Regular readers of this column will realize that I am a huge fan of newspapers and a big supporter of the independent media. Personally, I still love the thrill of opening a crisp printed newspaper and devouring its contents.
Of course, digital/online consumption of the independent media is an increasing and necessary trend, and naturally I embrace this as a public relations professional. It is exciting to see videos and a gallery of images when reading news and features online, and for me the source must be an independent and respected media organization.
One of my greatest fears for the future of media is that fewer and fewer readers will understand the difference between genuine independent editorial stories, such as those appearing in quality, well-funded newspapers – like The British Times, The Washington Post or this local newspaper – and the random, often uninformed and normally biased posts on the internet.
A significant problem, of course, is that people expect information on the internet to be free and are sometimes resistant to accessing quality news via subscriptions, whereas in the past they would happily purchase or subscribe to the printed edition – as many of us still do.
In this digital age with the general expectation of free content, how do these online-only readers expect newspaper publishers to pay their editors, reporters, researchers and feature writers, let alone keep their printed versions alive with the cost of paper, ink, delivery and so on?
I am always fascinated to look back at history, and the origins of newspapers are especially interesting. Ancient civilizations largely depended on word of mouth and government proclamations in public places – remember that until comparatively recent times the vast majority of people were illiterate.
Some early and more educated civilizations did distribute news on paper, but when each copy had to be handwritten, mass distribution was impossible. In ancient Rome, daily news sheets were created by the government, first chiseled on stone or metal, then later were read from scrolls by town criers.
These were called “acta diurnal” and are often considered precursors to the modern newspaper.
What really revolutionized literacy in most of the world was the invention of the printing press in Germany around 1440. By 1500, the printing press had made its way throughout Europe, and news sheets (or news books) were being mass-distributed.
The first regular weekly newspaper, as we would recognize it today with a range of news, sport, and features, was published in Germany in 1604. The trend spread through Europe and the first English- language newspaper was published in 1665 in Oxford, England.
Known as the Oxford Gazette, the newspaper moved to London in 1666 and was renamed the London Gazette. Around this time, newspapers were common across all major European countries before making their way to what was called “The New World”.
Although there were a few early European news sheets printed in the Americas by colonial immigrants, the first true American newspaper wasn’t introduced until 1690. The publisher was arrested early in the newspaper’s life for including political criticisms of the British colonial government and his newspaper was suppressed, with all known copies destroyed.
Fourteen years later the Boston News-Letter became the first successful newspaper in America because the publisher did not upset colonial authority.
In 1728, Samuel Keimer founded a newspaper with the rather long and awkward title, The Universal Instructor in all Arts and Sciences: and Pennsylvania Gazette. It effectively became the first English language general encyclopedia, but due to financial difficulties, it was sold the next year, on Oct. 2, 1729.
Benjamin Franklin and his partner Hugh Meredith seized the opportunity to purchase the Pennsylvania Gazette, and Franklin went on to became one of the most influential printers, publishers, statesmen and revolutionists in American history. Throughout history, and sadly today in some countries, governments have oppressed newspaper publishers and journalists who use their platforms for political criticism. One of the many reasons I love America is for the Constitution and Bill of Rights of 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” By the 1830s advances in printing and papermaking made it possible to sell newspapers for one cent per copy in the USA. And due to this great value, combined with increased literacy, the newspaper publishing business exploded.
This continued throughout the Industrial Revolution, and newspapers then started including illustrations and eventually photographs. By the early 20th century, newspapers looked similar to those today with banner headlines, photos and illustrations, comics and sports coverage, in addition to political and event news. Color print was expensive so it didn’t really take off until the 1990s. Although newspapers held up well in competition for advertising dollars against radio beginning 100 years ago and TV in the 1940s, it is only today that the internet is truly threatening the survival of newspapers. I sincerely hope that newspapers and quality news publishers remain a central part of how we obtain information – however we choose to consume our news. There is a lot more information at history.com and benjamin-franklin-history.org.
I say goodbye this week with a quote from this great nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson: “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.”
God Bless America and the freedom of the press!