To understand the role the press plays in modern social and political life, one must study the history of the earliest printed periodicals – newspapers. Since the time of the first published newspapers, authorities have been very wary of them, trying to keep them under strict control. However, after a long and difficult fight the press eventually won its place in the sun and asserted its fundamental right to free and independent coverage of events, criticism of the government and discussion of burning social issues. At the same time, it has become associated with a special kind of social responsibility and acquired the functions of the “Fourth Estate.” But what did the dawn of the newspaper era look like?
FROM ACTA DIURNA TO NEWSPAPERS
Humankind was disseminating news long before it learned to write letters. However, with the arrival of writing, news reports became more objective, assuming an official form in more developed societies such as the Roman Acta Diurna or the Chinese Tipao—daily government reports inscribed on stone or metal slabs in public places. Before the emergence of the printing press in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, merchants made frequent use of handwritten information bulletins which had applied significance. They featured news about wars, economic conditions, market prices, social customs, weather, etc. Gutenberg’s invention paved the way for the first types of printed mass media in the mid-15th century – news books, pamphlets, booklets, brochures, ballads and news digests called relations. Both the written and oral culture of citizens played an equal part in news dissemination, which is why the genre of ballads gained popularity. Despite their varied coverage, these earliest printed media cannot be qualified as the first newspapers: they were published sporadically and covered individual topics without distancing themselves in any way from the stories they told.
Newspapers in the contemporary sense of the word are a European invention. Their predecessors were the abovementioned handwritten news reports widely circulated in Venice in the 16th century. This Italian city was not only one of the world’s biggest trade centres but also an information centre. Its local news reports, known as avvisi or gazette, were published regularly starting from 1566 and sometimes even reached London. The term gazette derives its name from a Venetian coin which was used to pay for one copy of a news report. Most Western European countries, however, used the Dutch name corantos for quite a long time. The English newspaper came onto the historical stage in the 1670s.
The journalistic style of these first precursors to newspapers was quite primitive: a summary of brief news communicated from individual cities with headlines and dates of submission. The format and regularity characteristic of Venetian avvisi led to the development of the contemporary mass media. The oldest newspapers were weeklies and were first published in German lands in the early 17th century, later spreading to all of Europe (see the Chronology of the first newspapers in the world).
Unlike avvisi, the first printed magazines were published at regular intervals, typically weekly or monthly, and had an illustrated cover and an overall publication date. In order to avoid persecution by the authorities (which distrusted the first printed mass media), early newspapers generally did not identify the city of publication. Some periodicals of the day did not even have an established name. For example, the first English newspaper had the rather cumbersome title Corante, or weekely newes from Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, France and the Low Countreys. The publishers took great effort to fill the pages with fresh news every week. Some found it to be a challenge, and newspapers came out late. In some cases, publishers would simply write: “News reports from Italy have not arrived yet.” This phrase was even used for the headline of one early English newspaper. Unverified rumours and subjective relations of travellers and merchants were often published as news. However, a continuous struggle for fresh and objective information stimulated the development of the newspaper industry. The flow of news gradually “adjusted” to the weekly format and later to daily editions. Reports that arrived from various cities were edited in a fairly crude fashion. There were cases when a single edition published the news of a city’s siege and its capture side by side. The early system of journalism was convenient for editors but highly inconvenient for readers. One of the earliest attempts to change this system and present reports as more readable narratives was made in England. Only a small audience of subscribers read these first newspapers as the press was delivered exclusively by mail at the time.
FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The bulk of early newspapers largely reported news from Europe, rarely from America or Asia. However, apart from a handful of exceptions (notably, Dutch newspapers), they never reported domestic news. The market of published media in Europe was strictly regulated at the time: in most countries, periodicals had to have special government licenses for publication and could be quickly shut down if they were critical of the authorities. Therefore, most newspapers focused on foreign news coverage, while keeping mum on domestic affairs.
British newspapers were the first to challenge this status quo when they smelled freedom during the English Civil Wars in the mid-17th century. Understanding their responsibility before society, the newspapers dared cover domestic political affairs. The first newspaper to take this portentous step was a periodical with a fairly conservative title, The Heads of Severall Proceedings in This Present Parliament, which emerged in November 1641. Later, numerous competitors crowded the scene. Summing up the about-face of the English periodicals, one editor wrote: “And now, after the strange perturbations and changes of our time, the only thing we are talking about is what is happening in England…”
English newspapers were the first in the world to free themselves from the control of the government and carry out an important experiment called “the free press”. This was an incentive for the printed media to develop as a separate industry. According to British historian Joseph Frank, British newspaper publishers were among the first to start using headlines and article titles, publish advertisements and illustrate stories with prints. They also set up a network of correspondents and started selling copies in the streets. Newspapers were quickly emerging as victors in the competition with more archaic forms of mass media – news books and ballads, which were quite popular among the population in covering various sensational news, such as bloody murders. It was the English press that had the privilege, in January 1649, to inform the public about a momentous event in national history – the execution of King Charles I.
