In the beginning, of course, there was the printing press. It arrived in England in 1476, more than a century before journalism took any recognizable shape in that country. What news did get printed in the first century of English printing was largely produced at the government’s behest as propaganda, or confined narrowly to noteworthy oddities or tragedies that did not impinge on state interests.
The outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 was the key spur to an explosive period of growth in English journalism. By December 1620, “corantos” (single folio sheets) of news about the wars in Europe, printed in English, were making their way across the English Channel from Holland. At first, King James I banned corantos. But public demand for them was intense, and the government’s desire to control and domesticate the news of fierce sectarian wars pouring in from abroad proved irresistible. In less than a year after the corantos arrived, a publisher named Nathaniel Butter received royal permission to translate and publish news into English.
Ben Jonson, the Renaissance dramatist and poet, detested the suddenly burgeoning news industry of his day and let fly in 1626 with The Staple of News, a virulent slap down of newspapers written so that “the age may see her own folly, or hunger and thirst after published pamphlets of news, set out every Saturday but made all at home, and no syllable of truth in them: than which there cannot be a greater disease in nature, or a fouler scorn put upon the times.” It was Butter’s operation that Jonson satirized so mercilessly, and the reader gets a sense of Butter’s sensibility from a fantastical pamphlet that he printed shortly before securing a royal monopoly. “Good Newes from Christendome”–a purported translation from the Italian–relates news of a vision above “the supposed Tombe of Mahomet” that signaled the conversion of all Muslims to Christianity. And as a bonus, the pamphlet tossed in accounts of “the miraculous rayning of Bloud about Rome.”
The Staple of News is not one of Jonson’s best works, and his lampoon of the newfangled journalism of his era lacks the bite of his attack on charlatans peddling the Philosopher’s Stone and their gullible believers in The Alchemist (1610). But his savage complaints about a profession riddled with falsehoods, errors and biases, as well as being a virtual slave to vulgar commerce, pluck strikingly familiar chords. As dwindling readership, crippling layoffs and shrinking news holes ravage the industry more savagely than any mere criticism, today’s journalists may count themselves lucky that Jonson is no longer around to pile on. But if the prognosis for print journalism is as grim as that of alchemy, are there lessons for its survival or renewal to be learned from a backward glance at its earliest days?
An exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC–“Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper” (through January 31)–argues that question in the affirmative. The public appetite for news is insatiable, its creators assert, and the exhibit traces the profession that has satisfied that need from the gossipy manuscript letters passed from hand to hand in the late sixteenth century to the press’s emergence as an economically viable force in politics and culture in the early eighteenth century. The exhibit’s curators, Chris Kyle (a historian at Syracuse University) and Jason Peacey (a historian at University College, London), delight in making the more immediate connections between past and present. The 1613 pamphlet “The Wonders of This Windie Winter” is an early example of today’s disaster journalism. And then there are the seventeenth-century entries in the true-crime genre: pamphlets describing deaths, “great and bloudy” murders or “barbarous and most cruell” beheadings, illustrated by rough woodcuts of the mayhem. But Kyle and Peacey also tease out larger issues lurking in the mass of early journalism they have culled from the Folger’s holdings. In doing so, they provide a useful history of a complex interplay between government and the press at the industry’s birth, and a valuable window into how journalism coped with (and survived) its early encounters with roadblocks and with transformative change.