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A Brief History of Journalism: How We Arrived to Where We Are
 
 

Journalism: A Brief History

The Beginning of Journalism

Journalism is the gathering, organizing, and distribution of news -- to include feature stories and commentary -- through the wide variety of print and non-print media outlets. It is not a recent phenomenon, by any means; the earliest reference to a journalistic product comes from Rome circa 59 B.C., when news was recorded in a circular called the Acta Diurna. It enjoyed daily publication and was hung strategically throughout the city for all to read, or for those who were able to read.

During the Tang dynasty, from 618 A.D. to 907 A.D., China prepared a court report, then named a bao, to distribute to government officials for the purpose of keeping them informed of relevant events. It continued afterward in a variety of forms and names until the end of 1911, and the demise of the Qing dynasty. However, the first indication of a regular news publication can be traced to Germany, 1609, and the initial paper published in the English language (albeit "old English") was the newspaper known as the Weekly Newes from 1622. The Daily Courant, however, first appearing in 1702, was the first daily paper for public consumption.

It should come as no surprise that these earliest forays into keeping the public informed were met with government opposition in many cases. They attempted to impose censorship by placing restrictions and taxes on publishers as a way to curb freedom of the press. But literacy among the population, as a whole, was growing and because of this, along with the introduction of technology that improved printing and circulation, newspaper publications saw their numbers explode; and even though there remain pockets of news censorship around the world today, for the most part, journalistic freedom reigns.

Soon after newspapers got a foothold, the creation of the magazine became widespread as well. Its earliest form was such aptly named periodicals as the Tattler and Spectator. Both were initial attempts to marry articles of opinions with current events, and by the 1830s, magazines were common mass-circulated periodicals that appealed to a broader audience. They included illustrated serials aimed specifically at the female audience.

Time passed, and the cost of news gathering increased dramatically, as publications attempted to keep pace with what seemed to be a growing and insatiable appetite for printed news. Slowly, news agencies formed to take the place of independent publishers. They would hire people to gather and write news reports, and then sell these stories to a variety of individual news outlets. However, the print media was soon about to come head-to-head with an entirely new form of news gathering -- first, with the invention of the telegraph, then quickly followed by the radio, the television, and mass broadcasting. It was an evolution of technology that seemed all but inevitable.

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Non-print media changed the dynamics of news gathering and reporting altogether. It sped up all aspects of the process, making the news, itself, more timely and relevant. Soon, technology became an integral part of journalism, even if the ultimate product was in print form. Today, satellites that transmit information from one side of the globe to another in seconds, and the Internet, as well, place breaking news in the hands of almost every person in the world at the same time. This has created a new model of journalism once again, and one that will likely be the standard for the future.

The Rise of Journalism in the United States

Not everyone was enamored with news reporting. When the earliest colonies were settling into life on this continent, there were many influential leaders that spoke with disdain about the press. One such person was Governor William Berkeley of Virginia who, in 1671, claimed, "I thank God, there are no free schools, nor printing, and I hope we shall not have, these hundred years, for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both." That is not a comment one would expect to hear in the United States today. But this was spoken at a time before technology had altered publication, and the purpose of most municipalities and their leaders was to see to it that people conformed.

It was 1690 when the first colonial news sheet appeared. Titled Boston's Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, it was published by Benjamin Harris whose first story was disparaging of the British, causing the paper to be put out of business a short four days later! Over the coming three quarters of a century, news sheets and publications came to be more accepted, and by the time the Revolutionary War was upon the new nation, they were all but rampant across the colonies, filled with opinions pro and con about an impending military confrontation. Often, these news sources would simply lift information from another rival resource without thought of crediting the original writer or publisher. Unfortunately, as might be expected, this second hand news was misquoted and provided inaccurate information on a regular basis.

To be sure, newspapers, and those who wrote for them, did so as a medium of empowerment. Up to that point, information on public matters was usually scarce, handed off by word of mouth, and controlled by the news deliverer (which was usually those in power). So mass printing (as it was in those early days, and not to be compared to what we experience today) must have been much like being handed a freedom never before realized. Publishers could certainly be credited with having altruistic purposes for their existence, which drove them to fervently keep the public informed. But, equally as important, news gathering and publication was a new form of revenue for all involved. The reporter made money going out into the public and gathering this information, then crafting stories for the news-thirsty public. Publishers made money off of the seemingly endless stream of newspaper buyers, and even newsboys and publication workers were kept busy at their craft. Overall, the newspaper business was a win-win situation for everyone.

In many ways, the content and format of newspapers has not changed since the 18th century. Even in its infancy, with some notable exceptions, newspapers seemed to know intrinsically they had a responsibility to be fair and honest, and print the truth. Early newspapers were in the habit of dividing the news into sections, such as foreign and domestic, and opinion pages were as common in the earliest news gazettes and sheets as they are today. Businesses quickly saw the advantages of advertising in newspapers, so this has been a staple of newspapers since their inception. The newspapers of colonial America were in a position where they had to economize. The first newspapers were weeklies consisting of four pages, and advertisements were relegated to the back.

