Four things are necessary for journalism to exist:
• information that people want or need to know;
• people who gather and disseminate that information;
• a technology with which to distribute the information;
• and an audience willing to receive the information.
Journalism is basic to the functioning of a society. Journalism is a means – the major means – of distributing information that society needs to exist and function. Consequently, as long as there have been societies that extended beyond a single family, there have been forms of information distribution and thus forms of journalism.
One of the earliest civilized societies, the Sumerians who lived along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (in what is now Iraq, Kuwait, Iran and Saudi Arabia) have left us some of the earliest forms of writing that we know about. The Sumerians wrote much – from daily merchant accounts to stories of their mythologies. They scratched symbols on moistened clay to keep records of what they had done and so they could refer to these records as they continued their lives. They even developed the concept of cylinder printing – the same process by which much of our printing is done today.
The Greeks ruled a diverse and far-flung empire that necessitated developing a means of sending information quickly long distances. Their “telegraph,” as it were, was a series of signal fires and earthenware jars that were changed according to a pre-arranged set of rules.
As Greek power declined, the military forces of Rome acquired dominance over many of the known parts of the civilized world. Rome not only had to control an vast empire, but it also had to maintain a lively political and social system within the capital city. Both tasks require efficient means of information distribution, and it is from the Romans that we get the first hints of modern journalism. In 59 B.C., Emperor Julius Caesar ordered that an official account of the political news and acts of the Roman senate be published and distributed every day. This Acta Diurna (daily news) is thought by many to be the first newspaper. The publication contained more than the official acts of the government. It had news about fires, executions, and even the weather.
Duplication of books and “newspapers,” such as they were, was accomplished mostly by hand rather than by any printing technology that we are familiar with today. Hand copying of manuscripts was an art and a skill that would remain in place for the next fifteen hundred years. Thus, daily news distribution in the form was writing was extremely limited and for the most part non-existent.
The development of the printing press in the 1450s in Germany was the great technological feat that gave us modern journalism.
Even with that, it took another 100 years for the first modern newspaper to come into existence. It was the Oxford Gazette, and it first appeared in Oxford, England, in 1655. It was independently owned but published with the consent of the government because it gave the government’s view of the daily news.
Within the first 100 years of the history of the printing press, the technology spread rapidly through the continent. As that happened, Europeans – and particularly government officials – learned two things about current information:
• It could be valuable. People and organizations could and would use information to make decisions.
• It could be dangerous. As people got more information, they felt more empowered to make their own decisions rather than to follow the dictates of the government or the Church.
These two truths would have profound effects on the history of journalism.
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