Work in Progress

06.22.14

How the News Business Found Its Footing

No headlines, no pictures, not much content that we would even call news—but the early days of journalism do resemble ours in one respect: change has always been the only constant.

The first newspaper in Europe, published in the German town of Strasbourg in 1605, featured no headlines, no bylines, and no images. There was no editorial content, no coverage of sports, crime, or entertainment, and almost no advertising. The paper contained brief reports on diplomatic, military, and political news, but little else that we would recognize as characteristic of a modern newspaper. 

Letters, broadsheets, rumors, songs, and pamphlets already supplied steady streams of information and entertainment before the appearance of newspapers. Subscription-based manuscript newsletters also offered merchants and the political elite updates on commodity prices, royal maneuvering, and military campaigns. When printed newspapers emerged in the 17th century, they seemed unlikely candidates to dominate public discourse. Now that their supremacy is threatened once again by a proliferation of nimble competitors, the history of news in Europe can help illuminate the tangled terrain of our own media landscape.

Such a history is precisely what Andrew Pettegree offers in The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself. By considering the development of a news culture in Europe between 1400 and 1800, he reveals the origins of many familiar media conventions and shows just how easily the rise of newspapers might not have occurred. 

News in the early 16th century was often quite old. Letters from Venice to Brussels usually took 10 days to arrive, and that route was one of the fastest and most reliable in Europe. Communication with cities like London and Alexandria was particularly difficult; bad weather could delay a sea crossing, or pirates could intercept a ship bearing urgent news. 

By the time word of military victory reached home, the conquering army might have been destroyed in a subsequent battle. Funerals were often held for those still alive, and crushing defeats were celebrated as glorious triumphs. Many sources initially reported that the Spanish Armada had vanquished the English in 1588; the staggering scale of Spanish losses emerged only gradually. Logistics were not the only obstacle to prompt communication of accurate news—messengers were understandably inclined to report only the news that would please royal patrons and the public. No one was especially eager to deliver news of a disastrous military defeat or looming economic crisis. 

Many readers understood all manner of news in providential terms. Earthquakes, plagues, and floods were clear evidence of divine displeasure.

Given such a culture of swirling rumor and misinformation, some early news professionals were careful to note which reports were unconfirmed. Several Italian families ran manuscript newsletters called avvisi that offered a digest of current events; their business depended on providing accurate information rapidly. If a report of impending grain shortages that prompted merchants not to sell their goods turned out to be false, those who lost money would look elsewhere for more accurate information. Journalists often laud fact-checking and truth-seeking in idealistic rhetoric, but the initial motive for these practices was commercial: not to lose the business of wealthy clients.  

The ideal of journalistic neutrality also has pragmatic origins. For the 16th and much of the 17th century, both print and manuscript news services largely ignored domestic politics. While authors of pamphlets could remain anonymous, newspapers were easily traceable to their site of printing since subscribers had to know where to send payment. Subscription fees for many news services limited the market to the elite, the very people who tended to be the actors in domestic news stories. This made the risk of alienating clients by reporting their misdeeds or supporting their rivals unacceptably high. Pamphlets were venues for advocacy and commentary on domestic affairs, but newspapers adopted a pose of just-the-facts neutrality. 

Throughout the 17th century, the inclusion of editorial content was often considered an insult to the intelligence of readers. One London editor explained the omission of commentary by noting that he supposed “other people to have sense enough to make reflections for themselves.” Presuming to interpret and explain events to an elite readership also risked alienating clients. 

As newspapers began to reach broader segments of the population, the aversion to reporting on domestic matters lingered. “I think it makes the multitude too familiar with the actions and councils of their superiors,” one publisher wrote about the practice of covering domestic politics. The familiar notion of the press as a watchdog for government only arose much later. An Italian writer bluntly articulated the common attitude in the 17th century: “The true way of ruling the subject is to keep him ignorant of and reverent towards public affairs.”

Political elites were not the only ones interested in regulating the behavior of the masses by controlling the news. Religious authorities saw in current events the manifestation of divine will. Clergymen, in fact, were among the first crime reporters. Spectacularly bloody murders offered vivid examples of the Devil’s activity, and the woodcut imagery that accompanied these sensational stories often employed a format familiar from the Passion narratives of late medieval painting.  

Many readers understood all manner of news in providential terms. Earthquakes, plagues, and floods were clear evidence of divine displeasure. Wonders, apparitions, and miracles also formed a core component of European news broadsheets. Descriptions of armed soldiers and strange beasts galloping across the skies were not uncommon.  

The timeliness of news items mattered far less when events were understood in theological terms; a story several months old could still supply the chance for some sermonizing. As religious interpretation of news started to decline in the 18th century, an emphasis on timeliness increased. Improvements in transport networks between the cities of Europe also allowed news to spread more rapidly.  

By the late 18th century, coverage of domestic politics and editorial content were both becoming more common. There were four journals published in France in 1788: by 1790 there were 335. The French Revolution had catalyzed a tremendous surge in the number and type of publications, and strident advocacy became a regular feature of the press. A bitterly partisan public discourse also developed in 18th-century England. “I make it a rule to abuse him who is against me or any of my friends,” wrote an English editor in the late 18th century.  

Though Pettegree’s impeccably researched history ranges over four centuries and half a dozen countries, he manages to cover countless details without losing sight of broader themes. The book is fascinating partly for its illumination of the origins of current conventions. Newspapers and magazines that still publish fiction and poetry, for instance, are vestiges of a time when the logistical difficulty of obtaining news forced publishers to fill pages with engaging content that was not time-sensitive. The practice of prefacing a story with a brief written summary developed to help street hawkers sell their wares more effectively.  

But Pettegree doesn’t simply tell origin stories about particular modern practices. He also reveals that many of the traits that define current periodical news—contemporaneity, affordability, and a mixture of straight news, editorializing, and cultural content—are relatively recent phenomena enabled by particular historical conditions.  

The rise of newspapers and magazines in their present form was hardly inevitable. While the human urge to be informed and entertained persists across the centuries, Pettegree demonstrates that the methods and media for conveying news are in a slow but ceaseless process of evolution. In today’s crowded media landscape, it’s worth remembering that the practices that seem natural to us could easily appear quaint and bizarre in 500 years. The history of news is still being written.