Birth of Newspapers, part 1: The very first newspaper

Over the course of the next several months, I will walk through many of the interesting aspects of the creation of several of today’s major forms of media — including newspapers, magazines, television, movies, and books.

My motivation is threefold:

  • First, the true history of these forms of media is inevitably more fascinating, more amazing, and often more humorous than you would think.

    The idea of a newspaper, or a movie, or a television show, was not handed down on stone tablets from Mount Olympus and simply carried forward by people who said, “Oh yeah, great idea!”; rather, the forms of media we see today are in all cases the result of a mad and chaotic frenzy of experimentation, uncertainty, and enterpreneurial effort.

  • Second, understanding the drama, flux, and change that invariably accompanied the creation of traditional media will help put our current Internet revolution into perspective.

    All early forms of media had lots of people who suffered from doubt, were skeptical, were dismissive, or just didn’t get it — and in fact there were a lot of dead ends and failures from a lot of innovators before the true form of any medium and its business foundation became clear.

    But all of that doubt, skepticism, criticism, and failure were in each case accompanied by enormous social, cultural, political, and business transformations when things did finally become clear.

  • Third, understanding the flux and drama of the creation of traditional media, I believe, highlights the nature of the profound challenges facing today’s managers of traditional media companies.

    I think a lot of smart people are working very hard to transition traditional forms of media into the new Internet world order, but I also think their challenges are even more serious and dangerous than most people believe, and that today’s media companies’ primary strategy of defense is very challenging when the world shifts hard on its axis, as it has done in the past and as it is doing now.

Let’s start with newspapers. My source for this and several subsequent posts is Eric Burns’ outstanding book Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, which focuses on the role of newspapers during the American Revolution, but also covers the creation of the newspaper medium up to that point.

The world’s first [newspaper] seems to have been the work of a “Renaissance blackmailer and pornographer”…

And we’re off with a bang!

…the Italian Pietro Aretino, who set up shop [in the early 1500’s] a few years after the invention of movable type.

Now that’s an entrepreneur.

Aretino could have done something constructive with his little publication. He could have written about Florence under the Medicis becoming the center of art and humanism in the Western world. He could have written about the founding of the University of Palermo, which would soon be a major institution for the advancement of learning…

Aretino did none of this.

Instead, he “produced a regular series of [anti-religious] obscenities, libelous stories, public accusations, and personal opinion”. The opinion was boldly, and often vulgarly, expressed. It was also for sale, with Aretino running a kind of protection racket on those who were the subjects of his stories: pay what he asked and he praised you; refuse and you were slathered with abuse.

No comment from me on whether that practice continues in certain circles today. Nope, no comment…

Either way, you were a commodity for him; he would tell the tale that suited him best and profit from you as much as he could.

Still no comment.

But few people in Renaissance Italy read Aretino’s rag, and it did not stay in business long.

Few people read the British broadsides [single-sided newspapers] of the early 17th century [either]; they, too, were ephemeral in duration and impact.

It was not that Europeans disliked these nascent attempts at journalism; more fundamentally, they did not understand the reason for them, living as they did in a world in which news could not thrive as a commodity because it barely existed as a concept.

How could it? The Almighty was what mattered to men and women in ages past, but they could speak to Him directly. Their families were what mattered to them, but husbands and wives and sons and daughters lived in the same room. Their livelihood was what mattered to them, but they tended their shops or worked their fields from dawn until sunset…

…What mattered to a person in the 16th and early 17th centuries was what happened to him and to those closest to him between one sunrise and the next… but he could see that for himself. He could interpret it for himself. No intermediary was required to give voice or meaning to the events in his life.

As for the events that were not in his life, those that occurred in the lives of other people in other places, of what possible interest could they be to him? The idea that a human being could be instructed or amused by the fortunes of a stranger was as foreign to a European back then as a land across the sea. The world outside one’s immediate ken was a place of mystery, not a source of enlightenment.

