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.