Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Invention of News

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Today's selection -- from The Invention of News by Andrew Pettegree. In the wake of the invention of the printing press came printed news, first in the form of more lively news pamphlets, then in the form of more regular but less colorful newspapers.  From the very first newspaper published in 1605, the problems that still plague the industry were present. Real news was often dull so publishers were inclined to spice it up. Politicians and rulers had a vested interest in getting favorable coverage so they maneuvered to influence or own newspapers. And content was inclined toward advocacy rather than reporting:

"The real transformation of the news market [which prior to the printing press had been oral or laboriously hand-written] would come from the development of a news market in print. This would occur only haltingly after the first invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century. For half a century or more thereafter printers would follow a very conservative strategy, concentrating on publishing editions of the books most familiar from the medieval manuscript tradition. But in the sixteenth century they would also begin to open up new markets -- and one of these was a market for news. News fitted ideally into the expanding market for cheap print, and it swiftly became an important commodity. This burgeoning wave of news reporting was of an entirely different order. It took its tone from the new genre of pamphlets that had preceded it: the passionate advocacy that had accompanied the Reformation. ... News also became, for the first time, part of the entertainment industry. What could be more entertaining than the tale of some catastrophe in a far-off place, or a grisly murder?

"Naturally the elites sought to control this new commercial market, to ensure that the messages delivered by these news books would show them in a good light. Printers who wanted their shops to remain open were careful to report only the local prince's victories and triumphs, not the battlefield reverses that undermined his reputation and authority. Those printers who co-operated willingly could rely on help in securing access to the right texts. ... From remarkably early in the age of the first printed books Europe's rulers invested considerable effort in putting their point of view, and explaining their policies, to their citizens.  ...

"The divisions within Europe brought about by the Reformation were a further complicating factor: the news vendors of Protestant and Catholic nations would increasingly reproduce only news that came from their side of the confessional divide. News therefore took on an increasingly sectarian character. All this led to distortions tending to obscure the true course of events. ... The purveyors of the news pamphlets had a clear incentive to make these accounts as lively as possible. This raised real questions as to their reliability. How could a news report possibly be trusted if the author exaggerated to increase its commercial appeal?
Title page of Carolus' Relation from 1609, the earliest newspaper, which was begun in 1605
"The emergence of the newspaper in the early seventeenth century represents an attempt to square this circle. As the apparatus of government grew in Europe's new nation states, the number of those who needed to keep abreast of the news also increased exponentially. In 1605 one enterprising German stationer thought he could meet this demand by mechanising his existing manuscript newsletter service. This was the birth of the newspaper: but its style -- the sober, detached recitation of news reports inherited from the manuscript newsletter -- had little in common with that of the more engaged and discursive news pamphlets.

"The newspaper, as it turned out, would have a difficult birth. Although it spread quickly, with newspapers founded in over twenty German towns in the next thirty years, other parts of Europe proved more resistant -- Italy for instance was late to adopt this form of news publication. Many of the first newspapers struggled to make money, and swiftly closed.

"The trouble with the newspapers was that they were not very enjoyable. ... The desiccated sequence of bare, undecorated facts made them difficult to follow -- sometimes, plainly baffling. ...

"News pamphlets offered a very different presentation of news, and one far better adapted to contemporary narrative conventions. Pamphlets concentrated on the most exciting events, battles, crimes and sensations; and they were generally published at the close of the events they described. They had a beginning, a middle and an end. Most of all, news pamphlets attempted an explanation of causes and consequences. By and large, this being a religious age, news pamphlets of this sort also drew a moral: that the king was mighty; that malefactors got their just deserts; that the unfortunate victims of natural catastrophe were being punished for their sins.

"The news reporting of the [first] newspapers was very different, and utterly unfamiliar to those who had not previously been subscribers to the manuscript service. Each report was no more than a couple of sentences long. It offered no explanation, comment or commentary. Unlike a news pamphlet the reader did not know where this fitted in the narrative -- or even whether what was reported would turn out to be important. This made for a very particular and quite demanding sort of news. The format offered inexperienced readers very little help. ...

"So it was by no means easy to persuade the inhabitants of seventeenth-century Europe that the purchase of news publications should be a regular commitment. It is not difficult to see why newspapers were so slow to catch on. Consumers had to be taught to want a regular fix of news, and they had to acquire the tools to understand it. This took time; the circle of those with an understanding of the world outside their own town or village expanded only slowly. For all of these reasons it would be well over a hundred years from the foundation of the first newspaper before it became an everyday part of life -- and only at the end of the eighteenth century would the newspaper become a major agent of opinion-forming."

The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself
Author: Andrew Pettegree 
Publisher: Yale University Press
Copyright 2014 Andrew Pettergree
Pages: 6-9

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Delanceyplace is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came. 

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