What’s Newsworthy?

This week the following image came to my attention. It is fair, succinct and funny.   The historian of news, or of journalism, may quibble with the attribution of 1456 as the birthdate of printed news – the invention of the moveable type printing press and the advent of newsprint are not the same thing – but we tend to accept without complaint ‘press’ as a metonym for news.

The concept of news is in some sense as old as the idea of human community.  This is scarcely relevant to the joke, whose point is about standards of what is considered newsworthy, but the arbitrary selection of a date to satisfy the joke’s formal requirements might provoke some reflections.  If news as a concept or a cultural force has no readily identifiable origin, what about the idea of the newsworthy? After all, any news-writer or -teller is applying some criteria of selection to the news he or she chooses to deliver: this (within the constraints of time/space/ideology/propriety/law) is worthy of your attention, that is not.  Is it possible to trace the conceptual history of newsworthiness back into the early modern period?

In one sense, the matter is easy: what was considered newsworthy was what got published.  In another it’s more elusive, since newsworthiness is a matter of the consumer’s taste as well as the producer’s ethics and practices.  The word itself is of surprisingly recent vintage – OED’s first recorded use is from the 1930s.  An earlier articulation of the same idea, the New York Times‘s “All the news that’s fit to print” slogan, entangles the history of newsworthiness in the social and class constructs of the late 19th century, to say nothing of the commercial rivalries of American tycoons (the phrase was conceived as a swipe at the sensationalism and prurience of the Hearst newspapers.)

In certain aspects of early modern news culture, such as the manuscript newsletter or the gathering of diplomatic intelligence, the subject matter of news is presumed to be more narrowly reflective of the known interests of its audience than is the case with print news, and the criteria for inclusion thus correspondingly easier to discern.  Even where we can see a principle of discrimination at work, however, it isn’t always clear that the distinctions enforced necessarily imply a hierarchy of news.  Take the 18th-century Parisian example (supplied by Robert Darnton) of Mme Doublet , at whose house a coterie of informed people gathered to share and, more, to establish the news: “When [the guests, known as ‘parishioners’] entered the salon, they reportedly found two large registers on a desk near the door. One contained news reputed to be reliable, the other, gossip. Together, they constituted the menu for the day’s discussion, which was prepared by one of Mme. Doublet’s servants, who may qualify as the first “reporter” in the history of France.”[1]  The division into fact and gossip does not imply a distaste for the latter; quite the reverse, or why was the gossip recorded separately instead of discarded?

Darnton’s subsequent investigation of the circulation of information (news and gossip) in print, manuscript and by word of mouth takes as its confessedly simplified starting position that in France under the Old Regime the worlds of statecraft and the court were not considered by the authorities of state to be legitimate subjects of public curiosity; they were the exclusive preserve of a narrowly circumscribed political class.  The history of newsworthiness thus has at least four possible overlapping definitions to contend with:

  1. News that is of sufficient significance to bear repeating;
  2. News that meets the professional standards of the news-giver;
  3. News that is fit for public consumption;
  4. A public that is fit to consume the news.

That fourth category problematises the historical status of newsworthiness.  Newsworthy is a term with a legal meaning; in many US states it’s one of the criteria used to determine whether the publication of a given story is invasive of a person’s privacy and thus actionable.  In that instance it’s taken to mean the question of whether the facts reported are of legitimate public concern.  Early modern authorities, in Britain and elsewhere, found this a troublesome question, and in practice the concept was fluid; Charles I, for example, banned altogether the printing of foreign corantos in England in 1632 after twelve years during which they were broadly tolerated in response to complaints from the Spanish ambassador about the proliferation of anti-Spanish sentiment in them. The history of newsworthiness may well run aground on the question of censorship; if it isn’t taken for granted that the general public constitutes a fit readership for news then neither public taste nor newswriter’s discrimination have free exercise.

Taking away the clouding issue of censorship doesn’t necessarily make the criteria of early modern newsworthiness any more accessible.  It’s often argued that the relaxation of censorship and the subsequent explosion of newsprint in Britain during the Civil Wars was down to a realisation on the part of the authorities on both sides that if it was not possible to eradicate the newsbooks of the opposition there was no virtue in muzzling their own partisans.  The newswriters on both sides frequently cast doubt on their counterparts’ veracity, religion, the reliability of their sources and (above all) the accuracy of their interpretations; yet the very urgency of the conflict between the two main parties ups the ante to the point where almost nothing which one side presented as news was considered too trivial to be contested by the other.

The difficulty in reaching an overarching conception of early modern newsworthiness may finally have to do with the plurality of its uses, contexts and identities, and the abiding tension over the public’s access to the news needs to be addressed with reference to these.  The forthcoming meeting of News Networks in Early Modern Europe in Rennes (May 9-11) will attempt to do precisely that, with papers focussing on the social differences between news media, and the ways in which these were fashioned, negotiated, and exploited by producers and consumers alike.

(NM)


[1] Robert Darnton, “Presidential Address: An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” The American Historical Review February 2000 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/105.1/ah000001.html&gt; (15 Mar. 2012).

One thought on “What’s Newsworthy?

  1. Pingback: Publick Occurrences 2.0 » Making the News

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