Colonial America, 1607-1783
1735: Zenger wins libel case
1765: Great Britain enacts Stamp Act
1769: Doolittle makes first press in America
1772: Adams sets up Committees of Correspondence
1775: American Revolution begins
1783: Treaty of Paris
The Press in America is a thorough, clear, credible secondary source that provides a history of American journalism from its beginnings to the present era. Authors Edwin Emery and Michael Emery are professors of journalism.
A History of Book Publishing in the United States provides extensive information about early printers and presses. A secondary source, its credibility comes from author John Tebbel, a professor of journalism and author of numerous books on the media.
By Mark Canada
Professor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Although newspapers had been published in Germany, England, Spain, and other European countries in the early 17th century, at roughly the same time that English immigrants were settling Virginia and Massachusetts, the American colonists did not establish a real newspaper of their own for another century. Over the next 80 years, colonial journalism grew from a crude and toothless orphan to a swaggering figure that commanded respect and influence.
News reporting goes back thousands of years, perhaps to the first humans or even the first animals that could communicate to one another about such things as approaching predators. The potential for "mass media," however, was not realized until the middle of the 15th century, when German inventor Johannes Gutenberg's development of movable type gave people a relatively fast, inexpensive means of producing hundreds or thousands of fliers, books, and eventually newspapers. Gutenberg, William Caxton, and the American printers who followed them made or purchased small metal blocks, each with an individual letter, punctuation mark, or other symbol on it. They then arranged these blocks in trays to spell words. By applying ink to the letters and then pressing large sheets of paper down on them, they could print pages, which they then cut to create fliers or assembled into books or other publications. The tool that these printers used is called a printing press. Even then, it appears that newspapers--if defined as regular publications devoted to current events and made available to the general public--did not begin to appear in earnest in Europe until the early 17th century.
Shortly after English settlers set up colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts, America got its first press, which was set up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the late 1630s. Although a number of books issued from this press over the next half century, the American colonies did not produce their own real newspaper until the 18th century. In The Press and America, Edwin Emery and Michael Emery cite a number of factors for this delay. Colonists in Massachusetts, they explain, were preoccupied with survival, already could read news coming from the Mother Country, and lacked the type of industry and commerce that would have created a demand for advertising (24).
Failure and Success
By the early 1700s, however, commerce had increased. The establishment of postmasters and post offices supplied a further impetus for newspapers because, as Emery and Emery explain, postmasters had access to information and took interest in spreading it (30). Indeed, the publisher of the first colonial newspaper was postmaster John Campbell, whose Boston News-Letter debuted on April 24, 1704. Between this date and the end of the American Revolution in 1783, colonial journalism grew significantly, thanks to a number of factors, which Emery and Emery identify as population growth, improved transportation and communication, political turmoil, educational advances, and increased commerce (51).
Despite these factors, the fledgling colonial press stumbled at first. The circulation of the Boston News-Letter was rarely more than 300, and Campbell could not make a significant profit from publishing it. Other publishers struggled, as well. Citing figures compiled by Clarence S. Brigham, Emery and Emery report that of the some 2,000 newspapers that appeared between 1690 and 1820, fewer than half lasted two years or longer (51). Still, there were success stories and no greater one than that of Benjamin Franklin, whose Pennsylvania Gazette was, according to Emery and Emery, "the best newspaper in the American colonies" (44). After its debut in 1728, they write, the Gazette "soon had the largest circulation, most pages, highest advertising revenue, most literate columns, and liveliest comment of any paper in the area" (44). Emery and Emery go on to point out that Franklin's success helped inspire others to enter the profession.
By modern standards, colonial newspapers were small publications featuring out-of-date, often toothless coverage of a small range of subjects. A typical publication might consist of four pages of stories about government and foreign affairs, the weather, and disasters such as fires or diseases. Illustrations were rare, and headlines generally were nonexistent. It could take weeks for the news of an event to appear in one of these papers, particularly if it took place abroad, and inaccuracies were common.
Perhaps the most noteworthy weakness in these early newspapers, especially those printed in the first decade or two of the century, was a lack of controversial coverage. If, as has been famously declared, a newspaper's job is to "raise hell," then early publications such as Campell's Boston News-Letter barely raised an eyebrow. The main reason was control by government authorities, who feared the power of even a fledgling press. The First Amendment, which promised freedom of the press, was not to come until 1791. In the meantime, journalists had to cope with a tradition of British censorship. Indeed, what might have become America's first newspaper, Benjamin Harris's Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, died in 1690 after only one issue because it ran afoul of the Massachusetts licensing act. Later journalists simply stayed out of trouble by printing innocuous coverage or even giving government officials the chance to approve material before publication. Things changed somewhat when James Franklin, brother of Benjamin, established the New England Courant in 1721. Emery and Emery write: "The Courant was the first American newspaper to supply readers with what they liked and needed, rather than with information controlled by self-interested officials. Its style was bold and its literary quality high" (Emery 40). Franklin even challenged religious and political authorities, setting a precedent for journalists to come. The press was still far from free, however, as Franklin's own case illustrates: some two years after he began his fiesty newspaper, authorities banned him from publishing it. Nevertheless, press freedom apparently made some strides during this early period, thanks to a 1735 case involving John Peter Zenger, publisher of New York Weekly Journal. Charged with sedition after his paper had criticized colonial authorities, Zenger eventually won the case with the help of noted attorney Andrew Hamilton. Although the case set no legal precedent, Emery and Emery credit it with establishing a tone for freedom, noting that "after 1735 no other colonial court trial of a printer for seditious libel has come to light" (58).
Despite its meagre beginnings and troubling restrictions, the colonial press rose to a position of respect and even influence by the middle of the 18th century, helped along by the political turmoil that was to culminate in the American Revolution. Indeed, this turmoil and the press fed off each other. Just as newspapers benefitted from the turmoil, colonial activists such as John Dickinson, Samuel Adams, Isaiah Thomas, and Thomas Paine used the press to advance their goals (53). Over some 80 years, the press had come a long way indeed--from an organ of the government to what Emery and Emery have called "the most powerful weapon of the American revolutionaries" (53).