Lord Macaulay and the News

One way to pursue the technological history of modernity is to try to understand how news and ideas got around at any given time. For instance, I wrote a short piece last year about Baron von Grimm, who created, helped to write, and distributed a newsletter that kept wealthy and literate citizens of 18th-century France informed about what was really happening in their country — as opposed to what the strictly-censored official sources of news wanted them to believe.

But Grimm did not invent this sort of thing. There’s a fascinating account of an early stage in the history of the newsletter in one of the most famous of all works of narrative history, Lord Macaulay’s History of England from the Accession of James the Second. Macaulay, in classic Victorian fashion, takes a few hundred pages to get around to the official starting point of his book, because how can you understand the rise to the throne of James II if you don’t understand the career of his older brother, Charles II, whose coming to the throne makes no sense if you don’t grasp the essential narrative of the English Civil War, which has its roots in … You get the idea.

But somewhere in that opening 500 pages Macaulay takes a (very long) chapter to do a kind of social and economic history of Restoration England, covering everything from population estimates to leading industries to the social place of clergymen. It’s a fascinating narrative, and anticipates models of social history that didn’t come to their full flower for another century or so. One of his interests here is technological change, and that leads him to describe the rise of the postal service. “A rude and imperfect establishment of posts for the conveyance of letters had been set up by Charles the First, and had been swept away by the civil war. Under the Commonwealth the design was resumed. At the Restoration the proceeds of the Post Office, after all expenses had been paid, were settled on the Duke of York [later to be King James II]. On most lines of road the mails went out and came in only on the alternate days. In Cornwall, in the fens of Lincolnshire, and among the hills and lakes of Cumberland, letters were received only once a week.”

It was a start. But then things started to change in London specifically, though not as a result of a governmental program. Rather, “in the reign of Charles the Second, an enterprising citizen of London, William Dockwray, set up, at great expense, a penny post, which delivered letters and parcels six or eight times a day in the busy and crowded streets near the Exchange, and four times a day in the outskirts of the capital.” Exciting! (By the way, I wish we would retire the term “entrepreneur” and replace it with “enterprising citizen.”) But, Macaulay immediately notes, “this improvement was, as usual, strenuously resisted,” and in a turn of events that’s hard to understand today, people began to insist that the penny post was somehow connected with the so-called (and ultimately shown to be fictional) Popish plot against King Charles — perhaps a way for conspirators to share plans. It is characteristic of that age of political intrigue that when people heard about a new medium of communication they immediately speculated on its usefulness to the perfidious.

But the penny post worked; a wide range of Londoners found it useful. And as the various postal services, public and private, became more strongly established, people became more eager for and expectant of news. Macaulay explains, in a passage I will quote at some length, that there was one particular form of news that became something of a rage in the latter years of the Stuarts:

No part of the load which the old mails carried out was more important than the newsletters. In 1685 nothing like the London daily paper of our time existed, or could exist. Neither the necessary capital nor the necessary skill was to be found. Freedom too was wanting, a want as fatal as that of either capital or skill.

So for Macaulay there were political, technological, and socio-economic reasons — all interacting with one another — why newspapers did not yet exist, even though

the press was not indeed at that moment under a general censorship. The licensing act, which had been passed soon after the Restoration, had expired in 1679. Any person might therefore print, at his own risk, a history, a sermon, or a poem, without the previous approbation of any officer; but the Judges were unanimously of opinion that this liberty did not extend to Gazettes, and that, by the common law of England, no man, not authorised by the crown, had a right to publish political news. While the Whig party was still formidable, the government thought it expedient occasionally to connive at the violation of this rule. During the great battle of the Exclusion Bill, many newspapers were suffered to appear, the Protestant Intelligence, the Current Intelligence, the Domestic Intelligence, the True News, the London Mercury. None of these was published oftener than twice a week. None exceeded in size a single small leaf. The quantity of matter which one of them contained in a year was not more than is often found in two numbers of the Times.

Yet despite the limits of the medium, the Royal party felt that they needed to keep such newsletters under direct control:

After the defeat of the Whigs it was no longer necessary for the King to be sparing in the use of that which all his Judges had pronounced to be his undoubted prerogative. At the close of his reign no newspaper was suffered to appear without his allowance: and his allowance was given exclusively to the London Gazette. The London Gazette came out only on Mondays and Thursdays. The contents generally were a royal proclamation, two or three Tory addresses, notices of two or three promotions, an account of a skirmish between the imperial troops and the Janissaries on the Danube, a description of a highwayman, an announcement of a grand cockfight between two persons of honour, and an advertisement offering a reward for a strayed dog. The whole made up two pages of moderate size.

