For almost 25 years, newspapers have been shedding jobs and closing up shop. A 2012 study by the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California predicted that most medium-circulation US newspapers would be history within five years. While readers who have already moved over to digital news may not notice, watchdog groups and media critics worry about diminishing coverage of both local and international affairs, and what it means to abandon the comprehensive presentation of the day’s news in one authoritative package.
It can sometimes seem like what’s under threat is the standard model for how we find out what’s happening. But historian Andrew Pettegree of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland has written a new history of news that puts the dominance of newspapers in context. In fact, he says, the golden age when the newspaper was seen as the central and undisputed source for news actually occupied a fairly short 150-year window, from the late 18th century up to the advent of radio and television.
In “The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself” (Yale University Press), Pettegree shows how Europeans in the 15th through 19th centuries got news from a cacophony of sources: their friends and neighbors, government edicts, songs sung by itinerant performers, sermons, letters, and expensive manuscript newsletters. Even after newspapers became available, they weren’t universally embraced. It took technological change, urbanization, and a few big political events to cement the daily newspaper at the center of the news ecology.
Today, that’s shifting once again, as we move back toward a messy, rich media landscape like the earlier one Pettegree describes—which, for all our nostalgia for the newspaper age, may be something closer to the norm. To Pettegree, it’s time for a new view of history inspired by our times: “The first histories of news were written when the newspaper looked like it was the end of the story,” he says. “Now that we’re getting to a post-newspaper age, or at least an age in which the position of newspapers looks uncertain, the multimedia news world of the age before newspapers makes more sense to us again.”
Pettegree spoke to Ideas from his office in St. Andrews. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Via Chuck Sherwood, Senior Associate, TeleDimensions, Inc