current affairs media

A history of the news

This is a post that I began writing five years ago. I write more posts than I publish, and this one went in the drafts folder. I revisited it a couple of times and thought there was something there, but it felt a little off topic, and I didn’t know how to conclude it. When I read it over earlier this year, I decided it was too long to post anyway – more of an essay than a blog post.

But this week I was reminded of it again. If you have the patience for a longer read, I hope you will find this worthwhile:

I recently fired up a certain online news outlet that shall remain nameless, to look up the results of an announcement that was due that afternoon. I clicked on a prominent headline promising what I was looking for, but it wasn’t a news article. It was a live blog following the announcement, which had yet to be made. It was due any minute, and not only would we be the first to know, the site would also bring us ‘instant reax’ from the experts.

The phrase ‘instant reactions’ is itself not instant enough, apparently.

No doubt the site had a gallery of interesting people ready to give their first impressions, I didn’t stick around to find out. I’m not sure that instant reactions are that valuable anyway. I’d rather hear a considered opinion.

The idea of ‘news’ is changing and accelerating, but then it always has. ‘News’ is not a fixed concept, and from the start, it has been linked to technology.

In the past, there was no news – there were tidings. It’s a word most likely derived from the old Icelandic word tidhendi, for occurrences or events. Tide means ‘to happen’, as in woe betide – bad things will happen. To bring tidings is to share an account of something that has happened, and the word doesn’t necessarily imply that the events are recent. It was used of historical accounts, and as a greeting, wishing happy occurrences for someone. Tidings were relational, brought by visitors and travelers. There were still official ‘news sources’  – heralds and town criers, people tasked with conveying events and proclamations – but news was still something that was passed from person to person.

Throughout the medieval era, ‘new’ was an adjective. ‘News’ didn’t appear in the written English language until the Wycliffe Bible, which in 1382 used it in the plural to describe ‘new things’. Around a hundred years later ‘news’ was in use as a noun in its own right, meaning the latest events.

The idea of news as a saleable commodity took a little longer. Gutenberg invented his lead type and printing press in 1440, but printing was labour intensive and reserved for important books. As printing spread it became cheaper, and that made it more accessible. More topical material began to appear in print, political theses, propaganda, pamphlets on current issues or seditious theology. News services began to appear. In Venice, a single sheet weekly news update cost one Gazetta, and gave us the term gazette. Elsewhere, news was printed on a poster-sized sheet of paper and posted for public reading, giving us the broadsheet.

Newspapers as they are currently known really began to take off in Holland in the 17th century. It was the golden age, the time of the Dutch masters, scientists and explorers, and the intelligentsia of Amsterdam and Rotterdam kept up with the latest ideas through gazettes and news sheets. By 1670 the word ‘newspaper’ was coined.

At this point, literacy was not widespread, and it took a change in printing technology to bring newspapers to the masses. A German printed named Friedrich Koenig was the first to mechanise printing, and he sold two of his steam powered presses to The Times, making it the first newspaper for mass distribution. The rotary press improved things again by printing on both sides of the paper and rattling off over a thousand copies a minute. The price of the news dropped within reach of ordinary people.

Once newspapers were affordable for everyone, there was no stopping them. They localised, diversified, adopted specific political angles. The 1880 census in the US counts a grand 11,314 different newspapers operating around the country. The next 50 years were the age of the newspaper.

By the 1920s, they had a new challenger in the form of radio. The first radio news broadcast is claimed by Station 8MK in Detroit, when they announced that Warren G Harding had won the 1920 presidential election. In Britain it was 1922, when a group of radio manufacturers set up the BBC with an initial staff of four.

The advantages of the radio as a news source are obvious – it is instant, rather than waiting for publication. It is free, once the initial outlay of the radio itself is paid for. Live broadcasting invites the listener to experience events as if they were there. It allows politicians and broadcasters to connect more personally with their audiences. Literacy is not required, and neither is the time taken to read. You can do other things while listening to the radio. (Although people initially didn’t, gathering around it to listen in as a form of entertainment in itself – mainly because radios were more items of furniture than appliances.)

