newspaper

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the term ‘newspaper’ as “A paper that is printed usually daily or weekly, that contains news, commonly with the addition of articles of opinion, features, and advertising,” and dates the first use of the word to 1670. Collier’s Encyclopedia adds “[the newspaper] carries news about a wide variety of current events…[it] brings news of general interest to large portions of the public in a specific geographical area.” News and such communication circulated, of course, long before the above date, before the invention of the printing press, and even before the printed word. (see text, writing) From the ancient days through early modern times, a courier or a townscrier mediated news and announcements. Rome had a particularly sophisticated system for circulating written news, centered on the Acta Diurna (Events of the Day) – daily handwritten news sheets, which were posted by the government in the Roman Forum from the year 59 B.C. to around 222 A.D. and told of political happenings, trials, scandals, military campaigns and executions. The Chinese had a similar posted system during the Han dynasty.

The modern newspaper, however, is a European invention. In the 1450s, Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press enabled moveable type and created the opportunity for widespread distribution of such publications as the Venetian gazette , which communicated news of war and international affairs in Italy and Europe around the late 15th and 16th centuries. News publishing passed through four stages before it finally achieved the regularity and frequency of publication and the diversity of content generally expected of a newspaper [1] . In the 17th century there existed publications that provided a single news story, called a Relation. The next stage, the Coranto (meaning ‘running’) joined individual relations into a continuity and appeared weekly, but, unlike common newspapers today, it did not associate itself with the readers but rather with the source of the information. Take, for example, a 1622 coranto (the oldest existing British weekly newspaper) describing itself as Weekly Newes from Italy, Germanie, Hungaria, Bohemia, the Palatinate, France, and the Low Countries. The next step in the evolution of the newspaper was the diurnall , which provided a weekly account of the occurrences of successive days, and were especially prominent during the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War. The last early newspaper forms were the Mercury and the more official Intelligencer , which reflected more of the opinion of the writers and publishers – Mercury was a messenger who expressed his own mind and tried to influence his audience. Also, the intelligencer/mercury began to cover a wider variety of subject matter, adding new layers of entertainment and information if the public wanted them.

One important aspect of early newspapers is that they began not by describing events locally but rather in an immense geographical area. The rulers of their respective nations kept a short leash over the freedom of these early newspapers, and thus the writers were usually not permitted to discuss domestic issues. However, the street and war reporting of the English Civil War was the real forerunner of popular journalism, just as, 200 years later, the American Civil War would revolutionize war reporting and American news consumption. Yet in basically every country, a mixture of the monarchy and the church kept the press silent on many matters until at least the 19 th century.

New technology, the growth of advertising, and a more literate general public caused enormous expansion and change for newspapers and journalism in the 19th century. The cylinder press and steam engine revolutionized the production of newspapers, allowing for a much more extensive circulation. Even more significantly, the invention of the telegraph changed reporting forever. Instead of having to wait weeks for news from disparate and distant foreign correspondents to come to you, the telegraph made all sorts of information immediately available from all over the world. This led to the creation and proliferation of news agencies/wire services, such as the AP and Reuters. The above inventions also helped enable the explosion of penny presses in the late 19th century. Short papers or notices related many different opinions, and were readily available to the middle and lower classes.

As early as 1884 steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie headed a syndicate that controlled eight daily papers and ten weeklies. Throughout the twentieth century and especially today, newspaper companies have been and are members of multi-billion dollar international media conglomerates, which comprise all forms of broadcasting, films, Internet, and even non-media related companies and organizations. This consolidation of the media in a few hands of the very wealthy has caused many newspapers to become more conservative, and ally with and present more right leaning ideals in support of their own interests. [2] In addition, in certain extreme and dire circumstances, such as when a “state of emergency’ has been declared in the United States, the government is allowed to censor newsprint; even in normal circumstances the government is wary and watchful of the kind of information and ideas being communicated to the general public through the press.

