I am often dismayed by the news about the news these days. If you care about newspapers and what they do–and you should–it’s terrible to watch as reporters and editors get laid off and coverage of such frivolities as foreign affairs and culture shrinks. Every morning, when I open the front door to collect the Post from the doormat (yes, our paper carrier is that good), I wonder how much longer I’ll be able to indulge in that particular ritual.
Even if I have to give up the print paper someday (sooner than I expect, maybe), I don’t believe that journalism will die. It can’t–we need it too much. Delivery systems change and die; the hunger for news lives on.
My friend and former editor Richard Byrne makes a resounding historical case for print journalism’s resilience in “Ranters and Corantos,” an essay in the Nation, inspired by “Breaking News,” an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Renaissance journalism and the birth of the newspaper. Both the essay and the exhibit are fascinating glimpses into the struggles between the early modern press and the government, and reminders that print journalism has managed to roll with the punches for four centuries.
As Rich makes clear, it has always been a messy, imperfect, lurid, opinionated, and risky business. There’s comfort in being reminded that the public’s desire to know has remained strong since the first “corantos” (single-sheet folios) and pamphlets brought news of the world to British readers almost 400 years ago:
…the exhibit traces the profession that has satisfied that need from the gossipy manuscript letters passed from hand to hand in the late sixteenth century to the press’s emergence as an economically viable force in politics and culture in the early eighteenth century. The exhibit’s curators, Chris Kyle (a historian at Syracuse University) and Jason Peacey (a historian at University College, London), delight in making the more immediate connections between past and present. The 1613 pamphlet “The Wonders of This Windie Winter” is an early example of today’s disaster journalism. And then there are the seventeenth-century entries in the true-crime genre: pamphlets describing deaths, “great and bloudy” murders or “barbarous and most cruell” beheadings, illustrated by rough woodcuts of the mayhem. But Kyle and Peacey also tease out larger issues lurking in the mass of early journalism they have culled from the Folger’s holdings. In doing so, they provide a useful history of a complex interplay between government and the press at the industry’s birth, and a valuable window into how journalism coped with (and survived) its early encounters with roadblocks and with transformative change.
If you’re in D.C., you can catch “Breaking News” at the Folger through January 31. At his blog Quick Study, Scott McLemee (my predecessor on the humanities beat at the Chronicle) reads Rich’s essay and adds a C.L.R. James twist to the conversation.