Interestingly, the first radio news broadcasts were compiled by newspaper journalists and given to the station. In Britain, the newspapers considered radio a threat, and negotiated a ban on daytime news. The seven o’clock bulletin was actually considered to be more or less an advert for the newspapers, encouraging people to go and buy it in the morning to get the details. The ban on daytime news lasted until 1926, when BBC radio started running five bulletins a day during the crisis of a national strike. Once news was regular, the newspapers had lost their monopoly on breaking news.

Televised news entered the cinemas first, with newsreels played as part of the entertainment. In Britain it debuted in 1948 on the BBC, but it was still considered entertainment first and foremost – the BBC’s well respected news department was not initially involved, and stayed focused on the radio. It wasn’t until the arrival of ITN in 1955 and some competition from commercial TV that the BBC got to grips with proper television news.

TV promised to let people ‘see the news’, and this became an increasingly compelling offer as cameras improved, and outside broadcasting and live feeds became possible. It forced the newspapers to include more visual content, using more photos and higher-impact headlines, and eventually moving into colour. Politicians began to understand the importance of their image, and learned how to same things in soundbites. The nature of news changed again.

I studied journalism at the beginning of another major transition. The internet was booming as more ordinary people were getting broadband subscriptions. It was rapidly becoming clear that the future of journalism was online, and that the way we access news was changing. “Every story read online can be read in many ways, and entirely as the reader wishes ” wrote my tutor in his textbook Journalism in the digital age. “The links are built on association of ideas, which is a very different approach to the way traditional journalism is compiled, logically and analytically.”

Web 2.0 complicated matters even more, as more and more people began to create their own media platforms. The news was democratized as blogs and forums became sources of news. Then came social media, giving us eyewitness accounts from amateurs, an endlessly breaking wave of citizen news both significant and insignificant. As well as the events themselves, we can read the mass response to current affairs on a minute by minute basis. It’s a level of immediacy that was impossible before – but at the expense of accuracy, and often of responsibility. We started to get more of our news from each other. Two thirds of Americans say that family and friends are an important way that they get news. 44% of Americans get news from Facebook.

In some ways this brings us full circle, with echoes of those ancient tidings and news passed from person to person. But it’s faster, and it’s global in scope. The more formal news outlets remain important of course – often what we’re passing around is a link to a news story or a headline. The media does still mediate the news, but their role is diminished. The mediators are also less obvious. Facebook has algorithms designed to show us things we will like, so our feeds are filtering out opinions that will challenge us, depriving us of alternative views.

News is accelerating, diversifying and de-professionalising. It comes at us without the discipline of an editor or a fact-checker, favouring instant updates over considered explanation. Balanced packaged bulletins put together by experts have given way to a rolling collective consciousness, a twitchy and fickle conversation that shapeshifts like a flock of starlings at twilight. One moment we’re talking about police shootings, the next about planned changes to the shape of a chocolate bar. Truth and rumour are indistinguishable, and what’s current wins out over what’s important.

When I first read that phrase ‘instant reax’ in 2011, I couldn’t quite collect my thoughts on the subject and articulate where I thought this changing new landscape might take us. The events of 2016 have answered those questions.

Where does that leave us? I think it’s more important than ever to live as people of integrity ourselves, to resist repeating things we can’t verify. We can be aware of the echo chamber of online discourse, and access the news more deliberately. We can ask more questions, keep an open mind, and listen more than we speak. We can do our best to be constructive, to find solutions. To use an old fashioned word, we can seek wisdom.


  1. All very true, so how do we get people to change their behaviour? Clearly, instant ‘news’ from friends and relations is more attractive that well-considered wisdom from professionals.

  2. My father put a poster on the kitchen wall ‘Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent’. If memory serves me well it was a quote from Dionysius, the elder.

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