A Call for an International History of Journalism

Mitchell Stephens

American Journalism

There is, to be blunt about it, no such thing as a history of American journalism. The development of American journalism was influenced – if not transformed, if not determined – in every period by developments outside of America. To pretend otherwise, as we too often do in our courses and our writings, is to distort history. American journalism did not, in any sense, develop alone.

This fact about journalism history does not have to be understood historically. It is plain enough in our own era. In what country today do the media evolve in isolation?

The United States may currently be the major source of forms of communication that wander across borders. However, the United States is certainly not immune to having its own borders transgressed. People – Rupert Murdoch and Tina Brown are examples – have brought strategies here from elsewhere. Corporations – Bertelsmann, Murdoch’s News Corporation – have made significant incursions. Ideas are borrowed from foreign publications, foreign television shows, foreign Web sites. Would, to pick a notable example, NPR be possible without the BBC or CBC?

It was, of course, ever thus. Indeed, this point would have been as obvious to American journalists in earlier centuries as it now is to journalists elsewhere in the world, who feel the influence of CNN or Newsweek. For America then was much more the recipient than the source of ideas.

My favorite example currently hangs on my living room wall. I purchased it for a couple of hundred dollars a few years ago. It is a small and not particularly rare newspaper called Domestick Intelligence, Or News both from City and Country and published in London on August 5, 1679. This newspaper was of significance in England at the time, both for its emphasis upon local news and its precocious sensationalism. (My copy includes a story about a man who was stabbed in a bar fight.)

However, my interest in Domestick Intelligence derives primarily from its publisher. The name printed at the bottom of the second and last page is "Benjamin Harris." In other words, this newspaper was published by the man who would, eleven years later, publish America’s first newspaper. That newspaper, Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, looked quite a bit like its older brother on my wall. It can best be understood, as can its publisher, as a product of late-seventeenth-century London journalism.

And this is hardly the only evidence of the absurdity of delaying the start of the history of journalism, as we too often do, until 1690, when a newspaper first appears in England’s American colonies. As Félix Gutiérrez has reported, a news publication, though not a periodical, had been printed in Mexico City in 1541. (This too, of course, was the younger sibling of much older European newsbooks.)

The word that probably appeared most in the titles of early colonial newspapers was "gazette." Boston’s first newspaper was the Boston Gazette; New York’s first, the New York Gazette; Maryland’s first, the Maryland Gazette; and Benjamin Franklin took over and made a success of the Pennsylvania Gazette. This too, of course, was a borrowing from Europe. The most influential newspaper in France in the seventeenth century was the Gazette de France. The most influential newspaper in England in that century was the London Gazette.

Indeed, this is a word that turns up over and over again throughout the history of the newspaper. Russians actually call their newspapers "gazeta." The word can be traced back to handwritten newssheets – sometimes known as gazzette – distributed weekly, as I have shown in my book A History of News, in Venice as early as 1566.

Venice in the mid-sixteenth century is, consequently, one place a history of journalism, at least newspaper journalism, might begin. I believe a genetic examination of every newspaper in America, along with every newspaper published anywhere in the world today, would turn up some DNA that can be traced back to these handwritten weeklies.

The content of American newspapers in the colonial period and beyond consisted primarily, as we know, of items taken from European newspapers. To be an American newspaper printer in 1760 in a port city, consequently, required pouring through as many English, French and other foreign newspapers as it was possible get off the ships. Those papers were generally more advanced in reporting methods, in typography, in design and in writing style than American newspapers. They remained so into the nineteenth century. Our editors, consequently, borrowed more than stories from them. European newspapers provided the forms from which American journalism was cast – and recast.

Consider just the most obvious contributions from just one country: England. London had a "penny press" before New York had a "penny press." Reporting developed in London many decades before it came to America. ("To report" was a British term for taking shorthand, and the first regular American "beat" – police court – was inspired, in part, by police court coverage in London.) America’s tabloids were unabashedly based on London’s tabloids. (The term itself was borrowed from the British pharmaceutical industry.) And a late-twentieth-century wave of tabloid journalism in the United States might arguably be traced to the purchase of the New York Post by an Australian who had mastered the art form in London.

Given the extent of European influence upon the American press it is certainly not surprising that the three men who might reasonably be labeled the most creative forces in American journalism were all men who had an opportunity to look at European newspapers before they were loaded onto ships. Two – James Gordon Bennett Sr. and Joseph Pulitzer – were, as were so many great American journalists, immigrants to this country. The third, Benjamin Franklin, spent formative years in England.

To attempt to separate the history of American journalism from developments overseas seems, therefore, as foolish as attempting to separate the history of journalism in Ohio or Kansas from what was happening in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Yet we do – over and over again. There are relatively few American journalism historians who are familiar with the history of English or French or German or even Mexican journalism. A kind of ignorance – which would not be tolerated in literature departments, in theater departments, in art departments, in science departments – is routinely accepted in journalism departments. American journalism history is dangerously and unflaggingly parochial.

However, in this too, although we may be the worst offenders, we are not alone. I have met Dutch and French journalism historians who know an awful lot about the history of, for example, English journalism, but not more than a handful of them. Most English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Japanese or Italian journalism historians are specialists only in the history of journalism in their own countries.

As a result, we have a lot of local journalism histories that underplay or ignore the countless notions that drifted across borders in what has always been a cosmopolitan business. As a result, countless potentially instructive parallels remain unexplored. As a result, many of the major stories in this history – stories that are inescapably multi-national – remain untold.

The development of the direct ancestors of the newspaper in early-modern Europe – before and after the Venetian gazettes – is an example. I have done some (primitive) work in this area. There is much more to do. But it is research that will require comparison of early news publications in Italy, Germany, Belgium and Holland, at the very least.

The printed newspaper is at the heart of all of our journalism histories. German researchers recently found evidence that one of what we had thought of as the two earliest European printed newspapers, Johann Carolus’s Strasbourg weekly, had actually begun publication four years earlier – in 1605. In some fields this is news that would instantly race around the world. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes decades to find its way into journalism history textbooks in the United States and elsewhere outside of Germany.

Our narrowly nationalistic journalism histories, in other words, not only obscure crucial connections and lineages and ignore telling comparisons, they leave us unable to approach fundamental questions. We must internationalize our conferences, our journals, our graduate programs and our research. Journalism has never been held back by borders. It is time for journalism historians to begin crossing them.