History of Newspapers

As you may have heard, the famous Battle of New Orleans, won by Andrew Jackson and his troops over the British during the War of 1812, was fought on January 8, 1815, 15 days after the war had ended. A treaty ending the conflict had been signed in Europe, but the news failed to reach either Jackson or the British troops before the battle. Moreover, Jackson’s superiors in Washington were unaware of both the battle and the treaty!

It’s no surprise that news traveled slowly before the introduction of electronic media and the up to date newspaper. But before you laugh too hard, you might consider the results of a 1969 poll taken in Morocco, revealing that only 56 percent of those asked knew that a man had set foot on the moon. And of these, more than half thought the story was a hoax!

The modern newspaper could only be the product of the best printing processes and news-gathering networks, both developments of the twentieth century. But written news reports, undependable as they were, date back to classical times. Romans of the fifth century B.C. distributed newsletters with reports from the capital for those residing nearby on the Italian peninsula.

Upon assuming the consulship in 60 B.C., one of Julius Caesar’s first acts was to establish a daily bulletin of government announcements, the Acta Diurna, to post in the forum. Posted proclamations and the announcements of town criers, and the grapevine, provided the news to many city residents for centuries, but it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that newspapers proper began to spring up around Europe on a regular basis.

Though the Chinese claim the world’s first newspaper, a court gazette first published in the seventh century B.C., Chinese newsletters were actually printed by hand or from blocks until movable wood type was introduced in China in the seventeenth century. Thus, the printed newspaper can properly be termed a European development.

One of Europe’s first printed news reports was the work of Englishman Thomas Raynalde who, in 1549, translated German news pamphlets documenting recent political events, murders, and marvels, a style of journalism not unknown today. Early English news reports, translated from German or Dutch, came to be known as corantos, a term related to “current.”

The early corantos reported news only from the Continent, and were for the most part prohibited, or at least hindered, from relating domestic events. But, in 1641, with the abolition of the tyrannical court, the Star Chamber, freedom of the press in England took a major step forward. That year saw the publication of Diurnal Occurrences (a title identical to Caesar’s), the first news pamphlet to contain domestic news, written in London by Samuel Pecke.

Most seventeenth-century news publications were partisan, printed with the approval, or direct sponsorship, of either the monarchy or parliament. Despite their titles, these journals of “diurnal” occurrences were published weekly. The first bona fide daily newspapers in England were not published until 1702.

Daniel Defoe, best known for his novels, published a weekly entitled The Review between 1704 and 1713. At various times a paid political pamphleteer, a secret agent, and a hack, Defoe was wont to take his political point of view from the highest bidder, and often switched tides when it suited him. The author of Robinson Crusoe once edited a Tory newspaper actually sponsored by the Whigs, and a Whig publication sponsored by the Tories, both at the same time! Nevertheless, Defoe is considered the first important journalist in England, and the originator of the serial story.

Most early English newspapers were political in nature, devoted mainly to domestic and foreign news and commerce reports. The famed journalists Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison were among the first to introduce social commentary to the newspaper. The pair began with the Tatler in 1709, then, beginning in 1711, brought out the Spectator, a daily. Between them, they wrote about 90 percent of the papers themselves. The Spectator eventually ran to some 555 issues, and reached a circulation of over 3,000. It was read by many times that number.

Addison and Steele’s papers were to have many imitators in England, including the Idler and Rambler of Samuel Johnson, brought out in the 1750’s. By 1753, English newspapers had passed the 7 million mark in annual circulation; by 1760, 9 million; and by 1767, 11 million. In 1776, there were fifty-three newspapers in London alone, presumably, most of them made reference to a burgeoning conflict in England’s far-off American colonies.

Most 18th century English newspapers were designed for the well-educated. Many of the essays from the Spectator or Rambler are considered among the finest English writing in this form. Taxes kept the newspaper out of the hands of many people until late in the century, when William Cobbett first tried to reach the masses with a cheap weekly paper.

The London Times was begun in 1785 by John Walter, who promised his readers the paper would have no part in political partisanship or scandal-mongering. Walter spent a few sojourns in Newgate prison for his journalistic independence. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, the Times was the pre-eminent British newspaper, with a daily circulation of about 50,000. Even at that late date, each issue contained but twelve pages.

The first American publication that could justifiably be termed a newspaper was brought out in 1690 by Benjamin Harris, a bookseller who had been forced to flee England after publishing a seditious news pamphlet. Harris called his Boston paper Publick Occurences Both Foreign and Domestick, and promised it would be issued “once a moneth (or if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener).” Harris’s four-page paper was suppressed after only one issue for certain comments found distasteful by Massachusetts governor Simon Bradstreet.

In 1704, a postmaster named John Campbell brought out the Boston News-Letter, the first continuously published newspaper in America. Printed by one Bartholomew Green in a back room of his house, the paper was published in some form right up until the Revolution, and was without competition for fifteen years, reaching the astronomical circulation figure of 3001 By the way, one of the first printers of the Gazette was James Franklin, and his apprentice was a certain thirteen-year-old brother named Benjamin, perhaps you’ve heard of him?

Benjamin Franklin later moved to Philadelphia to work as a printer and occasional writer; and in 1728, bought a paper begun the previous year by Samuel Keimar. Franklin shortened the paper’s eleven-word title to the Pennsylvania Gazette, and published the sheet successfully for nineteen years-by which time Franklin probably had a number of more pressing matters to attend to.

