Historians tend to agree that the Acta Diurna in ancient Rome, a daily gazette of official news, was one of the most important precursors of the newspaper as a public disseminator of topical information in the western world. (Newspapers, in their modern sense, would not emerge in countries such as China, Japan, and Korea until centuries later, but forerunners such as newssheets – containing official edicts and decrees – had limited circulation). Handwritten copies publicized news from police courts, accidents, deaths, the reporting of municipal councils, courts of law, and even the Senate. These reports were posted outside a variety of public buildings for the perusal of interested citizens. It would be over a thousand years, however, before technology, politics, and education would allow the regular commercial distribution of printed news in the form that we recognize today as the newspaper.
The introduction of printing to Europe around 1440 did not immediately prompt the development of anything resembling a modern newspaper. Economic and political conditions meant that newspapers took a longer period to make the most of this technology. The Gazetta of Venice was arguably the first newssheet of modern times, providing the merchant and political classes of Venice with eagerly awaited news of the perceived threat from the Turkish empire. They were handwritten from 1536, but from about 1570 they were making the best use of available printing techniques. To a large extent, the newspaper as we know it became shaped by events and conditions in northwestern Europe from the seventeenth century and North America from the eighteenth century. It is on these areas that this brief account will concentrate.
Early Periodical Publications
Periodical news-books and newssheets began to spread across the cities of Europe from the early seventeenth century. The Relation, published by Johann Carolus in the then German city of Strasbourg from 1605 onwards, is generally regarded as the first regular newspaper in print. The first newspapers in other countries, depending on the definitional criteria used, emerged shortly thereafter: France (1631), Italy (1643), Sweden (1645), Spain (1641), Poland (1661), and Russia (1703). In the nonwestern world, newspapers began to replace earlier types of bulletins in the nineteenth century, such as in Mexico (1805), Brazil (1808), India (1819), Japan (1870), China (1874), and Egypt (1867).
Relatively liberal political conditions made newspaper production a viable activity in England from 1621, with the publication of the first coranto translated into English. The first dated and sequential newsbooks began to be published in England the following year. They required a certain sort of writing that was to distinguish newsbooks from other literary forms, one which was centered on the transitory and the contemporary, and foregrounded the political and the public like no other. The first publication to be able to break the taboo on reporting the proceedings of Parliament was the Heads of Severall Proceedings in this Present Parliament from November 22 to 29, 1641, written by Samuel Pecke. The years of the English Civil War were the laboratory for many of the permutations of early journalism. They saw the birth of many modern techniques of modern political journalism, for instance: the planted item, the inadequately denied rumor, and the inside story (Frank 1961, 54). From 1643, the Mercuries introduced satirical writing and scurrilous innuendo about public figures and overt political propaganda, in the first regular attempts to create a public forum through a consistently partisan idiom in print. The period also witnessed the first experiments with advertising in periodical publications. It would not be long before the interdependence of advertising and news became a characteristic combination of newspaper journalism with all the benefits and compromises this brings.
The Formation Of A Public Sphere
By the Restoration of 1660 in England, there was a return to a situation of central and licensed control over newspaper journalism. The term “newspaper” is first used around 1670 with reference to a specific form of print culture beginning to take on its identifiable characteristics. The Licensing Act lapsed in 1695, not because the ruling political classes felt secure about unrestricted printing, but because it could no longer be administered efficiently. From this point we see the emergence of newspapers as central to what Habermas (1989) has called a “public sphere.” Habermas sees this public sphere as an arena in which a compromise between the competing interests of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy was negotiated to the benefit of the bourgeoisie, making use of its critical judgment. The first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, was published from 1702. Barbers’ shops, taverns, and especially coffee shops all formed part of a spreading national network of outlets for newspapers and other periodicals where people gathered informally to read, exchange opinion, or catch up on the latest rumor or gossip.
Similar developments enabled the newspaper to become established within political constraints through much of western Europe. In 1777 the Journal de Paris became France’s first daily newspaper. In the German-speaking territories, the Intelligenzblatt was from the early eighteenth century a regular supplier of a wide range of commercial information, together with news about trials and deaths. Political content was usually confined to officially sanctioned newspapers edited and published by governments.
In colonial America, Boston was the birthplace of newspaper production with Benjamin Harris’s Publik Occurrences of 1690, John Campbell’s Boston News-Letter of 1704, and the New England Courant of John and Benjamin Franklin of 1721. After 1769, Isaac Doolittle printing machines enabled speedier and more voluminous production, and this technology enabled the country to become united in its aspirations for independence from Britain. The freedom of the American press from colonial control became one of the founding principles of the republican cause. The newspapers of Isaiah Thomas and Samuel Adams’s Boston Gazette and Country Journal provided journalism to stoke the revolutionary fires in the 1770s, and the interest in home news during these years occluded all else.
Newspapers played a central role too in the French revolution of 1789. Many of the leading figures were journalists or pamphleteers including Brissot, Marat, and Robespierre, and they produced newspapers such as L’Ami du Peuple, calling upon the absolute freedom of the press to represent the wishes of the people.
