- The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself by Andrew Pettegree
“Between the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries,” Andrew Pettegree writes, “the number of those who had regular access to news … expanded enormously” (359). The purpose of The Invention of News is to recount the stages of this transformation, in which up-to-date information about significant public events went from being “the prerogative of those in circles of power” (3) to being “a part of popular culture” (1). In contrast to most scholarship on the subject, however, Pettegree’s book is not primarily a history of newspapers or even of the impact of printing, a technology which, he notes in his conclusion, “was unique in its [End Page 274] capacity for self-advertisement” (363). Conscious of writing at a moment when printed newspapers have become an endangered species, Pettegree emphasizes the fact that news in the early modern era was a “multi-media phenomenon,” circulating orally and in manuscript form as well as in many genres of print. The periodical newspaper, important as it was, only appeared in the early seventeenth century, well after the growth of interest in current events.
Pettegree begins his story by describing the various communications networks through which news circulated in the Middle Ages. The Church, secular rulers, merchants, and university students, then as now in need of money from their parents, were among those who had reasons to obtain and exchange information. The invention of printing offered new possibilities for the circulation of news, but early printers were slow to exploit them. The Protestant Reformation was, in Pettegree’s view, the first event to demonstrate the size of the potential market for printed works. When interest in theological controversies began to wane in the 1530s, printers turned to putting out broadsheets—Neue Zeitungen in German—about remarkable events as a way of keeping themselves in business. Nevertheless, non-print media, such as manuscript newsletters, and oral forms of communication, such as sermons, continued to play an important role in the circulation of news.
In Pettegree’s view, it was not the printing press but the development of regular postal systems at the beginning of the seventeenth century that made the periodical newspaper possible. He calls the Thurn and Taxis firm’s German postal network “one of the great unsung achievements of European civilisation” (168). The first known newspaper, established in Strasbourg in 1605, imitated the form of the earlier manuscript newsletters. Pettegree certainly acknowledges the importance of the newspaper, but he repeatedly emphasizes its limitations. Down to the French revolutionary era, newspapers continued to provide dry chronicles largely limited to high politics. Readers needed considerable background information to make sense of newspaper reports and had little way of evaluating their reliability. In contrast, pamphlets gave readers the context they needed to understand events and were often written in a livelier style than reports in the newspapers. Despite his effort to present the history of news in a fresh perspective, Pettegree reaches a familiar conclusion, hailing the nineteenth-century newspaper, with its combination of information and editorial opinion, as the terminus ad quem toward which all the developments of the previous centuries had been moving.
Innovative in its emphasis on the multiplicity of news media in early modern Europe and its somewhat skeptical assessment of the newspaper, Inventing the News is traditional in other respects. Pettegree’s narrative is more descriptive than analytical. He is dismissive of attempts to put the rise of news into any larger theoretical framework, and never even provides a definition of the key term of “news” itself. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s argument for the fundamental importance of the shift from manuscript to print, laid out in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979), does not even rate a mention. Jürgen Habermas’s notion of the development of a bourgeois public sphere at the end of the seventeenth century is summarily dismissed (230), and Rolf Engelsing’s claim, in Der Bürger...