Blogs and the 18C press

John Brewer’s A Sentimental Murder describes the way newspapers were run in the 1770s, the decade when the murder that forms the book’s subject took place (it happened in 1779 to be exact). Brewer is writing about the way the story of the murder got written up in the press, the way some of the principle people involved did their best to shape the way the story was told, and the way the story itself shifted over time. Brewer’s description of the state of the newspaper business is quite fascinating:

Since the accession of George III in 1760 the rapid expansion of the press had produced a new kind of newspaper, more opinionated than ever before, fuller of comment and criticism, yet not governed by what today we would consider the professional protocols of impartial reporting and editorial control.

He goes on to describe how, because of a change in the price of paper, it became cheaper to make papers larger and longer, and so newspaper printers desperately needed content to fill those pages. Some of that writing came from very unprofessional (by our standards) part-time news-gatherers, but a lot of it came directly from the public.

This is what strikes me as so interesting — that regular people could easily get themselves published in the newspapers of the day:

This informal process of news-gathering supposed a very different relationship between the press and its readers than the print media have today. Those who read the papers — a broadly based group that extended well beyond the aristocracy, even if it did not include a great many of the poor — were also those who wrote them. The newspaper was not an authoritative organ, written by professionals to offer objective information to the public, but a place where public rumour, news, and intelligence could circulate as if it were printed conversation.

Doesn’t this sound a bit like what happens on blogs? Now let me be clear that I appreciate having professional journalists and our modern editorial apparatus (flawed as it often can be). Brewer talks a lot about the way this openness meant that news could be manipulated and could lead to a “climate of scandal and sensation.” Blogs can and do foster this kind of climate too, of course.

But I’m intrigued at the openness of this system, where many people could have a voice and could see themselves in print. It seems to me that when things are working right, we can get the best of both worlds — a professional press producing reliable newspapers and an open internet where anybody can have a voice. Okay, that’s a very idealistic view of things, I know. But I like the idea of a press or a blogosphere where we can all participate in keeping the “printed conversation” going.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

8 responses to “Blogs and the 18C press

  1. Oh, this is very interesting. I love how things like this are so cyclical. And it’s funny and frustrating how we are always surprised by it.


  2. I think this sounds like a really interesting book and I am looking forward to your posts on it. I had heard that newspapers started out very differently than they are today–that the general public actually submitted news items (at least this is how I am remembering what I read–I hope I am close to being correct). I wouldn’t mind studying the history of newspapers a bit–i suspect they have a colorful and varied history!


  3. I would love to see a newspaper that modelled itself on the blogosphere – accepting submissions, approved but unedited, from an infinite number of writers, perhaps printing the back-and-forth conversations and controversies that dog the online world. A paper that would respond to its readers because its readers were its writers. I mean, I know that there is no need for one – after all, blogs are doing it now and better – but still…wouldn’t it be great to see that kind of free-spirited media placed directly under the public gaze? It would be wonderful to see blogs ‘made flesh’ and turned into something tangible.


  4. Ted

    Great comparison! This is most intriguing…


  5. LK

    Wonderful! Sounds like a very interesting book…


  6. Yeah, Stefanie, that’s it — that we are always thinking what we are experiencing is new, and it’s usually not.

    Danielle, you’re right that newspapers started out much differently — without the attempts at objectivity and with a much more open policy on readerly involvement. Yeah, regular people did submit news items. Also, this meant politicians and others could try to shape the news to suit them. I agree, the history of newspapers is fascinating!

    Victoria, interesting idea — on a practical note, I read better when I read on paper, so I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing a blog-like model in a newspaper. I do wonder how such a thing would work out.

    Ted and LK — thanks, and it IS a very interesting book …


  7. This really does sound like an information-packed book! I’m very interested in the story of the book as well. Back in the 19th century, people went to libraries to read, where the books were attached by string to the desk. Then hawkers would carry big bags of books around the towns and villages, and people could stop them and make a purchase. I’m sure there’s something very interesting to be said about the way that words are always pushing to increase their circulation!


  8. Yes indeed, circulating words and books are fascinating, aren’t they! And I like how you put it, that it’s the words themselves that are pushing to be circulated.


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