Our services you can’t express,
The good we do you hardly guess;
There’s not a want of human kind,
But we a remedy can find.
-- The Virginia Gazette on the utility of the newspaper, January 22nd, 1770
On January 13th, 1785, the first issue of The London Times was published.
Prior to the late seventeen hundreds, news (when it was in print) had been conveyed via broadsides, or broadsheets, single-page sheets that told of some specific event (usually a sensational one), or in news books, bound books that performed the function of newspapers, except that you had to take the time to print and bind the book before it could convey the news to anyone. (The advent of the cast iron press in the 1800s bumped up the production speed to 250 sheets/hour, but before that, setting a single page of type took half a day. That means a 200 page news book would take around a third of a year to print. And that’s not even counting the time it took for someone to write it and then for distribution after it was printed. By the time people got to read news books, any news in them wasn’t exactly new anymore.)
So newspapers, when people got around to inventing them, were a really cool innovation! Instead of consisting solely of an account of an execution in rhyming couplets (as broadsheets tended to), they were a timely vehicle of varied general information – from executions to this season’s fashions and the state of affairs of the nation.
The fact that news was publicly available inexpensively was the cause for social change: rather than having to depend on the church or the town government to know what was going on in their country, people could just purchase a newspaper. This shift changed the focus of many peoples’ lives from church to state. As well as the communities that they already belonged to based on their religion and geographical location, people began to identify and form communities with other readers of the newspapers. Newspapers produced by religions or created for audiences within geographical locations helped tie those already-existing communities together.
Here’s what’s fascinating about this: circulation of newspapers within the United States peaked in 1971. For the past thirty-eight years, the socio-political binding agent that was the newspaper has not been a force in that many peoples’ lives. (In 2000, about two out of every ten people were reading newspapers.)
What binds the United States together culturally if not the newspaper? And, perhaps more thought-provokingly: if newspapers contain information that reflects the lives and interests of the people who read them, what are they lacking that the other 80% of people (the vast majority of the country’s population) is living?
Many of the opinions contained in this piece were formed after reading The Function of Newspapers in Society, a collection of essays curated by Shannon E. Martin and David A. Copeland, published by Praeger.