THE VERY FIRST NEWSPAPERS
It will surprise many people to learn that the newspaper is a relatively recent invention, historically speaking. The premier English Language paper was The Oxford Gazette first published on November 16, 1665, while King Charles II held court sixty miles west of London to “avoid the Plague” then sweeping through England. Upon the return of the Court in February 1666, the fledgling “newes-paper” became the legendary London Gazette, an official journal still published today. During the late 1600’s, the Gazette was brought to the American Colonies by ship captains where it was widely circulated in coffee houses, providing mostly European news to the information-starved (and sometimes homesick) colonists.
In 1690, English printer Benjamin Harris attempted to establish a newspaper in Boston. His Publick Occurrences was banned after only one issue, not having first been sanctioned by the Royal Governor of Massachusetts Bay. This early paper is considered by many to be the birth of American journalism. Interestingly, the sole remaining original is owned by the British Museum in London.
However, it wasn’t until April 24, 1704, that the first successful American newspaper made its debut. Published by Postmaster John Campbell, The Boston News-Letter was an imitation of The London Gazette with its two-column, single sheet format. The paper’s most exciting news occurred between 1717 & 1719 when it published spine-chilling accounts of pirate attacks including the notorious Edward Teach, alias “Blackbeard.”
In late 1719, a second American paper, The Boston Gazette, was founded, and like its predecessor, was also “Published by Authority.” In 1729, the celebrated Benjamin Franklin bought out the already established Pennsylvania Gazette and soon made it the finest newspaper in America.
As both population and trade increased and better roads were built, newspapers began to sprout in each of the thirteen colonies. Many played key roles in helping America break away from England during the Revolution as well as taking part in the debate over the new form of democratic government adopted in the late 18th century.
As our nation expanded westward, the printing press accompanied the intrepid pioneers, and soon, virtually every city and town in America claimed at least one journal. Some of the most famous newspapers and their founding years were:
The Hartford Courant (began as the Connecticut Courant), 1764
Columbian Centinel (began as Massachusetts Centinel), Boston, 1784
National Intelligencer, Washington, DC, 1800
The New York Herald, 1835
New York Tribune (Horace Greeley’s paper), 1841
Cincinnati Commercial, 1843
The New York Times, 1851
San Francisco Bulletin, 1855
St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 1875
The Washington Post, 1877
HOW THE NEWS WAS PRESENTED
“NIXON RESIGNS”, and “MEN WALK ON MOON” are headlines familiar to most Americans. But consider the following banners:
REVOLUTIONARY WAR HERO GEORGE WASHINGTON
ELECTED FIRST PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
NAPOLEON SELLS LOUISIANA TO U.S.
AMERICA DOUBLES ITS SIZE
CONTROVERSIAL PURCHASE COSTS TAXPAYERS $15 MILLION
PRESIDENT MONROE SAYS : “HANDS OFF” THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE!
This is undoubtedly how our modern newspapers would have announced such monumental news. But was this how early Americans learned of the events that would later go down in history? Far from it, as we will see.
Typical American newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries were four to eight pages in length and carried no banner headlines. In fact, important events were seldom reported on page one, a space usually reserved for advertising which financed the paper’s very existence, or European news, generally of greater interest than domestic affairs. A prime example was the election of George Washington in 1789, which was announced to the young nation in a two-line paragraph buried on an inside page of most newspapers.
Headlines as we know them today did not generally appear until the yellow journalism era, in the late 1890’s. The earliest newspapers contained no more than datelines, however short headings were occasionally used from 1765 through the 1830’s to announce key events. The Mexican War introduced the use of single column stacked headings which became more common during the California Gold Rush. Different type styles were added to increasing numbers of stacked heads during the Civil War. Still, the single column format did not change appreciably until the 1890’s when some newspapers began to experiment with multi-column and full width “scare-heads” to highlight and sensationalize the news, regardless of the importance. The Spanish-American War saw the institutionalization of this journalistic innovation and the banner headline was here to stay.