Daniel Defoe and the Invention of News
In 1704 the English writer Daniel Defoe embarked on the publication of a political journal: the Weekly Review of the Affairs of France. This was not yet the Defoe made famous by his great novel Robinson Crusoe; he would discover his vocation as a novelist only late in life. Up to this point Defoe had tried his hand at many things, and often failed. The Review (as it soon became) was the latest of many attempts to find a way to make money. This time it worked. Within a few months Defoe’s publication had found its new form, as a serial issued two or three times a week, consisting largely of a single essay on an item of topical interest.
Defoe was lucky. He had launched the Review at a time when the reading public was expanding rapidly, along with a market for current affairs. Naturally Defoe made the most of it. When, in an essay in 1712, he turned his mind to this buoyant market for news publishing, he did not hold back. The present times, wrote Defoe, had seen a media explosion. He recalled a time, even in his own lifetime, when there had been no such torrent of newspapers, state papers and political writing. The rage for news was transforming society, and Defoe was happy to be in the thick of it.
Defoe was not the only one to remark the current passion for news, and the rancorous tone of political debate that seemed to come with it. But if he truly thought this was new he was very much mistaken. The conflicts of the English Civil War over sixty years previously had stimulated a torrent of pamphlets, news reports and abusive political treatises. The first continental newspapers were established forty years before that. Long before Defoe, and even before the creation of the newspapers, the appetite for news was proverbial. “How now, what news?” was a common English greeting, frequently evoked on the London stage. Travellers could buy phrase books that offered the necessary vocabulary, so they too could join the conversation: “What news have you? How goeth all in this city? What news have they in Spain?”
If there was a time when news first became a commercial commodity, it occurred not in Defoe’s London, or even with the invention of the newspaper, but much earlier: in the eighty years between 1450 and 1530 following the invention of printing. During this period of technological innovation, publishers began to experiment with new types of books, far shorter and cheaper than the theological and scholarly texts that had dominated the market in manuscripts. These pamphlets and broadsheets created the opportunity to turn the existing appetite for news into a mass market. News could become, for the first time, a part of popular culture.
The Invention of News copyright © 2014 Yale University Press
Andrew Pettegree is professor of modern history, University of St. Andrews, and founding director of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute.