The Birth of the American Newspaper
It has been said that the true newspaper must meet these qualifications: (1) it must be published at least once a week; (2) it must be produced by mechanical means (to distinguish it from handwritten “newes letters”); (3) it must be available to anyone willing to pay the price, regardless of class or special interest; (4) it must print anything of interest to a general public, as contrasted with some of the religious and business publications; (5) it must have an appeal to a public of ordinary literary skill; (6) it must be timely, or at least relatively so, in the light of technical development; and (7) it must have stability, as contrasted to the fly-by-night publications of more primitive times.
-Emery and Smith, 1954
Before the printing press or printing plates hand
written pamphlets were the means for communicating anything
over a distance of land or sea. Documentation, for those
who were literate, played major roles in politics long
before today’s modern Sunday Advertisers. In 1566, the
Venetian Magistracy ordered accounts of the war in Dalmatia
to be read and posted in public places. Persons interested
in this news paid a small coin, called a gazetta, for the
privilege of obtaining it. As far back as 69 BC, news sheets
known as Acta Diurna were posted in public places in Rome
(Emery and Smith, 1954).”
It might be said that the newspaper was the most
significant contribution of the printing press. Johann
Gutenberg introduced movable type around 1440. Not until it
had been perfected was it possible to produce literature
and printed reports cheap enough to reach the masses. The
revolution was not as much in the medium as in the
audience. With publication of this type, there was some
incentive for gathering and processing information of
interest to the general public- news (Emery and Smith,
1954). News became a commodity, like food and merchandise,
produced for profit to meet a demand. Newspapers didn’t
create news; news created newspapers (Emery and Smith,
David Copeland claims that the American newspaper was
“quietly” born on September 25, 1690. On this day,
“Publick Occurrence Both Foreign and Domestic” was printed
in Boston by Benjamin Harris. The young nation’s first
newspaper promised to provide “an account of such
considerable things as have arrived unto our Notion
(Copeland, 1997). Needless to say, the young paper did not
make a second edition due to the fact that the governor
found the pamphlet contained “reflections of a very high
nature” and ordered its suppression” (Lee, 1924).
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America’s next chance at a newspaper was started by
John Campbell. The Boston News-Letter began on April 24,
1704, 84 years after the establishment of the first colony
in that area. One of its main reasons for success was the
fact that Campbell printed his newspaper “with Authority
of the Massachusetts government” (Copeland, 1997). Before
he began printing, Campbell, Boston’s postmaster, sent
handwritten letters to the governors of each colony.
Campbell having secured the governments approval made his
paper a success when he began mass distribution.
Once his printing got underway, the News-Letter was printed
on both sides of a sheet; slightly larger than a sheet of
typewriter paper. Campbell never had enough subscribers to
make his venture profitable. His circulation seldom
exceeded three hundred (Emery and Smith, 1954). The Boston
News-Letter printed until 1776.
From 1704 until December 1719, the News-Letter was the
only colonial newspaper (Copeland, 1997). On December 21,
James Franklin printed the first Boston Gazette. The next
day, Andrew Bradford began the American Weekly Mercury in
Philadelphia. Andrew was the local postmaster and son of
William Bradford, who was to be the publisher of the first
newspaper in New York. The elder Bradford started The New
York Gazette on November 8, 1725 (Lee, 1923). Within a
decade, five other newspapers were initiated in the
The newspapers of colonial America were an outgrowth
of London newspapers and there predecessors, the
newsletters. The content of the colonial newspapers were
obtained from English newspapers and magazines brought to
America. Ships arrived after weeks at sea, and printers
sought out captains, crew members, and passengers for the
latest “advices” from Europe (Copeland, 1997).
The news printed in the colonial newspapers were not
original in content. The “news” was not new at all. In
fact, it was several months behind the current events in
Europe. The papers also largely had nothing to with the
“news” of the colonies. People where still hanging on to
the events of Europe that had no direct affect on them in
the new nation. Eventually the colonist came to the
realization they needed to be aware of situations in their
surroundings and not abroad. Benjamin Franklin was the
first to begin to print news and information about the
colonies themselves and not exclusively in Europe. If one
was to ask who set the palette for today’s newspapers, the
answer would definitely be Benjamin Franklin.
Copeland, David. Colonial American Newspapers. University
Of Delaware Press, Inc. Newark, Delaware. 1997.
Emery, Edwin, and Henry Ladd Smith. The Press and America.
Prentice Hall, Inc. New York, New York. 1954.
Lee, James Melvin. History of American Journalism. The
Garden City Publishing Co., Inc. Garden City, New