Such was journalism. As in France a hundred years later, the people of Restoration England knew that they were being deprived of a thorough and accurate account of events — a troublesome thing in a time of such frequent political upheavals. These chaotic political conditions, in company with the rudiments of a news-sharing infrastructure, gave impetus to entrepreneurs to develop the technological skills and distribution networks necessarily to create something like the modern newspaper — which started to happen early in the next century.

Macaulay, writing in a time when Britain was awash in newspapers and journals of all varieties that covered a wide range of political and cultural subjects — he himself, in addition to his political career, wrote regularly for the Edinburgh Review — understood that the last years of the Stuarts had laid the foundation for his own informational environment. Moreover, he was one of the first historians to recognize the value of those early experiments in news-gathering and news-distributing: he learned most of what he knew about public opinion in the Restoration era by reading those old newsletters.

The Death and Life of the Book Review

The Death and Life of the Book Review:

In 1999 Steve Wasserman was three years into his tenure as the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and that July he published a review of Richard Howard’s new translation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. The reason was simple: Howard is among the best translators of French literature. As Wasserman explained several years ago in a memoir of his days at the Los Angeles Times published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the review of the book, written by Edmund White, was stylish and laudatory. The Monday after the piece ran, the paper’s editor summoned Wasserman to his office and admonished him for running an article about “another dead, white, European male.” But the paper’s readers in Los Angeles thought otherwise. Soon after the review appeared, local sales of the book took off; national sales did too when other publications reviewed the book. The New Yorker ended up printing a “Talk of the Town” item that traced the book’s unexpected success to The Los Angeles Times Book Review. In his memoir, Wasserman relates a similar story about Carlin Romano, then the books critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was scolded by an editor for running as the cover story of his section a review of a new translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic beloved by Cervantes. “Have you gone crazy?” the editor asked. “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of America’s newspapers in the 1990s,” Romano reflected, “is their hostility to reading in all forms.”
I may have to comment later on this fascinating article.

get your paper here!

Farhad Manjoo on what’s good about reading actual newspapers:

But both versions of the Kindle are missing what makes print newspapers such a perfect delivery vehicle for news: graphic design. The Kindle presents news as a list—you're given a list of sections (international, national, etc.) and, in each section, a list of headlines and a one-sentence capsule of each story. It's your job to guess, from the list, which pieces to read. This turns out to be a terrible way to navigate the news. Every newspaper you've ever read was put together by someone with an opinion about which of the day's stories was most important. Newspapers convey these opinions through universal, easy-to-understand design conventions—they put important stories on front pages, with the most important ones going higher on the page and getting more space and bigger headlines. You can pick up any page of the paper and—just by reading headlines, subheads, and photo captions—quickly get the gist of several news items. Even when you do choose to read a story, you don't have to read the whole thing. Since it takes no time to switch from one story to another, you can read just a few paragraphs and then go on to something else.

Those of you who thought I was uncritically admiring of the Kindle earlier — by the way, you should really go back and read all my Kindle-tagged posts — will now think that I’m slamming it. But not at all: I post, you decide. About the Kindle, as about other matters, I’m fair, balanced, and unafraid.

a brilliant new archive

Now this is fabulous: the British Library’s enormous archive of 19th-century newspapers. (Story in the Guardian here.) The terms are somewhat confusing, and only paid subscribers will be able to download stuff — but still. Amazing. It might not make Nicholson Baker happy, but it makes me happy. I have to get Wheaton’s library to subscribe ASAP.

Ink makes you free

Brian Appleyard: "The truth is that if the web makes no money or, at least, not enough to sustain proper news operations – and it doesn't – then you will either get no proper news or just none on the web. Think on, as they say where I come from, you need Ink, all of you, and one way or another you will have to pay for it. But think on further – Ink may not be free but it makes you free."

just a moment in time

Bill James, so-called "guru of baseball statistics" — he hates that moniker — and general Really Smart Guy, on the past and future of newspapers :

You and I entered the scene at a certain point, where each city had one or two big newspapers which had hundreds and hundreds of features, and they had these things when we were 10 years old and learning to read and they had them when we were 25 years old and 35 years old, so we tended to think of that as the natural and permanent order of the universe — but it wasn't; it was just a moment in time; the newspapers were very different in 1935 and very different in 1935 from 1910 and hugely different in 1910 from 1885.

Eventually the newspapers — as a natural outcome of processes that began in 1836 — became SO big and so expensive that they were dinosaurs, unable to compete with smaller and lighter information providers.

We're back to 1836 now, in a sense; everybody who wants to has his own "newspaper", and it's tough to know who is good and who is reliable and who isn't, but the same processes are still running. The blogs will get bigger; the good ones are hiring a second helper and a third and fourth, and we'll spend a century or more sorting things out and re-creating the market. It's hard, but it's not a bad thing. It's a good thing.

