Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Evolving Front Page; or, “Inquiring Minds Want to Know”

by E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra

 Part 1

Although many people consider the printed newspaper an anachronism and obtain all of their news via online or televised sources, the medium is far from dead. If it were truly moribund, the typical Sunday edition would not be stuffed with half a pound of expensive full-color advertising inserts. Obviously, many businesses still regard the general circulation newspaper as a valuable commercial tool. On the lighter side, no one would use a laptop computer to wrap garbage, soak up a spill, cushion packaged items, or for the dozens of other secondary uses of physical papers. Recipes, articles, comic strips and crossword puzzles can be cut or torn from a paper, carried in a pocket and used independently of a power source. 

The days of both a morning and an afternoon paper and multiple editions are long gone, along with a wide diversity of local papers, but most communities are still served by a regional press, which supplies the local births, deaths, marriages, social and business news, in addition to some statewide and national items.

Printed news-sheets first appeared during the Tang Dynasty in China (618-906 A.D.) and in Europe in the late 15th century. These took the form of single-sheet broadsides and thin pamphlets, produced to describe a single event. Not until the 1560s did the general ‘gazette’ appear in Italy, employing a format that would endure for the next three centuries. Handwritten at first, these sheets collected news items under the names of the cities from which the stories were mailed (Dateline: Nuremburg) and they were copied and recopied all the way from Eastern Europe to the British Isles. The earliest known printed newspaper in England, by ‘N.B.’, was the 1621 Corante, or weekely newes from Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, France and the Low Countreys. The word ‘newspaper’ seems to have come into use by the 1670s.

All early papers were cut-and-paste jobs, or “all the news that fits, we print.” There was no effort to provide continuity or geographic organization: items were arranged in the order that the printer received them. Because of government licensing restrictions, little or no local news appeared in these pioneer journals. The English Civil Wars of the 1640s, followed by Cromwell’s iron-fisted controls during his Commonwealth, killed freedom of the press in England for a time. The Stuart restoration and “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 nourished a freer press whose traditions would pass into England’s colonies in America. The golden age of social and political papers by the essayists Addison, Steele, Defoe and Swift ran from about 1710 through the 1750s. These Coffee House sheets were joined by dozens of weeklies, such as The Post Boy and by government organs such as The London Gazette. England’s first daily paper, The Daily Courant, appeared in 1702.
1689 & 1704
After a false start in the 1680s, the English-American colonial press slowly grew during the 18th century. By 1765, all colonies but Delaware and New Jersey had at least one weekly paper – Boston had four. In spite of sporadic attempts by colonial governors to muzzle the press (the 1733 John Peter Zenger case in New York is still a landmark) the American Revolution was made possible in part by courageous newspaper publishers. Their loyalties lay with their communities and not the far off rulers in Whitehall. One publisher, James Rivington of New York, was an avowed loyalist and suffered at the hands of revolutionary zealots. Only years later was Rivington revealed to be one of George Washington’s most valuable double agents!

As an experiment in democracy the new United States, were created by leaders who recognized that this form of government could only exist if the citizenry had access to open information about the workings of the state. Thomas Jefferson wrote “...were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protected the free press as a basic right under the new republic – for good reason as it turned out.

After the Revolution, scrappy polemicists turned their venom inwards and began the period of the “Partisan Press,” a trend which unfortunately still exists today as “talk radio,” in which political discourse was dragged to its lowest levels of mudslinging. Editors like James Callender and Benjamin F. Bach were models of irresponsible gutter journalism. Until the 1850s and ’60s, most small-town newspapers were one-man shows – the editor was often the typesetter, pressman and reporter. The paper was the organ for the editor’s political and moral views, with no fear of contradiction. Only when a rival printer set up shop would a community experience some journalistic debate.

Early newspapers were crucial commercial tools. When a cargo of goods arrived at a merchant’s warehouse, potential buyers were informed in the newspapers. Advertising, both mercantile and classified, which has always paid for about 70% of newspaper revenues, came to dominate the front page and the size of many papers increased from a single quarto sheet, printed on both sides, to a folio, or “elephant” folio, printed on both sides to create four pages. Virtually all papers were weeklies and cost anywhere from three-and-a-half pence to fifteen pence per copy, placing them out of the means of most people. To attract customers, taverns, coffee houses and small libraries provided a selection of newssheets for their paying patrons. Wealthier people subscribed on an annual basis in advance. During the 19th century, specialized papers appeared. Some were purely commercial, featuring advertisements and business-related articles. Others were agricultural and mechanical. Family papers combined domestic hints, fiction, poetry and recipes. A few were concerned with niche interests, such as the Phrenological Journal, or spiritualist papers. The bulk of English language papers were general circulation weeklies.

In layout and format, early newspapers were extremely conservative for their first century of existence. They tended to be quarto sheets with two dense columns of black type beneath a severely plain masthead. To provide an individual look for their products, printers slowly began to introduce decorative features, beginning with a large initial letter in column one. The newspapers titles or mastheads displayed a mixture of Roman and Black Letter types. By the early 18th century, small woodcuts adorned several mastheads, notably the figures of a post rider and Fame with her trumpet on the Post Boy.

As newspapers proliferated, the tiny crude woodcuts of the Post Boy were elaborated into ornate Baroque designs, such as the masthead adorning the Pennsylvania Packet. English papers tended to remain fairly plain until the mid-19th century, but even the staid Times of London, a huge folio with six columns of unrelieved black type, created an intricately tasteful Royal Crest, Lion and Unicorn design and a shaded Black Letter title. Compare this with the exuberant version used by Toronto’s Upper Canada Gazette in the 1820s.








 Continue to Part 2 – HERE.

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