The history of information
Profile of print as key agent of historical change
Martin Luther: while the printing press disseminated his religious ideas with a new speed, inexpensive woodcuts of his face made him a Reformation celebrity
The Invention of News
Yale University Press
The “desire to be informed, to be in the know, is in one respect as old as human society itself”, as Andrew Pettegree acknowledges at the start of his fascinating, wide-ranging and well-informed study. But, of course, the transmission of news has a history, one that we need to understand and remember as the dissemination of information throughout societies moves into a new digital phase.
Newspapers are a product of the printing revolution allied to the establishment of a feasible European and then global system of communications. However, they did not emerge in as direct a manner as we might assume. Before newspapers, there were news broadsheets, cheaply produced works that usually represented spectacular and amazing stories and events: corn that rained from the sky to save a starving family; Jesus’s face in an ear of corn; whales washed up on beaches; horrible murders; and, most upsetting for readers now, “monstrous births”.
Such “news” was invariably interpreted as a sign of God’s intervention in human affairs, occasionally benevolent, but more often to warn mankind to mend its evil ways. Writers could simultaneously appeal to the morality and the prurience of readers. The truth is the tabloid press predates the qualities. It should not surprise us that one of the first big stars of the news broadside was the “slyly opaque” Michael De Nostradamus, the ancestor of Mystic Meg.
It is one of the many strengths of Pettegree’s study that it frequently challenges and unsettles the reader’s understanding of progress. News sheets and newspapers were in competition. The first newspapers were impressive in their coverage of events, but were dreadfully dull and provided little contextualisation. They had few of the obvious bold narrative strengths of their rivals. It was only when a large, informed public emerged, at the end of the 17th century, that the newspaper became a serious possibility. The production of news stimulated the appetite for more.
It took a long time for readers to imagine themselves as readers, part of a larger community, which is why the newspaper plays such a vital role in the creation of nations and a shared sense of national identity. Before mass communications and widespread literacy, people living in small communities preferred the reassuring familiarity of the oral testimony. The newspaper, in effect, was part of the breaking-up of such a local understanding of the world in favour of larger units that connected people. The internet provides us ever more extensive ways of connecting with each other, raising the possibility of global links that cut across the boundaries of nations, as the Edward Snowden affair reminds us, but, also, the ability of small, interested parties to find each other easily and share particular information. How the newspaper will exist within such a world is hard to predict or imagine.
The first major media event was the Reformation. Between 1518 and 1526 something like “eight million copies of religious tracts were placed on the market”. The church had had its troubles before but had always managed to isolate and destroy opposition. Martin Luther was a formidable opponent. But the success of his cause was shaped by the advent of a technological revolution that enabled his critique of the church’s authority to spread throughout Christendom with speed. Luther was a sensational celebrity, his face reproduced on thousands of inexpensive woodcuts so that few people were as instantly recognisable as the jowly middle-aged ex-monk painted by Lucas Cranach.
The Reformation was very good news for printers. They had been struggling, many becoming bankrupt as the industry failed to take off. Too many had concentrated on the upper end of the market, projecting the upper-class taste for luxury goods into the foreseeable future. Ironically enough, the mainstay of many printers had been the production of indulgences, the target of Luther’s ire. The Reformation inspired a market for cheap print, the desire to know what was happening as well as what it was possible to think: news and theology developed hand-in-hand.
The newspaper proper finally arrived in the 18th century. From inception, newspapers were connected with radical values. John Wilkes, like Luther, was an anomalous figure. Enshrined in newspapers as the hero of progress and scourge of reaction, Wilkes and liberty are synonymous.
Monarchs, on the other hand, were often slow to realise the possibilities of the press. Charles I was an exceptional disaster whose contempt for his people hastened his end. Given that his “idea of public relations was to commission a new portrait by Van Dyck”, Charles was never likely to understand the power of the press. Only after his execution did royalists wake up and start spreading the image of the suffering martyr-monarch to powerful effect.
The newspaper played a vital role in defining the US as a country opposed to the ancient and outdated values of Europe. Even here, however, there was an irony as the slogan the press in the US used to unite the colonial territories, “join, or die”, had originally been designed as a pro-British warning against secession before being appropriated by the rebels. The revolution took cunning, daring and an understanding of the mass appeal that a newspaper could provide. The “great age of the daily newspaper” was heralded by the French Revolution, “the first European event to which a periodical press was truly indispensable”. While the ancien regime slumbered into a crisis from which it could not recover, the revolutionaries recorded and manipulated the news so that it won over the literate classes who had always felt excluded from French society. The storming of the Bastille was something of a damp squib, but it is still remembered as a key event in the crusade for liberty because its perpetrators realised what the newspaper could achieve.
The Invention of News is a book that anyone who questions the value of newspapers; who thinks that they are becoming obsolete; or who imagines that news would be much more valuable if it simply spoke to our desire to read a good story, should read. The desire for news – substantial and insubstantial – will never disappear, but the newspaper will not necessarily always exist. Pettegree has told the story of one of the world’s most enduring and significant inventions with insight, skill and panache.