Review of Andrew Pettegree’s The Invention of News

Andrew Pettegree's The Invention of News_cover

Here’s my review of Andrew Pettegree’s The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know about Itself, published in Media History in September 2014.

“This is an Author’s Accepted Manuscript of an article published in Media History in September 2014 [copyright Taylor & Francis], available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13688804.2014.951535#.VA7joF4cTmg

 

 

THE INVENTION OF NEWS: HOW THE WORLD CAME TO KNOW ABOUT ITSELF

Andrew Pettegree, 2014

New Haven and London, Yale University Press

456 pp., ISBN 978-0-300-17908-8 (hbk $35)

 

 

This book traces the development of the European news market, and the transformation of news into a commercial commodity, from the early 15th to the early 19th century (2). It covers the development of news from the prerogative of political elites in the medieval period, and from a process dependent upon the trustworthiness of the messenger, to one in which news could be traded for profit (5) and influence popular politics (2). Spanning various developments in European society throughout the four centuries that preceded the age of press freedom, this history of news can also be read as a pre-history of newspapers.

The author argues that the newspaper has traditionally taken centre-stage in histories of the news, largely because it has seemed, until recently, likely to remain at least one of the most dominant forms of news delivery. The current uncertainty about the future of newspapers offers a different perspective, however, and this book demonstrates the ways in which news circulated in the period leading up to the dominance of newspapers (363). It sheds light upon the complex communications environment (involving word of mouth, letters, non-serial print, proclamations and pamphlets) in which newspapers evolved, as well as the ways in which the newspaper was not in itself seen by contemporaries as much of an advance on what already existed. Indeed, even its defining characteristics – such as its periodicity, contemporaneity, miscellany and affordability – were seen by some as signs of regression, as the redefinition of news as something to be followed, regardless of interest or relevance, could be as wearying as it could be engaging (364-366).

Contrary to the view of newsgathering as a series of evolutionary steps from manuscript to print, and from pamphlets to newspapers (316), Pettegree argues that the four main concerns of those who gathered, sold and consumed news – speed, reliability, content control and entertainment value – remained relatively unchanged throughout this period (13). The book emphasises that although the arrival of print offered new opportunities, it did so in a context within which networks for the distribution of news had already been developed for those in circles of power. Although print disrupted and reshaped that infrastructure, bringing ‘new customers’ into the circle of news, it did so without fully superseding the already established norms (372).

Earlier forms of communication, such as word of mouth and subversive songs and plays, continued to exist (10). The increase in the volume of written communication since the 12th century had done little to challenge the superiority of the spoken word (38), and public proclamations continued to endure until at least the 17th century (35). Writing was for a long time only a supplement to word of mouth, with letters attesting to the trustworthiness of the messenger (as well as the learning of the writer) while the critical information was itself conveyed verbally (38). Even after the invention of print, while books were ‘merely printed’, ‘publishing’ referred to speech, and citizens continued to gather in communal settings to witness civic events (11).

No-one made money from the supply of news in its early stages. While only the Church, the state and the merchant class were able to fund their own networks of messengers in the medieval world (5), the majority of people made do with news they came by for free, whether in the tavern or marketplace, or in the proclamations of official announcements from the town hall steps, into which, even in this period of otherwise unrepresentative government, rulers put considerable effort to explain their policies (and justify tax collections) to their citizens (6-7; 84). Even after the invention of print in the mid-15th century, Pettegree recounts, the transformation of the market continued only haltingly, with the conservative strategy of printing only familiar, albeit big and expensive, books (often theological, medical or legal texts in Latin) continuing to be adopted for another half century (6). News, in contrast, made little initial impact on print, with only a few major 15th century political events making an impression until ‘Europe’s first mass media event’ (59) came in the form of the Reformation.

Although the Church was the most significant of the early consumers of print (60), merchants were the principal consumers and suppliers of news throughout the 15th and 16th centuries (3). The merchants played an important role in the creation of the international news market, the commercialisation of the postal networks and the opening up of new markets and opportunities, from the business correspondence of the late Middle Ages to the creation of the first courier services and the first commercial manuscript newsletters in the 16th century (6). But when news became a commercial product, it also took a turn away from the reporting of business news to that of political, diplomatic and military news (290).