Right there we get a foreshadowing of what was about to happen… the rise of newspapers, among the other early communication and information networks such as postal systems, was driven by and drove major transformations in the basic concepts of society and culture.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that what we do, and what our industry does, lacks significance — without new forms of information distribution and communication, we’d all still be living as subsistence farmers in a feudal hell on earth.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Occasionally there was something from afar that a person needed to know. There might be an edict from the king ordering his subjects to provide an even greater share of their harvest to the royal granaries… [or tax increases or religious declarations].

But this kind of thing did not happen often, and was so unwelcome when it did that it did not inspire an interest in the wider world. On the contrary: better ignorance than tidings that brought even more hardship to an individual than was already his lot.

Kind of like a lot of recent election results.

But even if the news had been relevant to men and women of an earlier age, they would not have had time for it — which was, of course, a further reason for their indifference. They led… lives of toil and repetition. They fed and milked and slaughtered their animals. They cleared and plowed their fields and dammed their streams… They prayed to a strict and sometimes capricious God, wanting to please, and He was ever watching, ever judging.

Which is all to say that they led the kinds of lives even a greed-besotted, hedge fund-managing workaholic of the early 21st century would have found punishing, every minute of every hour accounted for, every second of every minute. And journalism… is to some extent a function of leisure.

Not much of it existed when Aretino first inked up his press.

And then shifting to colonial America, it gets even worse:

For [anyone] who thought about publishing a newspaper in colonial times… or the man of means who thought about financing the [publisher], there was a further disincentive to journalism.

Put simply, there were not enough customers — too few English speakers in America, too few towns and villages that were too widely scattered to allow for news to be gathered efficiently and a paper to be distributed economically. In addition, as… Sidney Kobre points out, “trade, commerce, and industry were undeveloped. Settlers for a long time made their own clothes and furniture and raised their own foodstuffs. Advertising would not have been profitable, especially since money was scarce and the general income level low.”

The consumer Internet in 1995!

But then there was the distribution problem:

As early as 1639, Massachusetts had attempted the delivery of mail [obviously the only way to distribute newspapers at that point and for a long time to come] on a regular basis. It was irregular at best.

The main problem was roads, which either did not exist or were so rocky, rutted, and circuitous that they were as much obstacle courses as lanes of conveyance.

28 kilobit modems in 1995!

Or Comcast today.

The mail was often delayed, sometimes lost, and sometimes delivered to the wrong place.

“In the early days,” Kobre writes, “if one wanted to get a letter to a relative or friend in another colony, he waited for a ship captain or a traveler passing through, perhaps a merchant sending a package or a cargo of goods. Sometimes, if it were urgent, one employed a friendly [Native American] to deliver a letter for him.”

In January 1673, the Boston Port Road opened for the specific purpose of transporting letters, parcels, commercial goods, and newspapers from Boston to New York, a distance of 250 miles. A horse could travel it without breaking an ankle… The mail did not always arrive within two weeks, as promised, but it almost always got there eventually.

56 kilobit modems in 1996!

And then there’s the issue of production:

There could, of course, be no news… without presses on which to print it, and the first such machine did not appear in the New World until 1638 [at Harvard]… but by 1685, almost half a century later, the grand total of printing presses in the New World had risen to a mere four, and they were essentially what they had been in Gutenberg’s time, which is to say cumbersome apparatuses that were as likely to break down as to grind out a story…

For the most part, they turned out Bibles…

But five years later, and more than eight decades after the first British expatriates had set foot in Jamestown, one of those presses would begin printing the first American newspaper.

So just in this first post in the series, we get a sense of the profound wonder that the newspaper was even brought into existence, much less became widespread or had an impact on the world.

And we see the nature of the birthing pains of a new medium — any new medium — and obviously, all of the birthing pains of the modern consumer Internet are trivial in comparison to the mind-boggling headwinds the original newspaper entrepreneurs faced.

In the next post, I’ll focus on the creation of newspapers in America.