Hat tip to Nathan Bierma , who got it from someone else, but that's how the internet goes.

Nicholas Carr on Google

Interesting stuff :

When it comes to Google and other aggregators, newspapers face a sort of prisoners' dilemma. If one of them escapes, their competitors will pick up the traffic they lose. But if all of them stay, none of them will ever get enough traffic to make sufficient money. So they all stay in the prison, occasionally yelling insults at their jailer through the bars on the door.

None of this, by the way, should be taken as criticism of Google. Google is simply pursuing its own interests – those interests just happen to be very different from the interests of the news companies. What Google can, and should, be criticized for is its disingenuousness. In an official response to the recent criticism of its control over news-seeking traffic, Google rolled out one of its lawyers, who put on his happy face and wrote: "Users like me are sent from different Google sites to newspaper websites at a rate of more than a billion clicks per month. These clicks go to news publishers large and small, domestic and international – day and night. And once a reader is on the newspaper's site, we work hard to help them earn revenue. Our AdSense program pays out millions of dollars to newspapers that place ads on their sites."

Wow. "A billion clicks." "Millions of dollars." Such big numbers. What Google doesn't mention is that the billions of clicks and the millions of ad dollars are so fragmented among so many thousands of sites that no one site earns enough to have a decent online business. Where the real money ends up is at the one point in the system where traffic is concentrated: the Google search engine.


One of the really cool things about the Internet is that if you wait long enough someone else will say all the things you wanted to say and will thereby relieve you of the responsibility to say them. I suggested recently that I might have some comments about Clay Shirky’s essay on the present and future of newspapers, but I think I’ll just forward you to Steven Johnson, who thinks, as he invariably does, that everything is going to be hunky-dory: “there is going to be more content, not less; more information, more analysis, more precision, a wider range of niches covered . . . the venerable tradition of the muckraking journalist will be alive and well ten years from: partially supported by newspapers and magazines, partially by non-profit foundations and innovative programs like Newassignment.net, and partially by enterprising bloggers who make a name for themselves by breaking important stories." But also see David Simon of The Wire fame, who — with his beloved Baltimore Sun having cut back its local reporting to the nub — recently tried to track down some information about a Baltimore policewoman who shot an unarmed man: “Well, sorry, but I didn't trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick's identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn't anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.” Shirky compares the informational landscape in these last days of the newspaper to the informational landscape in the first days of the printing press; for a different but equally interesting comparison, see this look at the rise of he Internet in relation to the rise, a hundred and fifty years ago, of the telegraph. Here’s a rich related article from Make magazine. On a very different topic, here is, I hope, my last go-around for a while on the Kindle and its ilk: John Siracusa has a good overview of e-reading here, and the single best account of the usability plusses and minuses of the Kindle, the best by a long shot, is by Jakob Nielsen. Happy reading, everybody!

Shirky on newspapers

Clark Shirky has written an exceptionally thought-provoking essay on the future of newspapers and what we can learn about it from remembering the first decades of the printing press. Here’s the opening:

Back in 1993, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain began investigating piracy of Dave Barry’s popular column, which was published by the Miami Herald and syndicated widely. In the course of tracking down the sources of unlicensed distribution, they found many things, including the copying of his column to alt.fan.dave_barry on usenet; a 2000-person strong mailing list also reading pirated versions; and a teenager in the Midwest who was doing some of the copying himself, because he loved Barry’s work so much he wanted everybody to be able to read it. One of the people I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy Thompson, who managed internet services at the New York Times. I remember Thompson saying something to the effect of “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.” I think about that conversation a lot these days.

I encourage you all to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. I hope to offer some of my own reflections later.

get yer red-hot news here

Yesterday Jack Shafer had a weirdly grumpy column in which he rags on the Kindle for, among other things, not doing video. Why a book-reading device should do video is not a question he answers, or even mentions. Ditto with his complaint that it doesn’t have a touchscreen. Shafer wants the Kindle to be a PC and thinks every PC feature it lacks constitutes a bug, whereas I’m inclined to think that most of those absences are features. But enough about that. Shafer goes on to praise the New York Times’s application Times Reader, and spends much of the column thinking about ways newspapers can come up with an “iTunes for news,” a program (or range of programs) that in a post-newsprint world will get people to pay for their news. Shafer concludes:

Why should a customer pay for newspapers online when they can get them free via the Web? Well, why does anybody pay for a print newspaper when they can get it free via the Web? The first answer is that despite the wonderfulness of the Web, the print version still does many things better than its electronic cousin. If you read newsprint, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, I can’t explain it to you.

Okay, fair enough, I guess. Shafer doesn’t have to explain anything to anyone. But if the news companies themselves can’t explain to readers why they should “pay for newspapers online when they can get them free via the Web,” they’re screwed.