Chapter 20
Beginnings of Journalism

Chapter 20 - Beginnings of Journalism

The history of journalism is tied to the history of the development of human society. Both individuals and societies have needed information to form communities. That information must be timely and relevant, and journalism -- in some form or another --has the job of providing that information.

The modern profession of journalism is a story of the development of journalistic information and the means of gathering that information, the technological means of producing and distributing that information in some medium, and the development of audience expectations for that information. Journalism is particularly tied to technology, and changes in the technology of information usually mean changes in the profession of journalism.

The most profound technological change in the last 1,000 years was the printing press. Its development allowed the efficient duplication of information in a form that could be easily distributed. The development of the printing press occurred in a larger environment of profound change in the 1400s and 1500s. A part of that change was the increasing value given to individual thought and analysis and the increasing rate of literacy among the populations of western Europe. The development of journalism followed these changes.

In America in the 1700s, news and information became a tool used by those who wanted to break away from the English empire. Their interpretation of the events of the day, such as the Stamp Act, allowed them to make the argument for change, and the printing technology allowed them to disseminate those arguments to great effect.

Study questions

  • What was the importance of news to ancient civilizations?

  • What was the daily newspaper of the Roman Empire? Although copies of it do not exist, what do we know about it?

  • What was the impact of the printing press in the century after it was invented?

  • When did daily newspapers as we know them today first appear? Who paid for them?

  • What was the role of women in journalism in the 1600s and 1700s?

  • What was the first daily newspaper in America to survive for more than one issue?

  • What contributions did Benjamin Franklin make to journalism?

  • How did newspapers contribute to the debate that led to the Revolutionary War?

  • Explain some of the aspects of the partisanship that characterized newspapers in the first years of the American republic?

Chapter notes

America's first newspaper. The Boston News-Letter, thought to be America's first continuing newspaper, is pictured on page 364 of the book. It was first published by John Campbell in 1704. William David Sloan, a professor of journalism at the University of Alabama and one of America's distinguished journalism historians, has put together an extensive history of this newspaper for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. You can read his article at this link on the AEJMC web site.

Franklin in vogue. If anyone was the father of American journalism, it was Ben Franklin. But he was also the father of the American post office, the volunteer fire department and many other societal innovations that have lasted far longer than his life. A number of good biographies examining all aspects of Franklin's life have been published. A couple of good web sites where you can find out much more about the life of Franklin are the companion web site for a Public Broadcasting System special on Franklin and the U.S. web site, which contains a whole section on Franklin.

Key terms and concepts

• Individuals and groups have always needed to communicate new information, the latest news, to each other; consequently, journalism is a part of any society, ancient or modern.

• Journalism in any age depends on the technology available to gather and disseminate information.

• Writing makes information easier to convey than simply speaking; writing also creates a permanent record, something that establishes a history and a basis for a society.

Acta Diurna – a daily publication of political and society news begun during the reign of Julius Caesar in 59 B.C.

Moveable type – individual pieces of type that can be reused for different printing jobs. The concept of moveable type was the key to the invention of the printing press around 1450.

• Printing was only one of the factors that brought Western civilization out of the Dark Ages. Other factors included an increase in literacy and easier means of dissemination (such as the development of safer travel routes).

Censorship – prevention by governmental or religious authorities of dissemination of information they believed threatening to their position.

• Benjamin Franklin was the great journalistic innovator of the 18th century; he pioneered the development of newspapers throughout the American colonies by investing in start-up papers, creating news services among newspapers, and promoting a light and entertaining style of writing.

• Modern journalism, with its emphasis on fair and accurate presentation of information, did not exist during the 1790s, the first decade of the American Constitutional republic. Instead, it was the age of partisanship when newspapers presented political points of view rather than information.

Related web
sites for
Chapter 20

American Journalism Historians Association


Media History Project


American Women's History Project

Media History Monographs

Benjamin Franklin (PBS)

Section I | 1: News and Society  |  2: Culture of Journalism  |  3: Becoming a Journalist
Section II  |  4: Newspapers  |  5: Magazines  |  6: Television and Radio  |  7: News Web Sites
Section III  |  8: Reporters  |  9: Reporting  |  10: Writing news and features  |  11: Style  | 
12: Editors13: Editing and headline writing  |  14: Visual Journalists  |
  15: Graphics Journalism  |  16: Photojournalism  |  17: Publication Design  |
  18: Broadcasters  |  19: Writing for Broadcast
Section IV  |  20: Beginnings of Journalism  |  21: Journalism Comes of Age  | 
22: New Realities, New Journalism  |   23: 20th Century and Beyond
Section V  |  24: Law and the Journalist  |  25: Ethical Practices  |   26: Present and Future
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