According to Pettegree, the avvisi, whose handfuls of scribes provided several dozen confidential copies of handwritten weekly briefings to the rich and powerful in the cities of Italy, are one of the ‘great untold stories of the early news market’ (5). In contrast to the dispassionate tone of these manuscript newsletters, the pamphlets of the Reformation era were passionate attempts to persuade and manage, as well as inform, public opinion (7), but this, and the transformation of news into part of the entertainment industry (6), complicated issues of truth and veracity. Consequently, and in the expanding market for cheap print, the avvisi continued until the late 18th century to find a market among those with the money to pay for trustworthy information (8).

Pettegree traces the historical roots of the newspaper back to the mechanisation in 1605 of one such manuscript newsletter service in Germany. He demonstrates the extent to which early newspapers, in replicating the style and privileging of unadorned fact of the manuscript newsletters (264), were unenjoyable reads, containing reports of just a couple of sentences with no attempt at commentary or even explanation of cause and effect. Because they were offered on a subscription basis, and readers were expected to follow events from issue to issue, newspaper reading was ‘time-consuming, expensive and rather wearying’ (9). Pamphlets, on the other hand, were produced and consumed intermittently, depending on the newsworthiness of events. ‘Consumers had to be taught to want a regular fix of news’, and it wasn’t until the end of the 17th century that newspaper reading became an everyday part of life, and until the end of the 18th that it became a major agent of opinion-forming (9).

Pettegree argues that while early news pamphlets incorporated the style and ‘exuberant variety’ of oral traditions, so that the reader could almost ‘hear the music of the streets’, readers of the early newspapers were offered instead the ‘cloistered hush of the chancery’ (11). While densely populated networks of printed weekly news-sheets stretched throughout northern Europe, however, they had no appeal at all in the south (168); particularly in Italy, where manuscript books continued to dominate over newspapers well into the 17th century (113). Each element of printed news encouraged, however, new habits of consumption, such as private reading, which had until then been the preserve of the elite.

The author also points to the significance of law-making and the regulation of markets for the spreading of news, as well as the ‘wholesale transformation of the international postal service’ between 1500 and 1800 that made the circulation of news quicker, cheaper and more frequent, and which made the newspaper possible (167); aspects of the history of news that, he argues, historians often ignore, and students of communication haven’t noticed at all (88).

He also sheds (a little) light on the influence of hawkers (street sellers) upon the style and content of newspapers (311), the active role played by women since the beginning of the print industry, both in setting readers’ priorities and in running print businesses (281), as well as the various means of censorship, control and manipulation that have plagued the history of the press, including early examples of newspapers accepting fees for the suppression of inconvenient stories (316).

His research into the pre-history of newspapers and both printed and non-printed forms of news mediation leads him to be quite dismissive of the sense of limitless possibility that pervaded the 19th century, which, for him, was little more than an age of newspaper triumphalism. While he critiques the rationalised self-interest that lay behind the overblown claims and false prophecies about newspapers and press freedom, remarking that the press are never as self-righteous as when their own economic interests are concerned (334), he argues that a long-term historical perspective casts doubt on the Habermasian claim that a new form of participatory politics was being constituted, providing a wealth of evidence for the thirst for news ‘in the centuries before coffee’ (230). Acknowledging an increasingly active political role for the serial press (229) and the heightened political activism among the previously unenfranchised, as well as the effect this had on the content and form of newspapers, he nevertheless emphasises more the ways in which the news-reading public were ‘encouraged to believe’ that they could play an active and informed role in political discussion (367). Less an instrument of emancipation and empowerment (371), therefore, than a symbol of social status among the increasingly literate and urban members of the emerging consumer society of the 18th century, their principal strength was in ‘what they represented, rather than what they contained’ (367). Offering access to information that had previously been available only to the elite, newspapers were merely a non-essential purchase for those with disposable income, and an ‘accoutrement of polite society’ (361; 367); a view that will surely find favour among historians of consumption practices, if not scholars of media and democracy.

According to Pettegree’s account of the history of news, therefore, the ‘great age’ of the newspaper was more fleeting and rhetorical than either a genuine form of public opinion or the natural order of things, making its rise to dominance in the 19th century all the more surprising.

 

 

Simon Dawes, Nottingham Trent University

 

 

 

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