Before the age of radio and television, newspapers were the primary watchdogs of government and informants of issues pertaining to domestic matters and foreign relations. Newspapers in America began as a meek endeavor but soon became a driving force for freedom of the press and speech.
By Lori Kesinger
In 1690 the first English-American news sheet, “Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick”, was published by Benjamin Harris in Boston. Only one edition was published before the paper was suppressed by the government. The authorities resented Harris for daring to report that English military forces had allied themselves with “miserable” savages.
In the following years, editors discovered readers loved it when they criticized the local government. Historical accounts claim the most dramatic confrontation came in New York in 1734 when the governor brought John Peter Zenger to trial for criminal libel after the publication of satirical attacks. The jury acquitted Zenger, who became the iconic American hero for freedom of the press. The result was an emerging tension between the media and the government. By the mid-1760s, there were 24 weekly newspapers in the 13 colonies.
During the 19th century, newspapers began to expand and appear outside eastern American cities. Faster printing presses in the 1840s helped expand the press of the nation as it experienced rapid economic and population growth.
By the 1900s, newspapers had become powerhouses of advocacy. The average American read several newspapers every day. Newspapers evolved over the 20th century into the 21st despite radio, television and the crisis of readers turning to the internet for sources of information.
Americans seem to continue to understand the importance of the right for freedom of speech and the press. Newspapers won’t become extinct because they do what can’t be duplicated in any other form of media.