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he Birth of the American Newspaper

It has been said that the true newspaper must meet these qualifications: (1) it must be published at least once a week; (2) it must be produced by mechanical means (to distinguish it from handwritten "news letters"); (3) it must be available to anyone willing to pay the price, regardless of class or special interest; (4) it must print anything of interest to a general public, as contrasted with some of the religious and business publications; (5) it must have an appeal to a public of ordinary literary skill; (6) it must be timely, or at least relatively so, in the light of technical development; and (7) it must have stability, as contrasted to the fly-by-night publications of more primitive times.
-Emery and Smith, 1954

Before the printing press or printing plates hand

written pamphlets were the means for communicating anything

over a distance of land or sea. Documentation, for those

who were literate, played major roles in politics long

before today’s modern Sunday Advertisers. In 1566, the

Venetian Magistracy ordered accounts of the war in Dalmatia

to be read and posted in public places. Persons interested

in this news paid a small coin, called a gazetta, for the

privilege of obtaining it. As far back as 69 BC, news sheets

known as Acta Diurna were posted in public places in Rome

(Emery and Smith, 1954)."

It might be said that the newspaper was the most

significant contribution of the printing press. Johann

Gutenberg introduced movable type around 1440. Not until it

had been perfected was it possible to produce literature

and printed reports cheap enough to reach the masses. The

revolution was not as much in the medium as in the

audience. With publication of this type, there was some

incentive for gathering and processing information of

interest to the general public- news (Emery and Smith,

1954). News became a commodity, like food and merchandise,

produced for profit to meet a demand. Newspapers didn't

create news; news created newspapers (Emery and Smith,


David Copeland claims that the American newspaper was

"quietly" born on September 25, 1690. On this day,

"Publick Occurrence Both Foreign and Domestic" was printed

in Boston by Benjamin Harris. The young nation's first

newspaper promised to provide "an account of such

considerable things as have arrived unto our Notion

(Copeland, 1997). Needless to say, the young paper did not

make a second edition due to the fact that the governor

found the pamphlet contained “reflections of a very high

nature” and ordered its suppression” (Lee, 1924).

America's next chance at a newspaper was started by

John Campbell. The Boston News-Letter began on April 24,

1704, 84 years after the establishment of the first colony

in that area. One of its main reasons for success was the

fact that Campbell printed his newspaper "with Authority

of the Massachusetts government” (Copeland, 1997). Before

he began printing, Campbell, Boston's postmaster, sent

handwritten letters to the governors of each colony.

Campbell having secured the governments approval made his

paper a success when he began mass distribution.

Once his printing got underway, the News-Letter was printed

on both sides of a sheet; slightly larger than a sheet of

typewriter paper. Campbell never had enough subscribers to

make his venture profitable. His circulation seldom

exceeded three hundred (Emery and Smith, 1954). The Boston

News-Letter printed until 1776.

From 1704 until December 1719, the News-Letter was the

only colonial newspaper (Copeland, 1997). On December 21,

James Franklin printed the first Boston Gazette. The next

day, Andrew Bradford began the American Weekly Mercury in

Philadelphia. Andrew was the local postmaster and son of

William Bradford, who was to be the publisher of the first

newspaper in New York. The elder Bradford started The New

York Gazette on November 8, 1725 (Lee, 1923). Within a

decade, five other newspapers were initiated in the


The newspapers of colonial America were an outgrowth

of London newspapers and there predecessors, the

newsletters. The content of the colonial newspapers were

obtained from English newspapers and magazines brought to

America. Ships arrived after weeks at sea, and printers

sought out captains, crew members, and passengers for the

latest "advices" from Europe (Copeland, 1997).

The news printed in the colonial newspapers were not

original in content. The “news” was not new at all. In

fact, it was several months behind the current events in

Europe. The papers also largely had nothing to with the

“news” of the colonies. People where still hanging on to

the events of Europe that had no direct affect on them in

the new nation. Eventually the colonist came to the

realization they needed to be aware of situations in their

surroundings and not abroad. Benjamin Franklin was the

first to begin to print news and information about the

colonies themselves and not exclusively in Europe. If one

was to ask who set the palette for today’s newspapers, the

answer would definitely be Benjamin Franklin.


Copeland, David. Colonial American Newspapers. University

Of Delaware Press, Inc. Newark, Delaware. 1997.

Emery, Edwin, and Henry Ladd Smith. The Press and America.

Prentice Hall, Inc. New York, New York. 1954.

Lee, James Melvin. History of American Journalism. The

Garden City Publishing Co., Inc. Garden City, New

York. 1923.