After these changes, newspapers became more reliable and were published at shorter intervals. In 1650, the first daily, Einkommende Zeitung, was published in Leipzig. Its first English counterpart, The Daily Courant, was launched in 1702. Daily newspapers played an important role in commerce thanks to published advertisements, price lists and market reports. In the early 18th century, according to historian Stanley Morison, the English newspaper gained “a hold on London's commercial classes which it never lost”.
The fight of North American newspapers for their freedom continued alongside growing demands for independence in American colonies. After it was imported from England at the turn of the 18th century, printed mass media quickly turned from typical colonial editions into centres of opposition and government criticism. They were subjected to a major test by the Stamp Act of 1765 which the British parliament used to impose a special tax on newspaper printing, driving up retail prices and shrinking audiences. In response, American publishers “rebelled” against this law, fiercely condemning it in their newspapers and forcing Great Britain to annul it.
As tensions grew between North American colonies and London, local newspapers became increasingly critical of the British administration and joined new protests, including the Boston Tea Party. Curiously, the very idea of this protest was voiced in the building of the editor in chief of the local Boston Gazette. At the time, engravings were published with increasing frequency in American periodicals to criticize the colonial authorities, and these turned into caricatures. Although not all magazines sided with the anti-British “sons of freedom and democracy”, the local press accomplished an unprecedented feat in the late 18th century by uniting Americans within a new political community. Many historians believe that the revolution in the New World would not have gained so much support without published mass media. Finally, the American Congress, following the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, declared freedom of expression and freedom of the press in its first amendment to the Constitution as one of the foundations of democracy. Together with nine other amendments, this formed the core of the 1789 Bill of Rights. Despite certain attempts to limit it in the early days of the independent United States, the country of Jefferson and Washington has successfully demonstrated that the free press can quite comfortably co-exist with a democratic government.
The newspaper industry enjoyed extremely rapid growth in 19th-century America, overtaking Europe in the number of periodicals and advertisement volumes. In the early 19th century, the USA had some 200 newspapers, including 20 dailies, and more than half of all periodicals in large cities had “advertiser”, “commercial” or “trade” in their names. By contrast, the total number grew to almost 7,000 by the 1880s.
Next to pricy commercial periodicals, America saw the arrival of a series of cheap popular penny papers in the 1830s, which later also appeared in Europe. These small (up to four pages) publications were filled with various “real life”, sensational and police stories and became immensely popular, with daily sales reaching tens of thousands of copies in large cities. Increasingly large print runs prompted publishers to switch from mechanical to steam-powered printing presses which were able to churn out 18,000 copies an hour rather than 125. Most penny papers espoused egalitarian notions and were thus most popular with workers and immigrants. Their key contribution was in changing the economic status of their publishers as a result of larger scale and volume. Newspapers became big business in developed countries.
SPEED, SPEED ABOVE ALL
In the 19th century, journalism and reporting underwent fundamental changes. The editors of the first newspapers obtained reports from afar through travellers, merchants, sailors and foreign newspapers. News took at least several months to travel from Europe to America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The constant waiting which was a hallmark of printed media at the time gave rise to doubts that in turn led to rumours. Rumours were used to fill the vacuum, so newspaper reports were often false. In order to overcome these difficulties, editors set up networks of correspondents in other cities and abroad. However, the most revolutionary changes in the speed, distance and reliability of information transmission came about with the invention of the electric telegraph by Samuel Morse in 1837. Newspapers became the main clients of the first telegraphic companies, and the development of wire transmission led to the formation of the first information agencies, such as the world-famous Associated Press, which was founded in 1846 as a corporate non-profit enterprise for the exchange of information among New York newspapers. After the transatlantic telegraph connection was set up in 1866, American newspapers were able to publish European news without delay.
However, the 20th century pitted the press against several competitors: first, the radio, then television and now the Internet. Newspaper print runs plummeted during this period, and advertisement revenue dropped. At the same time, individual periodicals came to be replaced by large media corporations that own entire networks of mass media outlets in several countries. However, the free press still remains an indispensable attribute of modern life as it performs an important social mission. Experts say that newspapers have every reason to look to the future optimistically.
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration