The Advent of Newspapers

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The Advent of Newspapers


Before the invention of printing in the 1500s, people kept each other up to date with news and gossip through personal letters. Members of formal organizations accomplished the same function through handwritten newsletters. Following the arrival of print in the sixteenth century, news publishing went through four distinct stages before it evolved into what we would recognize as a newspaper. The very first examples were not sheets of two or four pages made up into columns but news books, or news pamphlets, looking a lot like a book, with a title page. Only in the seventeenth century did news begin to be distributed regularly and frequently.


The first stage in the evolution of newspapers was publication of a single story, called a relation. This kind of publication recounted an event long after it had occurred. For example, in 1619 Nathaniel Newberry of London published a pamphlet under the title "Newes out of Holland," translated from the Dutch, that recounted details of a conspiracy.

A second genre of news publishing was known as the coranto. In England, Thomas Archer, Nicholas Bourne, and Nathaniel Butter published several such publications between 1620 and 1625. That year the government temporarily suspended publication of foreign news. After the restriction was dropped, in 1638 Bourne and Butter were granted the exclusive right to print news from abroad.

The coranto bore some resemblance to conventional newspapers in that it was published on a weekly basis, with some gaps. However, it had no single voice, and its front-page title would change from week to week. Sometimes editions were announced as a continuation of the previous week's edition. Corantos took their content from letters and foreign publications, a practice acknowledged on the title pages. For example, a coranto dated May 30, 1622 announces "Weekly Newes from Italy, Germanie, Hungaria, Bohemia, the Palatinate, France, and the Low Countries." The coranto's significance lay in its attempt to cover events the world over, and to establish itself as an authority on world affairs. During this time, short news items began to appear, called "broken stuffe."

The coranto evolved into the diurnal, which was a weekly account of several days' worth of events. In the aftermath of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), news attention in England shifted to domestic issues. Robert Coles and Samuel Pecke had a large hand in producing English diurnals, and they tended to draw their copy from daily goings-on in Parliament. These diurnals often featured woodcut illustrations.

The fourth stage of early news publishing was also a book-like publication, called a mercury. It took its name from a Latin publication of the 1580s that covered affairs in central Europe. When civil war broke out in England, mercuries multiplied, and it was possible to buy one every day of the week, including Sunday. A contemporary publication to the mercury—slightly more official in tone—was called the intelligencer. John Thurloe (1616-1668), secretary of state under Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), supervised such a publication during the second phase of the Civil War (1648). Its purpose was allegedly to "prevent misinformation." A singular feature of the intelligencer was that it marked a move toward coverage of a greater breadth of subject matter, and even to provide entertainment. An additional characteristic of news pamphlets published during the Civil War was that they dropped the book-style title page in favor of putting as much news as possible onto the front page.

The printing press used to generate the first regular news publications was a variation on Johannes Gutenberg's (c.1400-1468) device for moving type. This machine consisted of a wooden screw with a horizontal iron plate attached to its lower end. A page of type was placed on a movable flat bed that slid under the iron plate. Lowering the plate put enough pressure on the type to make a printed impression on a sheet of paper positioned over the type. The type was inked between each printing. In 1620, a Dutch innovation basically doubled printing capacity by modifying the machine to allow the iron plate to rise automatically after each impression. The next major advance in printing would not appear until the early 1800s.

Early printers were supervised by the state in a process called prior censorship. Prior censorship was a way authorities had of controlling what could and could not be published through licensing agreements. The degree of supervision varied from country to country and changed with time. In Italy and Germany, for example, both the Church and state were involved in censoring. In France, all publications were subjected to royal censorship up until the time of the French Revolution (1787-1799). In England, in 1538, the Royal Privy Council forbade publication of any book without its permission. A period of religious dissent in the late 1500s broke through this control. Although periodical publication of all news was banned in 1637, the beginning of the English Civil War in 1640 helped to cement the collapse of the censorship and control system.

Sporadic publication gave way rapidly to regular publication. In 1597, Samuel Dilbaum was printing a monthly newssheet. In Strasbourg in 1609, a bookseller brought out a monthly account of "noteworthy happenings." In Antwerp, Belgium, Abraham Verhoeven began publishing his Niewe Tydinghe in 1605. It appeared irregularly at first, but by the 1620s had reached three editions per week. Verhoeven's newssheet was influenced by the ornate style favored by the French, and featured engravings and maps. In 1610, both France and Switzerland had begun regular city papers.

The medium was adopted most enthusiastically in Holland and Germany. At first, the appearance of newspapers followed trade routes, and early papers were copycat versions of other papers. In 1650, a paper called Einkommende Zeitung (Incoming news) was produced—the oldest daily newspaper in the world. By 1626, Holland had 140 news publications.

In France, the physician Théophraste Renaudot (1586?-1653) was the first person to conceive of combining advertising with publishing the news. Widely traveled before accepting a post as commissioner-general for the poor, Renaudot was quick to spot the journalistic innovations of the time and to incorporate them in his experiments in communicating urgent information regarding "human life and society." In 1631, Renaudot obtained from Louis XIII (1601-1643) the sole right in France to "make, print, and to have printed and sold by those appropriate, news, gazettes and accounts of all that has happened and is happening inside and outside the Kingdom." This Renaudot did until the king died, after which an era of political instability set in that made publishing the news a hazardous occupation.

In England, the changes in attitudes wrought by the Civil War led emboldened newspaper publishers to flout legal prohibitions in recounting parliamentary affairs. Stimulated by a public appetite for domestic news, an unbridled flowering of journalism occurred in the 1640s that would not happen again for another century. Relations, corantos, diurnals, intelligencers, and mercuries proliferated, covering stories on marine monsters, battles, and the limits of permissibility in the press.

Early newspapers were not aesthetic objects. Material was crammed into eight to twelve pages, and the size of the typeface kept shrinking to accommodate more stories. Text was set in a single column, and there were few paragraph breaks and no subheads. But an increase in exports between the Restoration (1660) and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that brought William III of Orange (1650-1702) and Mary II (1662-1694) to the throne translated into a market for both ordinary and financial information. In 1665, the first number of the Oxford Gazette appeared in a new format: a half-sheet printed on both sides, made up in two columns, topped by a title of a single line.


The growth of newspapers depended on a constellation of different developments. For example, at the start of the seventeenth century, a basic network of postal routes, printing capacity, and local distribution was already in place over much of Europe. An additional factor was the century's religious wars, which provided a demand for news. Moreover, permanent shifts in how families were structured, where people lived, and how aware they were of the world around them created a further desire for news that was evident even in the first corantos shipped from Holland in 1620. Early printing was expensive in terms of human effort and the cost of making the metal letters and composing a page. But news publishing was a less precise affair than book printing, and printers depended on news to subsidize the high cost of making books.

The attitude of political authorities to the rise of newspapers was deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, so long as they maintained control over who could print what, governments could use the dissemination of news to their own ends. But the press could also turn politics upside down. The disappearance of biological succession in England resulted in a growing power of public opinion that was rooted in political factionalism. This development was helped by the rise of coffeehouses, where news was discussed and distributed. Additionally, after 1680, a penny post operated hourly within London to transport materials quickly between the suburbs and the city. By 1695, licensing was viewed no longer as an effective system of control but as an intrusion on good government. From then on, newspapers in England could expand and multiply as they liked, a freedom exceeded only by Holland as the seventeenth century drew to a close.


Further Reading

Hutt, Allen. The Changing Newspaper: Typographic Trends in Britain and American, 1622-1972. London: Gordon Fraser, 1973.

Smith, Anthony. The Newspaper: An International History. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.

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The Advent of Newspapers

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The Advent of Newspapers