Publication Spotlight: ‘The Invention of News’
March 23, 2015 Leave a comment
Spanning four centuries and most of Europe, Professor Andrew Pettegree’s new monograph, The Invention of News, tells the story of news before the newspaper. In doing so, Andrew illuminates a lively and previously marginalised culture which sees news moving in a number of ways, including by word of mouth, and through official announcements, sermons and cheap occasional print. Indeed, in this period, news actually travelled far more successfully in these forms than it did in newspapers.
Andrew was initially drawn to this topic through the research he conducted on cheap print for his previous monograph: The Book in the Renaissance. When researching for this work, it became clear to him that much of the dynamism in early print came from cheap books which gave good returns on investments. This had not been recognised before this point, largely because the survival rate of such print was so low. It was these little books which alerted Andrew to the importance of news in this period, and from which The Invention of News was ultimately developed.
At its core, The Invention of News deals with a technological change, that from manuscript to print. This phenomenon is one which ought to be familiar to us, as we are currently undergoing a similar shift, from print to digital platforms. It is not surprise, then, that Andrew’s work in this field has received a lot of attention, especially from journalists. A number of findings from The Invention of News, however, ought to be reassuring.
One of the most unexpected things that Andrew discovered was the persistence of a lively and lucrative manuscript news services throughout the period in question, in spite of a number of false prophecies that manuscript was dead. These were distributed by professional newsmen to a very small circle of paying clients, and were very popular: indeed, they were viewed as indispensable to those in positions of power. This service was regarded as being much more reliable than other sources of news, largely because it was exclusive and reassuringly expensive. Newspapers initially modelled themselves on these manuscript newsletters, but they certainly didn’t kill them, and they persisted and remained vital up until the French Revolution, 350 years after the invention of printing. The persistence of the manuscript newsletter for such a long period reveals a message which Andrew believes to be relevant today: in a period of technological change people do not tend to pick one format or another, but instead pick the best of both worlds.
A similar finding of the Invention of News, which was equally surprising to Andrew, was how difficult early newspapers found it to make money. Andrews sees many new technologies being propelled by fascination, and not by economic reality, and argues that this was certainly the case for newspapers. Initially they popped up in a number of places, but the economics were dire. An average manuscript newsletter might have had twenty customers, who would each have been charged £10 a years for the service. This resulted in a very decent income for the newsman in question. The same newspapers, however, could only charge around 1 or 2 pence, as they had to match other cheap print. In order to make money, therefore, they would need to sell between 300 and 400 copies, and even then the profit would only be around ¼ of a penny on each copy. Some newspapers subsidised this paltry profit with alternative forms of income, such as advertising. The vast majority, however, survived primarily on government subsidies. This led to prestige for the government, but also meant that the newspapers were very reticent about criticising power!
So what comes next? There is the potential for a sequel, which would continue to look forwards to our digital age and the changes news experienced from the nineteenth century onwards. Returning to the early modern period, Andrew also sees potential for more interest in the ‘multimedia’ transmission of news, and for future studies to focus more on the relationship between print and oral culture. In the meantime, however, congratulations are in order. This work has received attention from quarters other than journalists wondering about their job prospects. At the beginning of March, Andrew travelled to Boston collect the 2015 Goldsmith Book Prize given by the Harvard Kennedy School, Joan Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.