History of the Printed Newspaper

History of the Printed Newspaper
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Keep reading to learn more about the history of the newspaper and its impact on modern society.

1 The first newspaper (when were newspapers invented?)

People have long circulated news via word-of-mouth, and as language evolved into writing and literacy – and governments played larger roles in people’s lives – sharing information became a necessity. However, disseminating news and information on paper presented significant challenges. When each copy had to be handwritten, mass distribution was impossible.

2 Ancient news media

Still, early civilizations did distribute news. In China, ]]> one of the earliest forms of news media was known as the tipao]]>. Created ]]> as early as 202 BC]]>, these were “palace reports or imperial bulletins” distributed by the government and intended for bureaucrats. Any news for public consumption might have been distributed via posted announcements – basically, the forerunners of modern-day posters.

In ancient Rome, ]]> Acta diurna were published prior to 59 BC ]]> (as early as 131 BC). These were daily gazettes, or news sheets, created by the government that contained information for the public: ]]> political news, military campaigns, trials, and executions]]>. They were first chiseled in stone or metal; later, they were handwritten and distributed in public forums or read from scrolls by town criers. Acta diurna are often considered precursors to the modern newspaper.

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Though both ancient Romans and Chinese – as well as other ancient civilizations – had early forms of news media, they do not qualify as newspapers because they could not be mass-distributed.

The invention of the printing press paved the way for “true” newspapers

The first true newspapers arrived after ]]> Johannes Gutenberg introduced his movable type printing press ]]> to the European world around 1440. Though printing presses with movable type had existed in eastern Asia for around two centuries, they never made it to Europe; furthermore, Gutenberg’s version made it significantly faster to mass produce documents. By 1500, the printing press had made its way throughout Europe, and news sheets (or news books) were mass-distributed.

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]]>The first weekly newspaper was published in Germany by Johann Carolus in 1604]]>. Called Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, the publication satisfied the four tenets of a “true” newspaper:

  • Accessibility by the public
  • Published at a regular interval (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.)
  • Information is current
  • Covers a variety of topics (politics, events, entertainment, sports, etc.)

Despite meeting the requirements for a newspaper, there is some debate as to whether The Relation qualifies as the world’s first newspaper since it was printed in quarto, not folio, size. It’s worth noting the ]]> World Association of Newspapers ]]> considers The Relation the first true newspaper.

Other German newspapers followed, and in 1618 the world’s first broadsheet newspaper printed in folio size was published in Amsterdam, called ]]> Courante uyt Italien, Duytslandt, &c]]>. The newspaper format soon spread throughout Europe, with newspapers published in Spain, France, and Sweden.

]]>The first English newspaper was published in 1665 ]]> in Oxford, England. Known as the Oxford Gazette, the newspaper moved to London in 1666 and was renamed the London Gazette. It’s still being published today.

Soon after, the newspaper became a staple in all major European countries. It then made its way to the New World.

3 The history of newspapers in America

Like their European counterparts, but to a lesser extent, early European colonies in American printed news sheets. ]]> The first American news sheet was printed in Mexico in 1541]]>, and described an earthquake in Guatemala.

The first true American newspaper wasn’t introduced until 1690, when ]]> Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick was published in Boston]]>. The publisher, Benjamin Harris, was arrested for including political criticisms and his newspaper was suppressed – all known copies were destroyed.

In 1704, ]]> postmaster John Campbell published the Boston News-Letter]]>, and it became the first successful newspaper in America. Unlike Harris, Campbell did not engage in political discussion to avoid upsetting colonial authority. The same cannot be said for James Franklin, who was ]]> jailed after criticizing the colonial government]]>.

Soon after, Franklin was forbidden to publish anything without government approval, and he turned the paper over to his brother, Benjamin Franklin, who became one of the most influential printers, publishers, statesmen, and revolutionists in American history.


Throughout history, governments strived to oppress newspaper publishers and journalists who used their platforms for political criticism. In England, ]]> John Milton’s 1644 promoted freedom of the press]]>, which was ultimately granted by British Parliament.

One landmark case paved the way for freedom of the press in America, when Britain still had colonial control. In 1734, New York governor William Cosby had John Peter Zenger arrested for political criticism lobbied in Zenger’s New York Weekly Journal. Despite the judge’s wishes, the jury returned with a “not guilty” verdict. The verdict was monumental because it demonstrated papers could publish political criticism without fear of retribution, and because it ]]> caused the British to fear no American jury would convict an American journalist]]>.

Later, freedom of the press was guaranteed in the United States by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights in 1791; however, the Sedition Act of 1798 forbid “writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.” Two years later, freedom of the press was preserved when one of Benjamin Franklin’s compatriots, Thomas Jefferson, allowed the Sedition Act to lapse.

Other newspapers followed, and around two dozen newspapers were published in American by the start of the Revolutionary War. By the end of the war in 1783, there were 43 newspapers published in the colonies; and by ]]> 1814 that number expanded to 346]]>.

At first, newspapers were only available to wealthy Americans, those who were literate and could afford to pay for subscriptions in advance. The subscriptions typically cost what a general laborer would make in an entire week of work, so most could not afford them.