You might have heard that Benjamin Franklin founded the recently defunct Saturday Evening Post in 1728, for the claim appeared directly on the cover of each issue. The fact is, Franklin had nothing whatsoever to do with this magazine, which first appeared in 1821, not 1728. The magazine’s publishers fabricated the claim in 1899, and never abandoned it even when the claim was proved patently false.

The first New York newspaper was the New York Gazette, brought out by William Bradford in 1725. The Gazette was basically an organ of the Colonial government, and gave impetus to patriot Peter Zenger’s opposing paper, the New York Weekly Journal, which he began publishing in 1733. Zenger was eventually jailed for his work. The court case that followed, exonerating Zenger, did much to establish the principles of freedom of the press in America.

Many claims have been heard for the first daily newspaper to be published in the United States, but it’s generally accepted that the honor goes to the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, which first appeared as a daily in 1784. Newspapers were not widely read here until the 1830’s, when the penny press began to appear. These papers, costing, as you might imagine, one cent, when the going rate was six cents, were the first to be available to people at all economic levels.

The first successful daily in this genre was the New York Sun, launched in 1833. In 1841, Horace Greeley founded a rival paper, the New York Tribune. Ten years later, three publishing entrepreneurs issued the first copy of the New York Times, today generally regarded as the premier American newspaper. The paper was failing in 1896 when it was taken over by Adolphe Ochs, previously the publisher of a Tennessee paper. Och’s early years saw the adoption of the slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” along with a slogan that promised: “It does not soil the breakfast cloth”- a reference to the so-called yellow journalism of the day.

The term yellow journalism originated in the 1890’s when San Francisco publisher William Randolph Hearst invaded the New York market and instituted an all-out rivalry between competing papers. When the New York World published the first color comic strip in 1893, “The Yellow Kid” by Richard Outcault, Hearst lured the artist away and published the strip in his own New York paper, the Journal. The continuing rivalry between the various New York papers pandering to lurid tastes soon took on the name “yellow journalism.” Many papers of this era were much like the modern tabloid or scandal sheet, featuring large banner headlines, plenty of pictures, and sensationalist features.

The twentieth century has seen the gradual consolidation of American newspapers and the founding of the newspaper chain. Hearst himself bought or established some forty daily papers. The peak year for American papers, in terms of sheer numbers, was 1916, when 2,461 dailies were published across the nation. By 1944, consolidation and bankruptcy had brought that figure down to 1,744.

New York City once had dozens of papers; but by the 1950’s, most remaining papers were combinations of earlier publications, the New York Herald Tribune and the New York World Telegram and Sun, for instance. Today, there are but three daily publications that can be called “New York” newspapers: the Times, the Post, and the Daily News. The latter was founded in 1919 by three Chicago publishers. Within six years, the Daily News had become the largest newspaper in the United States, a title it still holds by virtue of selling some two million copies daily.

Much of the news coverage now provided by the daily newspaper is the work of the wire agencies, which maintain a news correspondent in almost every large or capital city in the world. The Associated Press was founded in 1848 by six New York papers to divide the cost of transmitting news by telegraph. By 1950, the agency had some 300,000 miles of wire in operation in the United States alone. The other major American news agency, United Press International, was founded in 1907 by E.W. Scripps, uniting three older news agencies.

Close to one-fourth of the newspapers published in the world today are brought out in America-1,768 in 1975, with a total paid circulation of close to 62 million copies daily. But the single newspaper with the largest daily circulation is the Russian Pravda, with a reputed circulation of 10 million copies. Pravda (which means “truth” in Russian) was begun in 1912. After the 1917 revolution, it became the leading organ of the Russian Communist party. Izvestia, the official daily newspaper of the Soviet government, is the second newspaper in the world in terms of circulation, with eight million copies sold per day. Those who believe that the high figures attributed to the Soviet papers are due to the fact that there are no other papers published in that country might be surprised to learn that there are some 7,200 papers published altogether in the Soviet Union, though there are only about 650 dailies.

The Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun ranks third in circulation, at just over seven million copies per day, and two other Japanese papers claim a circulation in excess of five million. The largest paper in England is now the London Daily Mirror, with some four million copies sold per day, and both the Daily Sun and the Daily Express own circulations close to the three million mark. And the Evening News, with an average circulation of over a half-million copies, is the world’s bestselling evening newspaper.

After the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times is the nation’s best-selling newspaper, with about one million copies sold per day. The New York Times follows in the number-three position. Rounding out the top ten are, in order, the Chicago Tribune, Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Philadelphia Bulletin, New York Post, and Washington Post. But the Wall Street Journal, published around the nation rather than in one particular city, officially ranks as the number-two American daily, with a circulation of some one-and-a-half million copies. In all, American advertisers will spend about eight-and-a-half billion dollars this year on newspaper advertising!

Americans are far from the world’s greatest newspaper readers, however. That honor goes to the Swedes, who pore through about 564 papers for every 1,000 persons. (In the United States, the figure is 300 papers per 1,000 persons.) And the newspaper that comes closest to total national saturation is the Sunday Post, published in Glasgow, Scotland and read by about four-and-a-half million people each Sunday, more than 77 percent of all Scots of presumed newspaper-reading age.

No one who has carried home a copy of the New York Sunday Times could entertain any doubt as to the world’s largest newspaper in sheer bulk. The largest Sunday Times ever published, on October 17, 1965, consisted of 946 pages in fifteen sections, and weighed a whopping seven-and-a-half pounds! Let’s see, if the Sunday Times has a circulation of about one-and-a-half million copies, we can calculate that the average issue of that paper comprises a total of some 10 million pounds of paper. Now, that’s a small forest!