Although the advent of radio in the first half of the twentieth century posed a large threat to printed news, the reception of newspapers did not begin to wane until after the Second World War with the introduction of television. Since then, newspapers have fought to stay in the market and have in many ways adapted to shorter and more entertainment-focused attention spans. Nevertheless, the priority of the press remains the communication of current political and economic affairs to the public, and their analysis. The majority of the public still prefers to read local newspapers.

In most every established newspaper, editors assign topics to a team of reporters, who then gather information in the field and write it into an article, which is then edited and titled (or headlined) by the editor. Photographers take pictures to accompany the stories and graphic artists contribute graphs, charts, diagrams, etc. when needed. Layout editors then arrange all of the above, along with advertisements, onto the pages. An editor-in-chief usually supervises the news staff, and makes sure everything works promptly and smoothly. [3] With the advanced technology of today, the way in which a newspaper is put together has changed dramatically. Layout and photo finishing are quickly and easily done by computer, and news writers are no longer spatially restricted to an office in which they write their articles according to information that they have received by telephone or other exterior communication. E-mail enables reporters to research and write in the field, which particularly aids ‘genres’ such as war journalism, and now even photojournalism. In an era of big media conglomerates, the Internet and other new technologies have also enabled the proliferation of small, special-interest newspapers, newsletters, and zines (see genre, magazines). In earlier years, individuals were unable to afford the large and expensive printing machines or circulate anything resembling a newspaper with a newspaper’s distribution count. Now, basically anyone (who owns a computer) can start an Internet newspaper.

Yet it is a reasonable contestation that an Internet newspaper is not, in fact, a newspaper at all, but a new form of news communication, transmitted through a new medium. For can a newspaper be such without paper? Newspaper as a medium has its own distinct format and presentation. Naturally, each individual newspaper has its own style, its own font (see typeprint), its own symbols and motifs, but universally, a newspaper is printed on thin paper, is larger than a book, and is unbound. As there is something tactile and immediate about print, even typed, mass-produced print — the experience of reading a newspaper does not translate directly to the Internet. Alternately, Internet newspapers or Internet versions of newspapers (every major paper has a website that mimics its paper form) have the ability to transmit news much faster and much more frequently. Internet news sites are updated at least every few hours to add new headlines and new developments of existing articles. Because of this, newspapers are no longer only weekly or daily, but may also be hourly or even minutely.

The newspaper is hardly a mere news source, however, and offers discussion of thousands of issues. Aside from the international, national, and/or local news (for some newspapers are local-interest only, and some, like The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, are national publications), business and stock information, weather, TV and movie listings, a paper will often try to avoid monotony and share opinions and insights with and about the public by offering different accompanying sections to the news, and change the focus every day. In many general-circulation newspapers, the Sunday paper is larger and contains more arts and media-oriented sections such as: Book Review, Arts and Leisure, Fashion, Circuits, etc. A brief and by no means extensive list of sections to be found on various days in many general-circulation newspapers goes as follows [4] : Arts, Dining, House and Home, Business, World Business, Money, Real Estate, Travel, Health, Women’s Health, Science, Education, Automobiles, Television, Book Review, Circuits/technology, Comics/Crossword, Weather, Sports, Horoscope, Advice, Op/ed, Obituaries, Style, Fashion, The City/Metro, Week in Review, etc.

The newspaper is a mass medium, an integral member of the vernacular term ‘the media.’ It presents, discusses, and analyzes many different and new forms of arts and media as demonstrated above (often in a critical mindset – that is, to review a current production or a newly released movie or book), discusses the media in its own articles with regards to news and politics, and combines many different media with the printed text (photographs, graphics, comics, cartoons, advertisements, etc.) in its very production and presentation. News articles are usually written in a simple, straightforward, clear and yet formal style, free of literary effects, ornaments, or obscure language.