That all changed in the 1830s, when advances in printing and papermaking made it possible to sell newspapers for one cent per copy. ]]> Increased literacy as well as technological advancements ]]> such as the telegraph – which made it possible to quickly share news over great distances – and the rotary press contributed to newspaper growth. The “Penny Press” made newspapers affordable to the entire public and spurred an explosion of newspaper publishing across the United States.

4 Newspapers flourished in the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution spawned ]]> giant presses capable of printing 10,000 papers per hour]]>, and contributing to massive growth in the newspaper industry – from 2,526 newspapers in 1850 to more than 11,000 newspapers by 1880. By 1890, some papers boasted circulations in excess of one million copies.

In addition to mass production, the technologies of the Industrial Revolution made it possible to feature detailed illustrations, published as pictorial weeklies. These illustrations were printed from woodcut engravings made from reporters’ sketches or another new, revolutionary technology: photographs.

The Civil War likewise contributed to the popularity of newspapers, as battlefield reporters commanded national attention with their accounts of the war. By the time the Civil War ended, newspapers had become engrained in American culture.

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Why did governments want to suppress early newspapers? The pen is mightier than the sword, and newspapers carried enormous influence over the populace. Pioneering newspaper baron ]]> William Randolph Hearst allegedly used the power of the press to manufacture the Spanish-American War]]>. By pushing for U.S. involvement, Hearst was able to influence public opinion; once the war began, he was then able to sell more papers covering it.

Hearst also used newspapers to attack President William McKinley, who was assassinated. Though it can’t be said Hearst’s actions caused the assassination, it’s undeniable his newspapers influenced public sentiment.

Another famous example is the ]]> “Join, or Die” snake editorial cartoon ]]> published by Benjamin Franklin in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754. The cartoon was reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies and promoted the idea of strength in unity as colonists resisted French expansion. Ultimately, those same ideals were incorporated when the colonists revolted and won their independence from England.

5 Newspapers over the past century

By the early 20th century, newspapers included the features we recognize in modern newspapers today: banner headlines, photos and illustrations, comics, and sports coverage, in addition to the political and event news that have always been newspaper staples.

Color photographs and other color elements changed the look of the newspaper; and though color printing seems a modern advancement, the ]]> first color comic in an American newspaper made its appearance in 1894]]>. It wasn’t the first use of color in newspapers – the Milwaukee Journal ]]> used blue and red to commemorate an election in 1891]]> – but color printing is expensive, and newspapers didn’t adopt it as mainstream until the 1990s – after USA Today stirred controversy with its color coverage in 1982. According to the ]]> New York Times]]>, the number of North American newspapers that incorporated color increased from 12 percent in 1979 to 97 percent by 1993. Newspaper design has evolved with the addition of color.

Although still at the top of the information food chain, newspapers began to face serious competition with the ]]> mass production of the radio beginning in the 1920s ]]> and ]]> television beginning in the 1940s]]>. They were also threatened by huge conglomerates, which purchased smaller publications for large chains that, in addition to earning increased advertising dollars, could push political and other agendas.

Today, the newspaper industry continues to face challenges as the Digital Age threatens the survival of the newspaper as we know it.

6 The future of newspapers in the Digital Age

The ]]> number of daily newspapers in the U.S. has decreased from 1,730 in 1981 to 1,331 in 2014]]>, the latest year figures were available. That trend is likely to continue as consumer consumption of news has shifted toward digital delivery, which is cheaper from a production standpoint. As print newspapers decrease, the number of unique visitors to newspaper websites increases – the ]]> average monthly number of unique visitors for the top 50 newspapers ]]> increased from 8.2 million in 2014 to 11.7 million in 2016.

Perhaps a more telling trend: from 2014 to 2015, ]]> newspaper ad revenues fell by seven percent]]>; during that same period, digital ad revenues for online newspapers increased by 20 percent.

In 2015, ]]> digital audiences for online newspapers peaked at nearly 180 million readers]]>; that same year, ]]> paid circulation for U.S. newspapers was just 37.7 million ]]> (down from 53.3 million in 2005).

Still, there’s something to be said for printed newspapers. Of the estimated five billion newspaper readers in the world, ]]> three billion read print newspapers]]>. Moreover, millennials have been documented to enjoy receiving print mailers – the tangible nature of print is perhaps more meaningful, and this could lend itself to continued print newspaper production. In addition, certain niches and industries might prefer print over digital; particularly demographically-targeted industries that focus on senior citizens and others who might be reticent to adapt to an online world.

Ultimately, however, the almighty dollar is likely to prevail: if it’s cheaper to produce an online newspaper, yet possible to achieve greater ad revenues, business-minded publishers will increasingly focus on delivering digital content and drop print production altogether.

7 Additional resources

Early Newspapers
First U.S. Newspapers
Printing Press
  • ]]>The Printing Press ]]> – A look at the invention which helped change the newspaper industry.
  • ]]>History of Printing ]]> – Historical perspective on how the printing press changed the way the world communicated.
  • ]]>Printing Timeline ]]>– Educational look at a timeline of various types of printing dating back several thousand years B.C.
  • ]]>Journalism Timeline ]]> – Useful page which covers many important moments in American journalism due to the printing press.
  • ]]>Printing Yesterday and Today ]]> – Informative site which discusses how newspapers were printed in the past and today.
  • ]]>History of the Printing Press ]]> – Helpful information on the invention of the printing press and its developments in time.
Advancements in Newspaper Printing
Online and Future of Newspapers