History of journalism: from antiquity to new media

The human need for knowledge from which information, and therefore journalism, was born, has roots that go back thousands of years. Already in ancient Greece and  Rome, in every city, there were public officials whose task was to declaim civil and religious news in the streets. There were even figures who provided information of all kinds, for a fee. This thirst for information and news soon gave rise to the need for written documentation, from which the acta diurna and acta populi were born.

The first historical evidence of written information dates back to the period in which the territorial dominions of Rome were expanding, going beyond the Alps and the Mediterranean. Then, the first written news began to appear, in a very primitive form. Until that moment, the most important news had been handed down with the annales, historiographic works that collected the events grouped by year, and those of daily character through the oral tradition.

The acta diurna, of which no physical evidence has come down to us but only hints in other literary sources, were, therefore, the first historical example that we can consider assimilable to journalism as the first dissemination of socio-cultural, political and economic news with the aim of making information, but also to influence public opinion.

Even during the Middle Ages, in addition to the transcriptions of the monks who contributed to the survival and transmission of classical culture, there was a daily activity of divulgation. The menanti, true forerunners of journalism, wrote by hand daily or weekly notices and newsletters, which were addressed to the then still few readers. As in ancient times, news, announcements and notices continued to be distributed orally by means of auctioneers, who read their contents out loud in the streets.

We have to wait until the mid-fifteenth century to witness what we can, with license, consider the first disruption of the European publishing world: in 1455, Johannes Gutenberg introduced in our continent the technology of printing with movable characters, already existing for more than four centuries in China thanks to an invention of Bi Sheng.  The ease of mass reproduction of the same text thanks to printing opened the door to the increasingly widespread diffusion of written communication.

stampa a caratteri mobili
Printing with movable characters

Notwithstanding the advent of the printing press, Venice (Italy) gained a sort of journalistic supremacy with a hand-written newsletter, which began to circulate in 1563. The government of the lagoon republic issued a monthly communication of official institutional character in which, divided by place and date, information was given about the activities of the government, wars and trade negotiations in place.

Despite the great revolution brought about by the press, it took a century and a half to see journalism take on a form, albeit embryonic, similar to that of today’s definition. In ‘600, in central Europe, the first newspapers of information were born, based on the periodization, initially weekly and then daily, of communications, notices and writings until then spread in a sporadic and disorderly manner. These gazettes began to spread, initially, in the places more devoted to commerce, given the necessity of the merchants to have always available useful information to their exchanges.

Soon around the production of news began to gather a dense intellectual elite, which exploited gazettes and newspapers to help the cultural, scientific and technical dissemination that until then had animated the discussions only of a few narrow circles of acculturated. The productions of France, Great Britain and Italy, at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, contributed to the flourishing of a journalistic culture that until then had been unheard of. Initially, publications included book reviews, humanistic articles and scientific studies. At that time, however, there was a lot of intellectual turmoil (and not only, given the approach of the era of the great revolutions) and the writings began to be populated with Enlightenment theories on freedom of the press and information, with the aim of becoming a tool to guide public opinion on issues hitherto little discussed.

The daily news format became definitively established in England during the eighteenth century: at the end of the thirties of the century there were already 400 daily newspapers in the country, including News Letter which, being still published today, is the oldest existing English language periodical. Also in those years Joseph Addison and Richard Steele founded The Spectator, an evening publication that dealt with the socio-economic and cultural scenario of London, at the beginning of the industrial revolution.

News Letter
The earliest surviving edition of The Belfast News Letter

Back in Italy, from 1764 to 1766, the Verri brothers and Cesare Beccaria started the publication of Il Caffè, a historical reference point of the Italian Enlightenment in which cultural journalism, literary research and patriotic drives merged into a single new bourgeois ideal.

In France, during the French Revolution, each political association had its own publication that contained the proclamations, ideas, programs and articles of the revolutionary leaders Danton, Marat, Sain Just, Robespierre and others. It began a revolution in the revolution itself: through the printed paper the opposing sides did not spare each other attacks and controversies and, from Paris, news about the situation in the city reached all the provinces of France.

In the 1800s, in Italy, a feeling of national identity and aversion to foreign domination began to spread and found in journalism an outlet and a method of spreading libertarian ideals. In those years some famous examples of this phenomenon are the Biblioteca Italiana and the Il Conciliatore. The latter, which collaborated among others Silvio Pellico, was the mouthpiece of explicit statements and aspirations for freedom and the search for an Italian national identity. Thus, the Italian Risorgimento, even between the pages of the printed paper, began. Following the national unification, in 1861, modern newspapers began to be published throughout the peninsula, with organized editorial offices, printing houses and the signatures of professional journalists who put aside the intellectual figures coming from other professions and who, until then, had lent themselves to that world.