By the end of the century, three daily London-based newspapers had begun to draw together the strands of the extended experiment in newspaper journalism into a successful format. The Morning Chronicle edited by James Perry, the Morning Post edited by Daniel Stuart, and The Times were all combining credibility, probity, and financial success, and the first two were demonstrating the benefits of control of the whole newspaper by one manager, although this function was not described as “editor” before 1802. From this point, the financial success of newspapers was to be exploited by owners and editors to emphasize their editorial independence from government. The rise of the leading article was a device that allowed this claim to be demonstrated on a daily basis on the important issues of the day, and increasingly newspapers sought out the best writers to articulate distinctive political and economic arguments for their readership.
The Defeat Of A Radical Press In England
As one set of developments was moving newspapers toward commercial respectability and political independence, a long suppressed radical impulse gained renewed momentum at the start of the nineteenth century in England. Under the impact of social and intellectual developments abroad in the shape of the American and the French revolutions, and at home in the wake of the unemployment and radical social upheavals of the early Industrial Revolution, readerships were being increasingly politicized along class lines. Newspapers began to address their readers in one of two ways: as a market for economic purposes or as a social class for political purposes.
Government fears of the impact of revolutionary ideas led them to raise the stamp duty twice between 1789 and 1797, but this merely encouraged the radicals to publish illegally and, in doing so, raise their oppositional credibility with their readers. The first phase between 1815 and 1819 included the writings of Cobbett, Carlile, Wade, and Wooler. This journalism, in the form of a weekly polemic, provided an organic link to the readerships it was targeting, the working classes.
The second phase of radicalism in the 1830s accompanied the push toward parliamentary reform, but expressed a strand of radical thinking that went beyond a mere shift in suffrage. Hetherington and O’Brien, for instance, ran unstamped newspapers to push for political representation from the perspective of a specifically socialist critique of property, but the reduction of stamp duty from 1836 meant that the radical press was drowned in a torrent of cheap publications aimed at the working classes as a market.
Newspapers And Markets
By the early nineteenth century the aspirations for press freedom of the great revolutionary movements of the late eighteenth century had been moderated. It was to be in the commercialization of newspaper production that their editorial independence would come. This was linked to increased efficiency and speed in both production and distribution as new printing techniques and transport, both driven by steam, moved newspapers into the industrial age.
In the US, Benjamin H. Day produced the first successful penny newspaper, the New York Sun, from 1833. It was the first to target the ordinary people of the growing metropolis of New York in a language they could identify as their own. The success of the newspaper was also dependent on its sale on a daily basis on the streets, breaking with the tradition of more respectable papers for advance subscription and delivery. Gordon Bennett followed this successful pioneer in 1835 with his New York Herald, which perfected a popular blend of sport, crime, business, general news, and an increasing use of interviews with personalities in the news.
The removal of taxes and duties on newspapers between 1836 and 1855 in England shifted the onus of control definitively from political to commercial interests. The newspapers that emerged were commercially and politically incorporated and acted as a conciliatory, consensual channel between politicians, commercial interests, and the press rather than as an inflammatory intervention on behalf of a radicalized people in pursuit of rights and progress. Dropping taxation had made investment more attractive and paved the way for more competition between politically stable newspapers in the hands of so-called respectable men of property.
In newspaper form, the first entrant into this new order was the Daily Telegraph in 1855. This was a paper that at a penny was intended to introduce a different clientele to the daily newspaper. It brought together elements of the human interest of American popular journalism, public campaigning around issues of concern to its readership, and celebrity interviews. On the other hand, the continuing dominance of The Times in the elite market was based on its ability to enhance its political and editorial independence by investment in the latest technologies and maintenance of hugely profitable circulation and advertising.
In the US, the private transmission of news via telegraph assumed considerable importance during the Civil War (1861–1865). This had an impact on journalism in the systematization of its language and the development of the inverted triangle of the news story. The telegraph, in combination with the advanced system of shorthand introduced in 1840 by Pitman, meant that there was more of a verifiable base to much reporting of news, and therefore more scope to develop angles conforming to the particular identity of the individual paper. This was followed by further developments in printing and telegraphy into the 1870s including web rotary presses, the private wires, and the telephone. The new communication technologies allowed increasingly for information to be double-checked, which is considered by many to be one of the defining features of modern journalism. The increased quantity and reliability of news, combined with the increase in advertising from the 1880s, meant that newspapers began to be able to concentrate on how the paper was put together rather than simply filling the space. Under the influence of more interventionist editors, newspapers developed identifiable house styles. Newspapers had always been a commodity, but they were rapidly becoming a more streamlined and capitalized commodity.
Improvements in print quality and better incorporation of visual material, including advertisements, forced newspapers to look increasingly to their visual aspect as consumers of journalism became more attuned to a wider range of aesthetic considerations in the layout and illustration of their papers.
