional publication, through serial publication, to periodical publication, followed by an expansion of contents, an increase in frequency, and subsequently by regional differentiation within the country. The conventions and contents of manuscript newsletters and occasional pamphlets are appropriated and adapted, resulting in rapid formal experimentation. The publishers (or financers) of newspapers would employ an editor to digest news from various sources, often soldiers and postmasters; soon editors would take a more active role, exploring new styles for presenting the news, including editorials. Publishers targeted specialized markets, including groups defined by political opinion, profession, or interests. Advertisements were soon introduced, and publications thereby included the three elements of content that would be seen as defining the form: news, editorial, advertising. Also to be found are: accounts of sport, word games, public notices, reviews of books, cultural affairs, inserts on recent history, and introductions to political theory. Medical and science journals borrowed the medium of the newspaper for other purposes in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Nations, War, And Trade
News follows war and trade. This is partly because of public interest in these matters, but also because news concerning war and trade insists on regular updates. Much of the rapid spread of newspapers in Europe took place during the thirty years’ war (1618 –1648). Moreover, governments were not reluctant to let their subjects or citizens read news of overseas wars (see censorship, below). The economic and transport infrastructure that was essential both to the supply of news to editors, and to the movement of printed newspapers to their readers, depended on postal networks and trade routes. The history of newspapers in the seventeenth century could be written as a series of annotations on a map of these networks, stretching from Antwerp to Brussels and the Habsburg Netherlands, to Augsburg, Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Leipzig, to London, to Venice and thence throughout Italy, Seville, and throughout Scandinavia, thence to Edinburgh (Arblaster 2006). These points were connected by roads that saw communications and trade, and news and newspapers, spread along these major routes.
Trade provided an impetus for news distribution: merchants needed to know where military or political conflict might support or undermine their business, and information about goods and prices elsewhere formed a modest element of early newspapers (it was more plentiful in bespoke manuscript news). Yet trade networks were exploited in ways that were entirely indifferent to these financial interests: they provided an infrastructure that facilitated the gathering and commercial supply of all kinds of news.
There is, then, a series of paradoxes at the heart of newspaper culture. Newspapers exploit existing technologies and infrastructures, but frequently in ways that go against the perceived nature of those technologies and infrastructures. Newspapers are national phenomena – hence the nationalism of much newspaper historiography that seeks to assert the priority of one country or another in establishing the newspaper – yet they supply international news, cut across national boundaries, and enhance a sense of local and international as well as national communities.
Censorship And “Propaganda”
Most early newspapers shied away from news of the country in which they were published. This was because news, especially political news, was regarded as privileged information and was governed by norms of secrecy. In many states, to publish news was to risk imprisonment, and this fact alone operated as a significant impediment to the development of indigenous, regular, periodical news out of an existing market for occasional and imported news. News was available to a political elite, and fears were commonly expressed that popular access to news would produce political instability. News was seen to belong to the secrets of state that preserved majesty and authority. Moreover, it was said, if the general populace – shopkeepers, tradesmen, apprentices, agricultural workers – was to spend time reading newspapers and discussing news they would devote less time to their proper professions, and trade would begin to decline. These fears or commonplaces were iterated and reiterated as soon as print became a relatively cheap commodity, and long after the newspaper was an established fact of social and political life.
The consequence was a series of obstacles to the distribution of news, in the form of prepublication licensing and post-publication censorship, particularly focusing on printed news. These obstacles ranged from norms and conventions, through parliamentary legislation to royal proclamation; some form of restriction was in place across most of the world. Where news was published, it was frequently limited to foreign news (though it needs to be remembered that there was real interest in foreign news, in part because of the interest in trade, war, and religion). Surreptitious publication and surreptitious importation of books could circumvent these restrictions, which meant that news distribution occasionally developed as a strategy used by political oppositions.
Some states, France pre-eminent among them, pioneered the use of the newspaper as an official medium, communicating authorized views. Such activity promoted a government’s point of view – though government bodies were frequently not unified during this period – and created an official market that could drive out the surreptitious market in news. To speak of “propaganda” during the early modern period is an anachronism: the word was specifically associated with the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide and did not arrive at something like its modern meaning until the early nineteenth century. Early modern apologists for the state would have used a different and less value-laden group of words to describe their activities. In France, Théophraste Renaudot was hired by Richelieu to edit the Gazette, restricting rumor and promoting an interpretation of the news that served Richelieu’s purpose. Though Renaudot’s view of his purpose may have been quite idealistic, there is no doubt that his office was an instrument of the government (Solomon 1972). In England, both Charles I and the Long Parliament established weekly newspapers during the Civil War to boost the morale of their armies, to depreciate that of their opponents, and to curry support for their cause (Raymond 1996). After the Civil War, Charles II employed a licenser to the press who tracked down illicit publications, sought to silence dissent, and enjoyed a monopoly of news while editing the official newspaper. Promotion of one’s own view, combined with the suppression of the views of others, was established as the most effective means of governing opinion.
To conclude, the earliest newspapers should not be viewed solely from the perspective of their antecedence to the contemporary, or defined by the characteristics of the modern press. This Whiggish and frequently patriotic approach characterized newspaper historiography from its origins in the later eighteenth century until recently, and it impeded appreciation of the historical and cultural complexity of early newspapers. The media revolution that gripped seventeenth-century Europe produced a dynamic culture of news publication, consumption, and analysis.
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- Dahl, F. (1952). A bibliography of English corantos and periodical newsbooks 1620 –1642. London: Bibliographical Society.
- De Vivo, F. (2006). Paolo Sarpi and the uses of information in seventeenth-century Venice. In J. Raymond (ed.), News networks in seventeenth-century Britain and Europe. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 35 – 49.
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- Solomon, H. M. (1972). Public welfare, science, and propaganda in seventeenth-century France. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Von Klarwill, V. (ed.) (1924). The Fugger News-Letters. London: John Lane, Bodley Head.
- Zaret, D. (2000). Origins of democratic culture: Printing, petitions, and the public sphere in early modern England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.