Meanwhile, in the two centuries just under consideration, there had been in the United States a very structured journalistic movement since the colonial period. Boston, capital of the British colonies, was the first overseas city to publish the first newspapers from the colonies, at the end of the 17th century. Even the famous Benjamin Franklin, scientist and politician, devoted himself to journalism, following in his older brother’s footsteps. James Franklyn was a journalistic figure who had been rather uncomfortable to the authorities, with his New England Courant on whose pages he had denounced the malpractices of the institutions, paying with imprisonment. In 1729, Benjamin took over the Pennsylvania Gazette, edited in the style of English newspapers. He, like his brother, devoted ample time to harsh and explicit criticism of the British government’s colonies.

join or die
Political cartoon published in 1754 in the Pennsylvania Gazette by Benjamin Franklin

At the beginning of the following century, 24 newspapers were published in the States, divided between the opposing Federalist and Nationalist currents. Following the War of Independence from Great Britain, the editorial offices were freer and the newspapers were characterized by the total absence of censorship on the contents published. 1833 was a turning point for journalism in the New World: The Sun was the first New York newspaper to be sold for a single penny, beginning the era of the penny press. In one year, the newspaper exceeded a circulation of 10,000 copies. The following year it became the most widely distributed English-language newspaper in the world, surpassing The Times of London with 20,000 copies. The penny press gave an incredible boost to the U.S. newspaper market, which in fact, in just 10 years, increased the number of newspapers published from 24 to 138. The penny press allowed the press to break free from the funding and control of political parties. This independence also led to a change in subject matter and language to bring it closer to the working class.

Throughout the world, readers were changing: from the second half of the 19th century in every country, the great national newspapers had to compete with each other to gain the trust and attention of an increasingly heterogeneous public eager to have information of all kinds, always up-to-date.

The 20th century was marked, in Europe, by totalitarianism and the consequent political divisions. In every country freedom of the press was subjected to the heavy axe of regime censorship. Almost everywhere clandestine and subversive initiatives took hold, in contrast with the systemic press, which was, instead, totally bent to the needs of propaganda and devoid of any character of objectivity.

The post-war period and its spirit of rebirth allowed journalism to become free again. New newspapers were added to the old ones, which had been reorganized: the public had changed once again, thanks to the growth of literacy among the population and to the economic boom towards which the entire world was heading. In Italy, on the influence and inspiration of the United States, the rotogravures were born, weekly publications that dealt with issues of custom and current affairs with a lighter look than the typical news, which was present in newspapers.

In the mid-20th century, the contamination and cross-media nature of information began. In the mid-1950s, in fact, came the second great disruption in this sector: with television, journalism expanded beyond the printed page. In our country, public television required information to be pro-government, but in the 1970s the liberalization of television frequencies guaranteed pluralism of opinion: commercial broadcasters, totally supported by advertising revenues and independent from politics, spread news completely unrelated to any political-ideological or orientation, once again giving journalism a pivotal role in the moral and cultural growth of the country.

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The first Italian news programme, broadcast on RAI in 1952

In the early 1990s, the third disruption arrived: the internet. Online journalism was born in the United States at the beginning of the decade, with some small newspapers that decided to test the potential of the network to increase their visibility. In no time at all, the phenomenon extended to established newspapers, which, however, still had to deal with a huge digital divide: readers were not willing to pay the same amount of money to read news online that they could get in print, since computers and the Internet were still unfamiliar and unfamiliar to them. It was a sex scandal that changed the rules of the game: in 1998, the then President of the United States Bill Clinton was involved in what was called the Sexgate. The details of his clandestine affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky dominated newspaper headlines around the world, forcing newspapers to return to online publication of news, this time for free, as a preview of what they would publish in print, so as not to risk being burned by the competition.

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Screenshot from The Washington Post online, 20/12/1998

The beginning of the new millennium marked the definitive change of pace for online journalism: in fact, the growing availability of computing devices, faster and faster connections, the increasing portability of a personal connection that can follow us anywhere through a smartphone or tablet and the advent of social media have made online information the primary source of news on the planet. Today, every newspaper has an online presence, or even an exclusive one, and print newspapers have become in-depth analyses of the real-time online news that passes through the web, where there has been an exponential increase in the number of sources from which to find out what is happening in the world. Information can now be truly free from influences of all kinds.

This casts light and shadow on the world of information. The fragmentation of sources has certainly democratized journalism and its dissemination, both in terms of production and fruition, but it makes the reader’s critical exercise much more complex. We are increasingly exposed to news from uncertain or unreliable sources and fake news of all kinds that, today, can turn the world upside down in a second with a simple click of the mouse or a tap on a smartphone screen. But this cannot be the obstacle against which progress must crash. On the contrary, technology, once again, can help in contrasting these dynamics: machine learning and artificial intelligence can come to our aid to mitigate and defuse unreliable news, as for example happens thanks to projects such as Deephound or Reputation Manager.

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