Newspapers versus Journalism

Early, ie 17th century, newspapers were pretty hard reads – a list of major events, with no explanation or comment, and often controlled by or owned by the political elite. But as Europeans became more wealthy, they became curious about the world around them, so by the turn of the century, a need for more information. This emerged in the form of journals: witty, informed observations of the world,and these journals were far more popular and numerous than the newspapers. Rising affluence and literacy led to people wanting more information on where to go what to do, and how to behave. But as Andrew Pettegree explains:

“The rise of the journal was important as both a social phenomenon and for its impact on the news market. The growth of journals, with their longer articles and more personal tone encouraged the development of a journalistic tradition that had so far eluded news reporting. In fact, many of the critical and stylistic features that we regard as inherent in journalism emerge first in these 18th century journals. They gave the public what they had so far missed in the newspapers, with their worthy recitations of battles and court levees. Journals offered criticism, taste, and judgement, but in a lighter tone than the hectoring political review papers. They spoke directly to their audience, they took time to explain and develop an argument. They were funny and diverting. Most of all they offered something new to an audience that had not previously experienced anything like the sort of recreational miscellany presented in the 18th century “spectators”: a distinctive voice that would return to their drawing rooms week after week bringing both familiar characters and new fashions. It was a beguiling, intoxicating mixture.”

The first in England was Richard Steele’s Tatler, which folded after 2 years, then he joined up with Joseph Addison to produce The Spectator, with its fictitious man-about-town, Isaac Bickerstaff Esq, whose opinions were often close to those of the publishers, but made no attempt to explain or justify them. But again, this folded after two years, the author/publishers exhausted by having to produce so much high quality topical content.

The next leap forward was Edward Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine, founded in 1731 as a digest of other publications, but evolved into an independent periodical, paying writers for specific articles, taking the pressure off the publishers and increasing the range and style of articles. This is one of my favourite historical sources, full of a truly eclectic mix of facts and opinion, with fine illustrations. Some are too obscure to mean much now, but as you flick through them you can see the modern world emerging; it’s like watching a child learning to walk.

At the same time, there was growing interest in specialist publications beginning with the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which were aimed at the educated elite, but were not in the expected Latin, so making it accessible to ordinary readers but not encouraging them. From here, more journals emerged to serve and inform growing special interest groups such as medicine, agriculture, music, the arts, and commerce.

But perhaps the most  inspiring of all these was founded by John Dunton in London 1691 with his Athenian Mercury, which was completely devoted to answering readers’ questions. This is from Andrew Pettegree’s The Invention of News:

“The Athenian Mercury demonstrated to the English public, probably to their great surprise, that science was one of their greatest interests. This was very different from the science of the Philosophical transactions, but on the other hand it was also a far cry from the news-books and their monstrous births. Readers wanted to know the answers to simple, practical things and phenomena that they observed in the course of their everyday lives. Why is the water in the Baths hotter than in either springs or rivers? Whence the wind has its force, and the reason for its changes; where extinguished fire goes. all good questions.”
The magazine closed in 1697, but this could not have been through lack of interest, as such questions still trouble many of us today. but as Pettegree continued:

“Dunton had developed a conceit that found a lasting resonance with both readers and with the authors of future serials. Invited for their penny subscription to join a society of erudite and witty companions, readers could be drawn into a regular web of relationships that became a virtual neighbourhood, or a substitute for their family circle. This had a particular appeal for new city dwellers often disconnected from home, and open to new associations and new experiences. “

In this, there are clear parallels with modern media, driven by people away from home, and/or interested in specific topics that draw together other people to share and exchange ideas.

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