Pulitzer launched his New York World in 1883 and developed an invigorated version of popular journalism that was to be as influential in the US as it was in the rest of the world. It combined lively, topical writing, interviews with the celebrities of the day, campaigns, and even stunts to attract publicity to the newspaper and an astute courting of the reader through its language and worldview.
Hearst, with his New York Journal from 1895, provided the competition that was to drive American newspapers more in the direction of sensationalism and scandal. He did much to refine the template for successful popular newspapers. The drive for readers led to the labeling of such newspapers as “yellow journalism.” Both these newspapers were drawn into ever more populist appeals to an increasingly chauvinistic mood in the country during the Spanish–American war of 1896 –1898, demonstrating the potential for newspapers to become agents of unbridled jingoism.
With the expansion of advertising, popular magazines in England tested markets for journalism lower down the social and financial scale and soon began mapping products onto that market. The first to try was George Newnes’s Tit-Bits, which was the herald of the new penny weeklies of the 1880s. Whatever their stylistic innovations, the penny weeklies’ most significant contribution was their enormous financial success, which enabled Harmsworth and Pearson in particular to found the two most influential newspapers of the early twentieth century, the Daily Mail (1896) and the Daily Express (1900). They built on the well-established tradition of an intimate form of address with their readers, a popular feature of both radical pamphlets, women’s magazines, and Sunday newspapers.
The Long Popular Century
Harmsworth’s reworking of the popular newspaper as primarily a vehicle to attract readers and advertisers had a lasting effect on the shape and content of journalism across the twentieth century, forcing other proprietors to adapt the content of their newspapers to match or improve upon the pattern he had set.
The Daily Express was launched to rival the Daily Mail and to exploit the new market for popular daily journalism that Harmsworth had opened. It innovated itself with news on the first page from 1901. These newspapers relied upon more editorial intervention to make copy fit the format and style of the paper. The role of the subeditor was pivotal in the creation of this new discourse, in fitting the copy into a format that allowed a newspaper to be read on the move and tailoring it to fit the space available within the pictorial and advertising space. The “story” becomes the basic molecular element of journalistic reality and the distinctions of categories of news into “hard” and “soft news” become institutionalized.
The Intensification Of Press Competition
By the twentieth century, newspapers had become identifiably big business. The leading proprietors presided over a period that continued the trends toward concentration, competition, and entertainment in print media. This competition led among other things to a concentration of the market and a narrowing of political range. Sensationalism, special offers, campaigns, layout, and aspects of writing style of the 1930s all became defining features of the popular newspapers of the age.
The relaunched Daily Mirror, from 1934 under the editorial direction of Bartholomew, triggered the tabloid revolution with its signature heavy black boldface for headlines, pinups, youthful style, simplified language, and prominent use of pictures to reach a new readership. It redrew the map of the popular newspaper by integrating all the visual appeal of popular culture and consumerism for the first time. After the war, the Daily Mirror soon began to climb to a pinnacle of influence in popular journalism, ousting the Daily Express with a populist, proletarian, and youthful appeal encapsulated in the slogan that ran from May 11, 1945: “Forward with the People.”
The most sustained and widespread set of debates around contemporary journalism emanates from the tabloid newspaper. “Tabloidization” may refer to: (1) an increase in news about celebrities, entertainment, lifestyle features, and personal issues, (2) an increase in sensationalism, the use of pictures, and sloganized headlines, (3) a decrease in international news and public affairs news including politics, (4) a reduction in the length of stories, and (5) a convergence with the agendas of popular and in particular television culture.
Elite newspapers have also been enmeshed in the clustering of trends characterized as tabloidization. The late twentieth century has seen a further narrowing of ownership and the incorporation of newspapers into more broadly defined media conglomerates that have eroded the boundaries between journalism and media entertainment. In order to survive the intensification of competition, elite newspapers have become heavier and have more lifestyle and consumer coverage. They have increased the numbers of specialist supplements and size and quantity of high-profile advertisements. Most significant is the almost universal shift to a tabloid format. In the expanding tide of newsprint, the elite press’s relative coverage of foreign news has decreased, yet they are providing a very different service from that of their predecessors in that, freed from the necessity to be first with breaking news, they can concentrate much more on opinion, commentary, and selective in-depth reporting.
Global trends such as online journalism and the rise of freesheets and blogs mean that the format and content as well as the social use of newspapers is in the process of intense renegotiation, but it seems certain that some form of newspaper will survive: one which successfully incorporates these developments as part of a more diverse media package. Rupert Murdoch is the best example of a contemporary media mogul who is confidently positioning his newspaper empire in a convergent media environment. Newspapers are now at the hub of an increasingly hybrid operation that makes the whole newspaper package more akin to an extended magazine with specializations ranged around the core of a more general news function. Elite newspapers, in particular, at the start of the twenty-first century give a glimpse of a radically altered, more open-ended journalism under the influence of the Internet, with its archival potential and more direct reader intervention via emails and blogs.
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