Since the earliest newspapers, newsprint has been combined with graphics, pictures, and other textual art forms (the earliest German newspapers were written in verse) to provide an experience that is informative and informal, educational and entertaining. The Wall Street Journal is an example of a newspaper that does not print photographs, but it is a rare exception. Most articles in most American newspapers carry photographs as accompaniments to each article, as well as include text captions to the photographs.  The photograph’s ability to seemingly copy reality and give us the impression that we are part of the scene as voyeurs makes the photograph a suitable and popular form of representation and mediation for the newspaper. It also increases the newspaper’s entertainment value in competition with other, newer media – it is ‘simpler’ and faster to look at photographs and graphics than to read whole articles, and appeals to a more ‘common,’ ‘popular’ or less intellectual reader. Graphics help readers to understand figures that otherwise would go over their heads – the most common use of graphs in newspapers is to show public opinion polls. That newspapers cater to the demographic of their readers is evident in the number of photographs in tabloids, such as the Chicago Sun-Times or The Enquirer versus that of The Chicago Tribune or The New York Times, not to mention The Wall Street Journal. Mitchell states, “Even something as mundane and familiar as the relative proportion of image and text on the front page of the daily newspaper is a direct indicator of the social class of its readership.” (PT, 91) “Word and Image” designate multiple regions of social and semiotic differences [5] — in newspaper, these differences complement one another. In the past decade or two, what has changed the most with regard to the visual aspect of paper newspapers has been the widespread use of color photography and graphics. Before, most papers were black and white only, and the term ‘the black and white’ became a common synonym for the newspaper, demonstrating how inextricably linked the medium is with its format, not only its informational content; now, naturally, this term is pretty much obsolete. The use of color could be a further attempt to accurately describe the world and its events, but more convincingly, it seems another measure in the effort to compete with television, to make the news more exciting and entertaining.

The newspaper is a fundamental institution of democracy and public awareness, as stated in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. For a democracy to be such, its voting public must be informed in the affairs of the nation in order to be informed voters. People often read papers whose agenda matches their own social or political tendencies, and likewise the newspaper tries to form like-minded views in their readers. Even the smallest of towns often has two or three newspapers that the citizens choose from according to their beliefs. McLuhan states, “The press is a group confessional form that provides communal participation.” [6] However, the idea of the democratic press also extends to the medium itself. McLuhan suggests that the newspaper, as a textual medium, is vastly different from the book in that instead of communicating a single person’s own ideas, it is a mosaic , a collaboration – not only of many different writers, ideas, and material, but also in its form. Articles are cramped and juxtaposed to each other, to photographs, captions, graphics, and advertisements (which McLuhan believes to be the only ‘good news’ in the newspaper), separated only by thin lines. McLuhan states, “With the speed-up of printing and news-gathering, this mosaic form has become the dominant aspect of human association; for the mosaic form means…participation in process.” [7] Just as the newspaper is a collaboration of disparate sections, people, ideas, and writing/reporting styles, so are the people that read and use them.

Miriam Hess
Winter 2003

NOTES

Bazin, Andre. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” in What is Cinema? Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967

Collier’s Encyclopedia. New York: Colliers, 1997

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1964.

Smith, Anthony. The Newspaper: An International History. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.

Stevens, John and Hazel Garcia. Communication History. Beverly Hills and London: SAGE Publications, 1980.

Watson, James and Annie Hill. A Dictionary of Communication and Media Studies. London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 1984.

www.thepublicinterest.com/archives

www.eies.njit.edu/~Friedman

www.atkinson.yorku.ca

WORKS CITED

[1] Smith, Anthony. The Newspaper: An International History, p. 9.

[2] These are most likely to be financial interests.

[3] Collier’s Encyclopedia

[4] List based on an almost exclusive knowledge of the New York Times (and a bit of the Chicago Tribune )

[5] W. J. T.  Mitchell, Picture Theory.

[6] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1964), p. 204.

[7] Ibid, 210.