Lately I’ve been crawling through history books. I’m writing an essay on the birth of the newspaper. Sounds like a simple topic, but really is not. It seems that the process was quite slow and evolutionary in nature. It is quite hard to point out the actual first newspaper.
Here’s the short version of the story. It is possible to trace different kind of "news-services" all the way to the antiquities and probably even further, but the roots of the modern media doesn’t really start until the 16th century. Back then, gathering news started to become a commercial service. At first these were just handwritten manuscripts. These newsletters were private communication and in that sense the very opposite of modern newspapers.
At some point the people gathering and writing the news started to think how much more money they could make if they printed the letters and sold them to several "subscribers". In the beginning these printed newsletters appeared sporadically or only consisted of a single story. But eventually they got to a point where the papers appeared at least once a week and contained several items of news. This transition from handwritten newsletters to newspapers1 happens primarily in the first decades of the 17th century.2
To me it seems, that we don’t really have a single moment in history were the newspaper is born. Sure, we can construct a definition of a newspaper based on our modern media, and try to use that definition on history. So basically we can make a more or less arbitrary decision and call something The first newspaper.
But that definition, whatever it might be, can always be disputed. On what kind of perspective do you build that definition? The publisher’s economical point of view? Do you concentrate on the content of the text or the artefact – its outlook, format or feel – itself. And whatever our decision might be, I bet that the people in the 17th century didn’t see it that way.
Warren Chappell writes about the Dĭbào in his Short History of the Printed Word.3 A Chinese newspaper that started already in the ninth century CE4 and continued until 1912. Such a shame that it had to end. Think about how much fun it would be to have a newspaper that would feature a regular column This week a 1000 years ago.5
- or newssheets or newsbooks [↩]
- Before you send rotten cods to my email, I admit that it was not really that simple. There were also other kinds of media, that were closely related to the idea of newspapers: Governmental announcements, ballads, calendar books etc. [↩]
- 1999 rev.ed. [↩]
- CE for Common Era [↩]
- The London Gazette which was established in 1665 as the Oxford Gazette features only a This week 60 years ago column on their website. [↩]