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Home > News & Media > The NAA Blog > What newspapers can learn from the history of news

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What newspapers can learn from the history of news

A book casts light on newspapers in an earlier multimedia world.

By Catherine Payne, NAA content producer

As newspapers wrestle with challenges in today's multimedia world, they can glean helpful insights from the history of news.

"The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself," published March 25, sheds light on how the newspaper, which emerged in the early 17th century, gained a footing in a multimedia landscape. It took time for the newspaper to find its way in a world where news was spread in ways ranging from gossip to official proclamations. The newspaper eventually became the dominant form of news delivery.

Author Andrew Pettegree, a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, answered NAA's questions about the history of news via e-mail. He shared his thoughts about the great age of newspapers, false prophecies and more.

 Andrew Pettegree
 Credit: Alan Richardson

Question: Your book asserts that the basic principles of news dissemination have remained the same -- the news must be current and trustworthy. Why?

Answer: Truth and trust lie at the heart of journalistic ethics. News is only news if it is true: Otherwise it becomes advocacy or propaganda.

This is a constant of news, though the underlying context has changed through the ages. In the first centuries of a commercial culture of news, trust was an issue because news was so hard to get. News would come in -- to the court, the monastery or the merchant's house -- and it would be difficult to assess whether it should be believed. It might be important to act quickly, but what if the report was a rumour deliberately spread to mislead a rival, or to move the commodity market? So a great deal rested on the trustworthiness of the bearer; and the need to secure corroboration, a second trustworthy account, was a major driver in building news networks.

Nowadays the issue is clearly different. News comes so quickly, and from so many sources, that establishing the basic facts is much less problematic. The news business has become much more a matter of commentary and interpretation; fine in itself, but deeply problematic if these facts are shaped (or suppressed) to fit a case.

Q: Why were the first journalists not held in high regard?

A: The first newspapers were mostly put together by a single individual: An editor/proprietor who read the incoming reports, prepared the text and despatched it to the printer. Since he often also chased up subscriptions, organised distribution and dealt with correspondence there was little time for editorial work: most newspapers simply regurgitated what had been received, usually extracted from manuscript newsletters or other newspapers.

This didn't attract much criticism, and the people who ran the manuscript news agencies were often greatly admired. The trouble came when newspapers began to mix news and comment. In England -- the first place to generate a contentious, competitive press -- it was well-known that partisan, insulting and satirical comment on the deeds of the great was often provided by writers paid by their targets' political opponents. This partisanship offended all the ethical tenets of the developing news market to this point, and naturally outraged the (usually aristocratic) targets of the abuse. So even politicians who employed such hack writers despised them. And when freelancing journalists began to make money by ferretting out society scandal, and then accepting payments to suppress the stories, their reputation fell even further. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that journalism became a recognised and respectable profession. Until this point gentlemen who wanted to contribute to political debate wrote pamphlets.

Q: What is the biggest difference between today's newspapers and the first newspapers?

A: Undoubtedly the fact that early newspapers concentrated almost exclusively on foreign news. This was partly a product of their origins in the manuscript news services that circulated only among the powerful. This was the news that they needed to know, and this tradition continued through into the printed news serials. But this avoidance of domestic news was also partly a matter of simple prudence on the part of the publishers. Print shops were very vulnerable to reprisals if they said anything offensive to the local power; it was also the case the offering opinions on matters of local controversy was almost bound to alienate half their audience. Since most newspapers were the only one published locally, this was a risk not worth taking. This tradition of neutrality in matters of public contention proved remarkably enduring (Benjamin Franklin proposed it as a fundamental principal of news reporting) -- indeed in large parts of the local press it survived through to the end of the twentieth century.

The other, rather obvious difference was that the early newspapers were exclusively about news. Today's papers, with their comment, humorous columns, cartoons and pictures, features and coverage of sport, leisure, arts, books and travel would have been inconceivable in the first two centuries of the newspaper. It was only in the nineteenth century that newspapers began to broaden their coverage in this way. The first newspapers were also by and large published once or twice a week. The true age of the daily newspaper was also a nineteenth century phenomenon.

