Newspapers, reflections

Some notes on the newspaper

In the early years of the twenty-first century a newspaper looks like a clumsy thing. Outdated within hours, virtually worthless after its first purchase, expensive to produce, impossible to correct, difficult to distribute and, shortly afterwards, to destroy.

Not so 300 years ago. While everyone is arguing over the end of newspapers, it is quite interesting to also have a look at their beginnings.

At the start of the 1700s the newspaper was considered a great technological step forward. London led the way and by the middle of the century there were as many as 130 regional publications in circulation across the country. The newspaper had become an institution.

More than merely reporting happening events, newspapers provided useful information about meetings, prices – especially of corn and wheat – trade returns, bills of mortality and adverts.

Here’s an article from early on in the century, describing the bizarre effects that newspapers had on some obsessives:

(From the Bristol Mercury, 2 Aug. 1712)

About 1695 the press was again set to work, and such a furious itch of novelty has ever since been the epidemical distemper, that it has proved fatal to many families, the meanest of shopkeepers… spending whole days in coffee houses to hear news and talk politics, whilst their wives and children wanted bread at home, and their business being neglected, they were themselves thrown into gaol or forced to take sanctuary in the army.

By the end of the century, the newspaper’s place was so entrenched in society that the poet and naturalist George Crabbe was motivated to write a nimble poem in their honour:

I sing of NEWS, and all those vapid sheets

The rattling hawker vends through gaping streets;

Whate’er their name, whate’er the time they fly ;

Damp from the press, to charm the reader’s eye

- G. Crabbe – the Newspaper (1785)

A flaw, perhaps?

But at the same time other were noticing that newspapers were not without fault. The fact that each day they had to be filled to the same degree and length was seen as clumsy by some – one of whom was Henry Fielding, who wrote early on in The History of Tom Jones (Book II, Ch I)

Thought we have properly enough entitled this our work, a history, and not a life; nor an apology for a life, as is more in fashion; yet we intend in it rather to pursue the method of those writer, who profess to disclose the revolution of countries, than to imitate the painful and voluminous historian who, to preserve the regulatory of his series, thinks himself obliged to fill up as much paper with the detail of months and years in which nothing remarkable happened, as he employs upon those notable areas when the greatest scenes have been transacted on the human stage.

Such histories as these do, in reality, very much resemble a newspaper, which consists of just the same number of words, whether there be any news in it or not. They might likewise be compared to a stage coach, which performs constantly the same course, empty as well as full. The writer, indeed, seems to think himself obliged to keep even pace with time, whose amanuensis he is,

Now it is our purpose, in the ensuing pages, to pursue a contrary method. When any extraordinary scene presents itself (as we trust will often be the case), we shall spare no pains nor paper to open it at large to our reader; but if whole years should pass without producing anything worthy his notice, we shall not be afraid of a chasm in our history; but shall hasten on to matters of consequence, and leave such periods of time totally unobserved.

My reader then, is not to be surprised, if, in the course of this work, he shall find some chapter very short, and others altogether as long; some that contain only the time of a single day, and others that comprise years; in a word, if my history sometimes seems to stand still, and sometimes to fly…

These are some notes from an essay I have to write on the earliest days of the newspaper. Most of the examples come from Asa Briggs’ book – How They Lived – and the photo at the top is from mofotos‘ Flickr stream.

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