Journalism Old & New:
Broadly speaking, journalism came into existence when the first newspaper was printed. The “printing”, however is not the main point: it is an accident, or, rather, an adjunct of what we commonly call civilization.
The basic idea is circulation. In this sense there were in a more modest fashion than nowadays, of course, newspapers before there had ever been a printing machine. “Autolycus” was a common pedlar; he was a picker-up of sundry “unconsidered trifles”. Probably, if the fancy be permitted, he had the rudiments of a journalist in him. What, after all, is the essential difference between a pedlar going on his rounds in the country side and a newspaper circumnavigating the globe and finding itself on the breakfast table of its readers every morning?
There is a primitive touch about the former, no doubt and a correspondingly published tone about the latter; but there is no fundamental difference, and whatever discrepancies there are between the two are due, mainly, to the operation of our old friend, the time factor.
The time factor, we know, can work wonders in these matters. It can push apart what are really closely related, one with the other. The function that an order newspaper performs was, in some respects, performed by the town- crier, for instance, with his beat of drums and fanfare of trumpets, and by the inscriptions on stones. As Wordsworth said of the river Duddon:
“Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide;
The Form remains, the Function never dies”.
Stones and parchment and manuscripts played a very large part in ancient days as media of instruction and enlightenment to the public. Every schoolboy has head of the great Emperor Asoka’s edicts on pillars and slabs of stone. In Julius Caesar’s time it had already been a well-tried practice to keep official records of important events. Then we hear of a Peking Gazette in China, which dealt in court news especially.
Thus we see that memory goeth not back to a time when there was no journalism of some kind or other. Perhaps it should not be glorified by that name. Still, it was that in substance.
The eighteenth century was marked by a great advance in this line. The office-house took the place of the old tavern; where there was an exchange not only of
“Quips, and cranks, and wanton wiles. Nods, and becks, and wreathed smiles”.
but of more solid stuff even. The meetings were marked by reflection no less than by relaxation; they were, often, regular tournaments of wit. Solomon was fond of saying that just as iron sharpened iron, so does the countenance of one man that of another. With the countenance, of course, goes the mind; and here we do not speak of mindlessness. Steele and Addison, Johnson and Goldsmith, were ornaments of these places.
Those were the days of the essayists and the pamphleteers. People were better in the mass, there was usually a hearty give-and-take, and superior minds did not, as a rule, disdain to commune with inferior ones; on the other hand, they were only too eager to share the things of the intellect with whosoever was anxious thus to be benefited. Great men did not completely and irretrievably doff their humanity; they did not erect unsalable barriers round about their persons.
They were free and easy-going, and their knowledge and wisdom could be availed of by anyone who chose to do so In fact, it seems that what Hazlitt said of the period immediately following the French Revolution can be applied in this context:
“Somehow that period was not a time when nothing was given for nothing. The mind opened, and softness might be perceived coming over the heart of individuals beneath ‘the scales (hat fence, our self-interest.”
In any history of journalism, space must be found for the eighteenth century England and for the coffee-houses that had come into fashion there during the period. More was done there than met the eye; and they had the lion’s share in moulding the literary taste of the age. They played the role of a literary academy. Some aspects of office-house entertainment were enumerated in this doggerel:
“You may see there what fashions are, How periwigs are curled,
And for a penny you may hear
All the novels of the world.”
We are told that a Button’s literature was eagerly canvassed, while again at Will’s
“The gentle beaux join in wise debate,
Adjusts his cravat, and reforms the state.”
Essay Form of Journalism
The most characteristic literary form of the eighteenth century, the easy, owed its origin to these same coffee-houses, and, as someone has written, “true to its original purpose, it faithfully mirrored the manners of the day when fiction presented nothing but ideals, and artificial comedy only caricature”
The Tatler, the Spectator, the Rambler, the Idler-all these were not exactly newspapers, in the modern connotation of the term, but they were some of the most important journalistic ventures of any time, and, at the beginning, they did not wholly disdain to be topical. Later on, however, they ceased to have any news-value, and literature, not politics, usurped their main interest.
Steele and Addison, Johnson and Goldsmith, were journalists as well as literary men; their journalism blossomed forth into literature with the passing of time. Their age is mirrored in their lightest effusions; they are the stethoscopes through which we hear the heartbeats of their century. Even those who normally look askance at the Muse of History can learn something of the past from a careful perusal of those essays.
If we are gifted with imagination we can traverse the centuries by their aid; we can re-enact the scenes amidst which our ancestors played their several parts-major or minor-as the case might be; we can laugh with them or weep with them; according to the mood of the moment, in a word, we can, for the time being, shed our own skins and creep into theirs-with as much success as our fancies allow.
Journalism has to take into account the essay- form, as it has to reckon with the various other modes which literature and the time spirit adopt at their sweet will and pleasure. The coffee-house and the things of the mind that it engendered are important landmarks in the history of journalism. If they do nothing else they do this, as Thackeray, a keen student of the eighteenth century, suggested in his famous Lectures on the English Humourists.
“As we read in these delightful volumes of the and the Spectator, the past age returns, the England of our ancestors is revivified. The Maypole rises in the Strand again in London; the churches are thronged with daily worshippers; the beaux are gathering in the coffee-houses; the gentry are going into the drawing-room; the ladies are thronging to the toy-shops; the chairmen are jostling in the streets; the footmen are running with links before the chariots, or fighting round the theatre doors.”