Highlights of Journalism:

Inventing Reporting

MessaGe 1/2000

Mitchell Stephens

Reporting would not seem to have required inventing. Humans, after all, have always been good at finding out what was going on around them. They have always known where to go, whom to talk to, to get the latest news.

Yet those who worked for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century newspapers were, with remarkably few exceptions, unprepared or unwilling to perform what we would see as the most basic journalistic task: pursuing a story. Instead they waited, mostly in their print shops, for news to come to them.

The first issue of the first newspaper published in English (but printed in Amsterdam) in 1620 begins with an apology: "The new tydings out of Italie are not yet com." There is no evidence that those who produced such newspapers were prepared to seek out "tydings" on their own. Instead, their promises to their readers were often qualified with the phrase: "if the Post faile us not." If the winds were blowing the wrong way, if the roads were washed out, if the post did fail, then that week's newspaper likely would contain a spate of hastily composed essays. "No mail yesterday," wrote the Orleans Gazette as late as 1805, "We hardly know what we shall fill our paper with that will have the appearance of news."

What news there was often arrived by a roundabout route, as in this item from a New York newspaper in 1778: "The Hartford Post, tell us, That he saw a Gentleman in Springfield, who informed him that he…saw a Letter from an Officer in Gen. Howe's Army to another in Gen. Burgoyne's giving him to understand, WAR was declared on the sides of France and Spain against the MIGHTY Kingdom of Britain." This not unimportant piece of news for the Americans, who were currently fighting Britain, had actually been lifted, as so much news was, from another paper - a month old Boston newspaper. And, as so much news at the time did, it had an additional weakness: it was untrue. Such was life without reporting.

Nothing did more to change this than the attempt to cover the British Parliament in London in the late eighteenth century. And, therefore, nothing contributed as much to the development of the energetically, some might even say too energetically, reported upon world we live in today.

Printers had suppressed their normal human newsgathering instinct in part because they hadn't the time to leave their shops: Churning out a few thousand copies of a sheet was a time consuming business. They also failed to go out in search of news in part because they didn't need to: In an entertainment-scarce world even those hastily composed essays would be enough to engage most readers. And they failed to compete for the latest local news in part because they weren't able to: Everyone would have heard about a local fire or crime well before the newspaper finally arrived. Best, therefore, to wait for the "new tydings out of Italie" or to rely upon "the Hartford Post."

But in London and other large European cities in the eighteenth century these factors began to change. Newspapers became big enough businesses to allow for staffs: someone to mind the presses, someone else to set about filling the paper. Competition picked up: If the Post-Boy had a story earlier than the Post-Man, if the Flying Post had more details than the Evening Post (all London newspapers in the early 1700s) then they might sell more copies. And these cities grew large enough so that a newspaper, particularly a daily newspaper, could compete with word of mouth on events that happened in town.

The biggest ongoing story in London was of course the Parliament. The British Parliament, like most such bodies, had been fairly successful in keeping its deliberations secret from nonmembers (particularly that most powerful of nonmembers, the monarch). But interest in parliamentary debates ran high, and by 1770 London newspapers were tentatively printing accounts of the debates under purposely ambiguous headings, such as "A Great Assembly." The House of Commons tried to crack down on these violations of its privacy. In the increasingly liberal British climate, it failed. No one was thrown in jail. A new age of more open politics began - in England at least. A new age of political journalism began. So did a new age of reporting.

By 1774 at least seven London newspapers were sending journalists to observe parliamentary debates. These journalists became perhaps the first group to regularly cover an important beat, the first press corps. They operated, however, under a significant handicap. No note taking was permitted in the gallery.

The world's first press corps, therefore, had to sit through these debates - they might run as long as twelve hours - and then recreate them for their newspapers. Hence, the nickname of the most renowned of these first parliamentary reporters: William "Memory" Woodfall. How good a job of recreating the speeches did Woodfall and the others do? This comment by one member of Parliament on an account of a speech he had given is revealing: "Why, to be sure, there are in that report a few things which I did say, but many things which I am glad I did not say, and some things which I wish I could have said."

Competition produced innovation. One editor began to steal readers from Woodfall's paper by sending a series of young men up to the gallery in short shifts. Then, in 1783, journalists were allowed to take notes while watching Parliament. This changed the game. Knowledge of shorthand, rather than a prodigious memory, became the main qualification for the job. In fact, to say someone knew how "to report" in England or the United States at the end of the eighteenth century meant that they knew how to take shorthand. (John Dickens and, later, his son Charles were among those who would use shorthand to report on Parliament.)

These "reporters" soon took their enterprise, if not always stenographic ability, to other corners of society. There were reporters at sensational London trials, a London reporter in Paris during the Revolution, reporters witnessing battles in the Napoleonic Wars and a reporter from the London Times in the middle of the radical rally that became a police massacre known as Peterloo in 1819.

That human ability to find out what was going on had finally been combined with the great power of the printing press. The news, now often witnessed first hand, grew more accurate. Politicians, judges, soldiers were suddenly under observation. Injustices were exposed. The world would never again look the same.