I have just started reading The Invention of News – How the World Came to Know About Itself, by Andrew Pettegree. This is a wonderfully written and deeply researched book, documenting our passion for gossip up to the global press. I had always assumed that people wanted newspapers when they were invented, but of course, the story is far more complicated. For a start, you needed a large number of people who could read, were curious about the world beyond their small part of it, and also that would pay for this service, all aspects which cause problems for today’s press. Early newspapers were largely competition with pamphlets printed as events happened, part as entertainment, often with illustrations, so were exciting and engaging. Early newspapers by comparison had to find stories even when there was no news, so were often dull by comparison.
“Throughout the medieval period and into the 16thcentury, news, especially of faraway events, had to compete with marvels, horrors and deeds of valour related I the travelogues and romantic epics. The truth was often more prosaic, and therefore vastly less entertaining. Telling truth from fiction was never easy. Even if we confine ourselves to literature that purported to be factual, none of the pilgrim writings enjoyed a shadow of the success of Marco Polo’s accounts of more distant lands or the even more spurious Travels of John de Mandeville. These two works survive from the medieval period in more than 50 manuscripts. Both lived on to populate the imagination of Renaissance travellers including, most influentially, Christopher Columbus. “
But as Pettegree explains, there was much more involved, as the printed word had to replace the existing systems, of public announcements, gossip, songs, performance:
“These long-established habits of information exchange set a demanding standard for the new print media. We need to keep constantly in mind that in these centuries the communication of public business took place almost exclusively in communal settings. Citizens gathered to witness civic events, such as the arrival of notable visitors or the execution of notorious criminals. They heard official orders proclaimed by municipal or royal officials; they gathered around the church door to read ordinances or libels; they swopped rumours and sung topical songs. It is significant that in this age to ‘publish’ meant to voice abroad, verbally; books were merely ‘printed’. Printed news had both to encourage new habits of consumption – the private reading that had previously been an elite preserve – and to adopt the cadences ad stylistic forms of these older oral traditions. Reading early news pamphlets, we can often hear the music of the streets, with all their hubbub and exuberant variety. Readers of early newspapers, in contrast, were offered the cloistered hush of the chancery. They were not to everybody’s taste. “