- Historic Sites
The American newspaper: beleaguered by television, hated both for its timidity and for its arrogance, biased, provincial, overweening—and still indispensable. A Hearst veteran tells how it got to where it is today, and where it may be headed.
October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
By general consensus the first attempt to start a regularly published newspaper in America was Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick , issued in Boston on September 25, 1690. Its founder was a transplanted British printer, Benjamin Harris, who had been sent to the pillory in London for faking a story about a popish plot against the crown. First, he ran an exposé of the plot, and when it turned out there was none on at the moment, he took credit for breaking it up. Harris tried again in Boston with a monthly journal, printed on four sheets about the size of modern notebook paper, that offered a number of local stories ranging from house fires to a suicide. There was an account of a smallpox epidemic raging in Boston and a hair-raising tale of the depredations of Indians who “barbarously Butcher’d” forty white settlers. There were also a few snippets of foreign news about sexual improprieties within the French royal court.
Boston authorities were not pleased. The Indian story was especially troublesome because colonial policy had become one of conciliation with the native population. The governor ordered the paper shut down four days later for publishing “doubtful and uncertain Reports.” Harris fled back to England, where he ended his days hawking quack medicines.
If Greeley thought he’d get a break from fellow newsmen when he ran for President, he was deeply mistaken.
This cautionary tale presages several elements of American newspapers today. Although they are among the best in the world, their reputation has never been terribly high. They dote on scandal. While their product is suspect, they are often denounced not for printing things that are untrue but for printing things that the government doesn’t want its people to know about.
The printing press had been a matter of concern to those in authority ever since the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type stirred fears his creation could become an engine of subversion. William Berkeley, governor of Virginia, wrote to London in 1671 that “we have not free schools nor printing. . . . For learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against the government. God keep us from both.”
But the desire of governors to rule unimpeded is matched by the desire of the governed to know what’s going on, and colonial newspapers began to flourish in New England. The first continuing journal was the Boston News-Letter , which relied heavily on shipping news of interest to that port city. The News-Letter was a no-nonsense paper that was soon in competition with the New-England Courant , which published a great deal of nonsense. Started by James Franklin, with his thirteen-year-old brother, Benjamin, working as an apprentice, the Courant was a lighthearted weekly that promised to “entertain the Town with the most comical and diverting Incidents of Humane Life.” The conflict between hard and soft news was joined.
The Courant enjoyed needling the great Boston divines Increase and Cotton Mather and made their public lives a chore. “The Town is become almost a Hell upon Earth, a City full of Lies,” Cotton Mather said. “Satan seems to take a strange Possession of it.”
Attacking the clergy was one thing, but when James Franklin turned his editorial guns on the Massachusetts governor, he was clapped into jail.
Several elements of the modern newspaper were now in place. Spirited editorials in the form of letters to the editor were common, and Ben Franklin, moved to the Pennsylvania Gazette , published one of the first political cartoons. In 1754, as the French and Indian Wars began, Franklin editorialized for colonial solidarity with the drawing of a snake cut into eight parts depicting New England and other colonies over the legend “Join, or Die.” The press began to draw financial support from local merchants by accepting advertising. The first known paid notice offered a reward for the return of two lost anvils.
Original reporting on anything but the most local stories was scanty, and newspapers relied on neighborhood publications to send them copies of their stories to be reprinted. A paper would sometimes headline such stories with the caveat “Important—If True.” It was not a bad system, and one that might be profitably revived. Much later, in the early 1800s, Henry Blake, a writer for the Mercury and New England Palladium in Boston, became known as the father of American reporting for his initiative in getting stories from incoming ships. Instead of waiting around the local coffeehouses, as most reporters did, he hired a boat to meet arriving vessels and, after scribbling notes on his cuffs, was the first one back with the news.