Publick Occurrences 2.0

August 6, 2013

The Golden Age of Journalism (History)

Filed under: Joe Adelman's Posts,Journalism history,Media,Newspapers — Joseph M. Adelman @ 8:29 am

For all that American journalism seems to be careening at high speed away from its storied traditions and into the abyss—or the Wilds of the Web, take your pick—an awful lot of its innovations have a distinct historical flair.

Indeed, everything old is new again.

The purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is perhaps the more obvious parallel. Commenters around journalism have noted (in between fainting spells) that “Rich Capitalist Purchases Media Outlet” is a headline that harkens back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when wealthy families like the Ochs in New York, the McCormicks in Chicago, and yes, the Grahams in Washington owned major newspapers. At least everyone seems to hope that Bezos will act more like Adolph Ochs and less like Jay Gould, who in the 1870s and 1880s engineered a hostile takeover of the Western Union Telegraph Company, which also gave him an enormous comparative advantage through access to the New York Associated Press for his New York World newspaper.[1] But enough pixels have been spilled about Bezos and the Post in the past eighteen hours that the few I offer would not amount to much.

The second media innovation of the morning strikes me as equally if not more fascinating. Quartz, a business news website that is part of Atlantic Media, announced this morning that it has added paragraph-level commenting to its articles. These annotations (see below for a screen grab) allow a more finely tuned set of comments than traditional blogs and stories, like here at Publick Occurrences, where they all appear at the bottom. It’s a fascinating idea, whatever its originality, and I’ll be curious to see how it works for Quartz.[2]


When I saw the tweet, I immediately thought of Harbottle Dorr, the Boston shopkeeper who dutifully saved annotated his newspapers from 1765 to 1776, then bound and indexed them. Thankfully, so did the editors at Quartz, who included an image of an annotated issue of the Boston Gazette from 1770. There is, of course, one big difference between what Dorr did and what Quartz readers will now do: scale. Comments on an eighteenth-century newspaper could certainly be social as copies were passed around from reader to reader. In fact, by the early nineteenth century people used newspapers to send letters through the mail because of the favorable rates for periodicals over letters. So it’s not like the comments of Dorr and others were locked up from view. But Quartz can create conversations, tangents, etc. It’s a small innovation, to be sure.

Most of all, though, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the best “new” trends in journalism—from media ownership and aggregation to commenting policies—represent journalism coming full circle to its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century roots. Which makes it, for those of us who study media’s history, a fascinating time to watch and comment on present-day trends.


[1] On Gould and the Western Union takeover, see Richard John’s Network Nation (Harvard UP, 2010).

[2] I will also likely add this post as a comment to the history paragraph in the article, in order to maximize the feedback loop effect.



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