A Brief History of Journalism: How We Arrived to Where We Are

The Beginning of Journalism 

Journalism is the gathering, organizing, and distribution of news — to include feature stories and commentary — through the wide variety of print and non-print media outlets. It is not a recent phenomenon, by any means; the earliest reference to a journalistic product comes from Rome circa 59 B.C., when news was recorded in a circular called the Acta Diurna. It enjoyed daily publication and was hung strategically throughout the city for all to read, or for those who were able to read.

During the Tang dynasty, from 618 A.D. to 907 A.D., China prepared a court report, then named a bao, to distribute to government officials for the purpose of keeping them informed of relevant events. It continued afterward in a variety of forms and names until the end of 1911, and the demise of the Qing dynasty. However, the first indication of a regular news publication can be traced to Germany, 1609, and the initial paper published in the English language (albeit “old English”) was the newspaper known as the Weekly Newes from 1622. The Daily Courant, however, first appearing in 1702, was the first daily paper for public consumption.

It should come as no surprise that these earliest forays into keeping the public informed were met with government opposition in many cases. They attempted to impose censorship by placing restrictions and taxes on publishers as a way to curb freedom of the press. But literacy among the population, as a whole, was growing and because of this, along with the introduction of technology that improved printing and circulation, newspaper publications saw their numbers explode; and even though there remain pockets of news censorship around the world today, for the most part, journalistic freedom reigns.

Time passed, and the cost of news gathering increased dramatically, as publications attempted to keep pace with what seemed to be a growing and insatiable appetite for printed news. Slowly, news agencies formed to take the place of independent publishers. They would hire people to gather and write news reports, and then sell these stories to a variety of individual news outlets. However, the print media was soon about to come head-to-head with an entirely new form of news gathering — first, with the invention of the telegraph, then quickly followed by the radio, the television, and mass broadcasting. It was an evolution of technology that seemed all but inevitable.

Non-print media changed the dynamics of news gathering and reporting altogether. It sped up all aspects of the process, making the news, itself, more timely and relevant. Soon, technology became an integral part of journalism, even if the ultimate product was in print form. Today, satellites that transmit information from one side of the globe to another in seconds, and the Internet, as well, place breaking news in the hands of almost every person in the world at the same time. This has created a new model of journalism once again, and one that will likely be the standard for the future.

The Rise of Journalism in the United States

Not everyone was enamored with news reporting. When the earliest colonies were settling into life on this continent, there were many influential leaders that spoke with disdain about the press. One such person was Governor William Berkeley of Virginia who, in 1671, claimed, “I thank God, there are no free schools, nor printing, and I hope we shall not have, these hundred years, for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.” That is not a comment one would expect to hear in the United States today. But this was spoken at a time before technology had altered publication, and the purpose of most municipalities and their leaders was to see to it that people conformed.

Recent History of Journalism

Journalism of the 20th century and this first decade and a half of the 21st century. There is no question that the professionalism of this industry has grown immensely since the days of yellow journalism. There are several factors that are credited with this, including the fact that journalism became a recognized area of study at the university level, giving it a sense of importance missing prior to this. As well, there was an increasing body of knowledge on all aspects of the field of journalism, laying bare its flaws for others to examine, and explaining the techniques of mass communication from a social and psychological viewpoint. At the same time, social responsibility became the hallmark of journalism and journalists themselves elevated the profession through the creation of professional organizations. “A free and responsible press” is the battle cry of the journalist today, as ethics and standards are an important consideration of all who enter the profession.

The news has been changing with the introduction of new technologies. Even with the introduction of radio, and later, television, newspapers remained the most trusted source of information for most Americans, who only supplemented them with non-print media information. That is not so today. Non-print media dominate news acquisition by the public, and it has become more influential than could have been suspected in its infancy. Americans, and others, turn to non-print media to get sound bites of what is happening globally. Newspapers that put time, effort, reflection, and sweat and blood into the process of news gathering and reporting still aim to provide an in-depth look at events. The question becomes, who wants to take the time to ponder the world at the level that newspapers challenge the reader to ascribe to? The term “news,” itself, has taken on new meaning. There is hard news, celebrity news, breaking news, and other categories that have altered journalism from its beginnings.

However, even as the world continues to change, there is an ongoing need for the printed word, even if it is delivered electronically, instead of on paper. That should be some comfort to journalists, for indeed, there is hope that there will always be the need for a free and honest press.