The Invention of News jacket 

Q: What, if anything, can today's newspapers learn from the history of news?

A: Firstly, the fact that news has a history. Journalism today is a very-present driven occupation. If it has a context, it is the future: predicting how today's events will play out in the weeks and years to come. I recently took part in a panel event at the BBC in London, entitled 'what is news.' Although the audience listened very politely to my historical reflections, their interest was really grounded in the here and now: What would be tomorrow's big story? What keeps a news story alive? This presentism has become almost frantic. Politicians and party spokesmen in a different panel complained that it was extremely difficult to explain complex policy when the morning's lead item was deemed to be played out by mid-afternoon. That is maybe a specific broadcasting problem, but newspapers too are better at strategy and tactics (who's up, who's down, who are today's winners and losers) than policy outcomes.

What history teaches us is that this balance of information and interpretation is one with which the news industry has wrestled throughout its history. The first commercial news media dealt with the issue by a radical separation: confining the newspapers to raw, unprocessed information, and taking a more holistic approach in pamphlets, which also found room for advocacy.

I think too that if there was a greater awareness of this historical context journalists would be more relaxed about the future of their industry. The first histories of news were all written in the great age of the newspaper; they were written as if newspapers were the end of the story. To a large extent the history of news was a history of newspapers. Now that the newspapers are having to contend with competition from a whole range of media outlets we can see that the great age of the newspapers, when they enjoyed a totally dominant role in news provision, was comparatively short: perhaps only 150 years. Before this there also existed a vibrant multi-media environment, and this is what we are recreating now. The story has come full circle.

And perhaps that is a good thing. There has been a lot of speculation in the last decade about the death of the newspaper, with the rise of 'citizen journalism.' But in fact the professional news outlets have proved extremely adept in shifting shape to cater to changing consumer tastes, and in the process marginalising the challenge of the untrained. I think this will continue to be the case. But one thing we also learn from the history of news is that any major technological shift is accompanied by a great deal of false prophecy. The anticipation of future developments will continue to be extremely hazardous.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add about your book or the history of news?

A: There is no doubt that the five centuries I traverse in my book witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of those who followed the news: a number that would expand further in the nineteenth century, made possible by technical advance (the steam press, the telegraph) that revolutionized production capacity and the speed with which news could be circulated and distributed. But I think that the role of newsmen in this process is sometimes almost wilfully misunderstood. Journalists reviewing my book almost routinely include a hymn of praise to their own profession: the journalist as warrior of truth, shining a light on the dark corners of society.

Certainly in the first centuries of commercial news Europe's rulers were fully aware that knowledge was power -- and they debated quite openly how far that knowledge should be shared. The first newsmen were generally willing partners in this process: They tended far more to follow the priorities of government, rather than acting as tribunes of the people. They hankered after profit and monopoly, and were quite happy to defer to the sensibilities of the local prince to achieve this. Even in the modern age, looking at the news industry with an outsider's eye, I am struck by the fact that the news industry is at its most powerful in shaping a story: deciding what stories last and what die; what makes the front pages; what information should be shared with the public. Perhaps this is even more true in an age of wall to wall information, when the power to offer an interpretative thread through the cacophony of fact is potent indeed.

In my conversations with news professionals I have found that while many speak fluently about how to pick and shape a story, this is often seen as a largely instrumental process, a skill born of on the job training and long experience. There is much less reflection on the ethics of such choices, and their consequences: what stories news professionals choose to suppress, or de-emphasise, and which do not in consequence achieve traction. But in today's news world, this is where the real power of the press seems to lie.

For more information about "The Invention of News," visit the book's page.

First Published: June 18, 2014

About the Author

Catherine Payne is a content producer at NAA. She previously worked at the Pacific Daily News on Guam, Detroit Free Press and USA Today.

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