Friday, April 24, 2009

This Day in Media History (First Long-Running American Newspaper Founded in Boston)

April 24, 1704—As Americans watch an industry that (depending on one’s point of view) is experiencing unusual turbulence or its death throes, let’s take a moment to remember the first continuously operating newspaper on these shores: The Boston News-Letter, founded on this date in Britain’s most theocratic—and fractious—North American colony.

Did you catch the history of American newspapers a few months in The New Yorker that was written by Jill Lepore? If you didn’t, here’s the link—it’s a good way to get acquainted with this Harvard historian, who has a knack for rendering early America in engaging, lightly ironic tones.

True, Lepore sums up, in only one sentence (blink and you’ll miss it!) the story of this landmark American media event. But you’ll find enough context to gauge the peculiar soil in which an entire institution grew—and what is new and what is not so new about its current difficult situation.

Notice one phrase in my first paragraph: “continuously operating.” I inserted it because, technically speaking, the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, also came out of Boston, in 1690.

Only one little problem: It was shut down after one issue, for repeating the rumor that the King of France had cuckolded his own son. (Why this should be a problem in Anti-French, Anti-Catholic British North America is beyond me—but there you go.)

The News-Letter didn’t make the same mistake—it was “published by authorities,” or, as Lepore helpfully translates it, endorsed by clerics (you know which ones—those Puritan divines who, only 14 years before, had gotten themselves all in a knot over witchcraft that didn’t exist in Salem).

I’m afraid that you and I might have found the appearance and content of the News-Letter a bit boring. It started out on a single page, printed on both sides, filled mostly with news of English politics along with a lot of boring lists of ship arrivals, deaths, sermons, political appointments, fires, etc.

Among the only major item it broke that broke this torpor in its first two decades was the news of the death of the pirate Blackbeard. (Ah, pirates—newspapers are going out of style, but pirates are experiencing a comeback, have you noticed?)

But all of this was new in those days, and people sat up and took notice. When the first sheet of the first issue came out, the damp specimen was shown to the chief justice of Massachusetts and the president of Harvard, attracting attention as a real curiosity.

Interest in newspapers became really lively, however, with the arrival on the scene of James Franklin’s New-England Courant in 1721. The printer’s decision to go without a license attracted some unwanted attention from authorities, who threw him in print—twice. On one of those occasions his kid brother, hired as an apprentice, ran the paper in his absence. You might have heard of this cheeky younger sibling who, after his brother came back and started lording it over him, ran away to Philadelphia and into the history books—Ben Franklin.

By the time of the American Revolution, there were 40 newspapers in the colonies. Newspapers were instrumental in aiding the cause of John Adams during the American Revolution and Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s. Yet once they became President, the two men bitterly complained about the scurrilous attacks by the institution they once welcomed.

From what I’ve seen on other blogs and Facebook, the more heated a denunciation, the more likely these Internet phenomena are to attract attention and comment. In this way, they hearken back to the days of the thirteen colonies and the new United States, where invective carried the day.

More than 10 years ago, a friend who’d written about the early 1860s told me that the mood of that decade seemed closer in spirit to his time than the early 1960s had. I think we’re seeing something similar to that with what Thomas Jefferson called the “contest of opinion,” which now is taking place more in cyberspace than in hard copy.

None of the champions of the old order quite know how to deal with this brand new world—not even the bearer of one of the most storied surnames in American journalism, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. His predicament has been brilliantly captured by Mark Bowden in the new issue of Vanity Fair.

The Boston News-Letter folded when its Tory owners left America for the Mother Country during the American Revolution. They never recognized, until too late, the epic change taking place around them.

“Pinch” Sulzberger, I’m afraid, is kin to them in his vapid managerial clichés, starting with his decision to spend on a very expensive headquarters. Since its much-ballyhooed opening two years ago, The Good Gray Lady has been forced to sell the building off, then rent it back.

If newspapers hope to carve out a place in our new environment, they need to recognize the sense of novelty that made the first real American newspaper so striking when it first appeared.

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