Because the cost of newsprint and ink was so high, as were the machines on which the news was printed, cut, folded, and distributed, stories were condensed to provide only the most basic of information – most of which appeared in the first paragraph. It is believed this is where the entire model for journalistic writing began. Today, it is universally accepted that the first paragraph of a news story answer the basic questions of who, what, where, when and why – a concept taught in most elementary classrooms across the country as a writing style for the beginning writer.

Colonial newspapers also included sensational stories, such as sightings of strange creatures, poems, satire, essays, and political cartoons. There was also a section for personal advertisements, such as the sale of household items.
After the Revolutionary War, newspapers went from weekly to daily publication, where the public would support it. They also became much more vigilant about the political state of the new nation, writing long and deep about politicians, political parties, state and federal stances on subjects of interest to the fledgling American public. Indeed, it seemed certain that a free press was part and parcel of a free nation. The press was about to take this country in a direction that no country had ever experienced before, all while creating a model of journalism for the rest of the world to copy.

Interestingly, some of America's earliest founders and leaders -- George Washington, himself -- had little use for the press and claimed so vocally, stating he rarely had time to look at a gazette with all of his other interests! On the other end of the spectrum was Benjamin Franklin, a colleague and fellow separatist, who is credited today with pushing journalism and newspapers to wider acceptance, sure it was the cornerstone of a continuing free nation.

More History of Journalism

Journalism, like other professions today, was not once held in esteem or regard. It was often thought to be a practice of those who would avoid "real" work. Over time, journalists began to organize as a way of gaining recognition for their craft. The first foundation of journalists came in 1883 in England; the American Newspaper Guild was organized in 1933, an institute meant to function as both a trade union and a professional organization. From the beginning of newspapers, and up until about the mid-1800s, journalists entered the field as apprentices, starting out most often as copy boys and cub reporters. The first time that journalism was recognized as an area of academic study was when it was introduced at the university level in 1879, where the University of Missouri offered it as a four-year course of study. New York's Columbia University followed suit in 1912, offering the study of journalism as a graduate program, endowed by none other than Joseph Pulitzer himself. The realization that news reporting was becoming extremely complex in a world that was globalizing through mass media, even if only the telegraph were the instrument of delivery, was fully acknowledged.

And the world of journalism grew in leaps and bounds then. In-depth reporting, economics and business, politics, and science all vied for the attention of the public. Then came motion pictures and radio, and eventually television and the need for refined and expert skills and techniques grew exponentially. Journalism was a common course of study by the 1950s in universities across the United States. Literature and texts on the subject of journalism grew, as well, to keep up with the demand of budding journalists and their professors. Soon the stacks were filled with anecdotal, biographical, and historical information specifically on the subject of journalism and its practitioners.

It has been the nature of journalism in the United States to champion social responsibility, and that has not changed since the early 1700s. That is not to say that partisan politics has never driven the news media – print and non-print. Even today, media outlets and national newspapers are identified by their social leanings – either liberal or conservative. But, there are still many that present a fair and unbiased look at events that are happening locally, nationally, and internationally, written and published with the intent of informing the public and allowing them to make their own decisions on an issue. There were dark times in journalism that lent themselves to outright dishonest and ultra-persuasive tactics to influence the public – using fear as a motivator. Today this is labeled "yellow" journalism and it has a separate history and place in journalism's past. For the most part, journalists are careful to avoid these types of tactics today.

Recent History of Journalism

That brings us to journalism of the 20th century and this first decade and a half of the 21st century. There is no question that the professionalism of this industry has grown immensely since the days of yellow journalism. There are several factors that are credited with this, including the fact that journalism became a recognized area of study at the university level, giving it a sense of importance missing prior to this. As well, there was an increasing body of knowledge on all aspects of the field of journalism, laying bare its flaws for others to examine, and explaining the techniques of mass communication from a social and psychological viewpoint. At the same time, social responsibility became the hallmark of journalism and journalists themselves elevated the profession through the creation of professional organizations. "A free and responsible press" is the battle cry of the journalist today, as ethics and standards are an important consideration of all who enter the profession.

The news has been changing with the introduction of new technologies. Even with the introduction of radio, and later, television, newspapers remained the most trusted source of information for most Americans, who only supplemented them with non-print media information. That is not so today. Non-print media dominate news acquisition by the public, and it has become more influential than could have been suspected in its infancy. Americans, and others, turn to non-print media to get sound bites of what is happening globally. Newspapers that put time, effort, reflection, and sweat and blood into the process of news gathering and reporting still aim to provide an in-depth look at events. The question becomes, who wants to take the time to ponder the world at the level that newspapers challenge the reader to ascribe to? The term "news," itself, has taken on new meaning. There is hard news, celebrity news, breaking news, and other categories that have altered journalism from its beginnings.

However, even as the world continues to change, there is an ongoing need for the printed word, even if it is delivered electronically, instead of on paper. That should be some comfort to journalists, for indeed, there is hope that there will always be the need for a free and honest press.

 
 
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