Newspapers were once the big tech platform companies everyone hated

This is adapted from a Twitter thread.

There are many parallels between early newspapers and today. Like then, today big tech platforms are vilified for taking creative destruction to a more harmful end to civic discourse.

Then partisanship and misinformation gave rise to the modern concept of editing. Perhaps something akin is happening again.

In 1620, English statesman Francis Baconnamed printing, gunpowder and the nautical compass as the three modern inventions that ‘have changed the appearance and state of the whole world’.

Following other mass printing forms, in the first decades of the 17th century, early newspapers were emerging — serialized, regularly published, distributions of media.

These early newspapers were, to use the language of today, purely platform companies. They featured no original content and very little staff. Mostly they published unedited personal letters. They worked on distribution and printed other people’s words for free in exchange for accessing that audience. You know, like Twitter.

These democratic newspaper platforms horrified established leaders.

Suddenly common folk and the most powerful were on the page. Anything could get printed. There was no way to distinguish what was fact — and what was, say baseless voter fraud claims by a deranged narcissist.

Pamphleteers, subscription news services (including formats like the avvisi) and even playwrights and balladeers were the established media. Their processes took time, with revisions, and were for a more refined class.

They hated these new tech platform companies (newspapers).

In 1625, dramatist Ben Johnson published a play called “A Staple of News” and it lampooned newspapers.

In the play, he especially ripped early publisher Nathaniel Butter — who among other sins published all sorts of low class stuff like the first edition of a play called King Lear

News pamphlets were single-issue, often anonymous. They were the Medium posts of the day.

Early Pamphleteers thought newspapers would rip apart society because rather than waiting for something important to report, they were published on a fixed schedule.

Critics of early newspapers focused on three main issues:

  • They caused information overload
  • They fueled partisanship and divisiveness
  • They promoted salacious opinion over fact

In 1679, Lutheran pastor Johann Ludwig Hartman added “newspaper reading” to his list of vices alongside dancing, gambling, drinking and idleness.

What happened over the next 300 or so years? Publishers experimented to find ways to profit off more accurate information. Newspapers adopted many of the best practices of the established media formats. People valued fact and editing.

In short, they solved problems for their audience.

Revealingly though the word “journalist” first shows up in 1693, “journalism” only comes around 140 years (!) later in 1833 — at which point a set of principles and culture and tradecraft had been codified

All of this has happened all over again today. Creative destruction has given us democratic platforms with open letters.

We threw out the editors.

Now the platforms are once again recognizing that people do want some degree of editing. Once again it will come in new forms. My reading of this history means we need entrepreneurial spirit and vigor, exploration and pursuit of ways to solve problems with verifiable information.

As English pamphleteer Sir Roger L’Estrange (depicted above) said in 1687: “Tis the press that made ‘em mad, and the press must set ‘em right again.”

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