Origins in the English coffeehouses; and creating new revolutions to boot?

By Dr. Norman Sims

(Sims taught literary journalism in the Commonwealth College at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is emeritus professor and former chair of the UMass-Amherst journalism program.)

Community news first formed around London coffeehouses and taverns, and then moved to crude pamphlets. The form was well developed by the time of the American Revolution, and the central feature was what we might now call in a technology context its “distributed” nature.

Pamphleteers, often the local printer in a town, were not centrally coordinated and none of them made a living from pamphleteering. The publications were generally robustly political and opinionated.  With the Internet, and the low cost of producing online information for geographic or ethnic communities, we see this community news emerging again.”

The real question in England and colonial America — and today with blogs and social news networks like Facebook   — is who can say what, to whom, and with what effect?

In London there were two new drug-like things people were consuming in the early 1700s – coffee and chocolate. These newspapers would be brought into the coffee and chocolate houses and taverns, where they would be posted and read aloud for people. So even if you couldn’t read or if you couldn’t afford to buy a newspaper, you had access to the news in a public way.

For these people, print was like the orange juice we used to get, frozen in a cardboard container. You added water to reconstitute it. Print was dehydrated speech. They reconstituted it by reading out loud. People would go to the coffee house or the tavern, and listen. Everybody had access.

Before journalism arrived in England, they had an aristocracy and a peasant class, with an emerging middle class of shopkeepers, trades people and clerks in the cities.  The aristocracy didn’t need newspapers because they all went to school together, they socialized, and they corresponded by letter.  On top of that, debate in Parliament was something they heard, but they felt the peasants didn’t need to hear it.

Newspapers were read aloud to people who were seeking a spot in the middle classes.  As they gathered information about the world, they were breaking the aristocratic monopoly on information about the affairs of the state.  Newspapers challenged the aristocracy by writing things down and distributing the news widely.

In short, newspapers and pamphlets helped to create the “public sphere” where the public could think about public affairs and debate them, and presumably influence them.  The public sphere is the part of life in which one is interacting with others and with society at large.

You can contrast that to the private sphere, which is life in your own family, or a more privatized sphere of influence in a corporation or in the aristocracy where information is tightly held.

Before the rise of the middle class and the rise of newspapers, things that we now consider public affairs weren’t the business of the commoner. From the beginning, the newspaper and the public sphere, as opposed to the private sphere of the ruling class, were agents of democracy, and generally despised by the aristocrats who held power.

The Tory (or aristocratic) satires of the early 18th century, such as Alexander Pope’s “The Dunciad,” attacked public participation in culture and politics. Tory satires attacked any influence of public opinion on political power. They were incensed that this uneducated group of commoners felt entitled to enter the debate.

For the middle classes, however, this new public sphere gave them an alternative to the domination of the aristocracy.

You can see how effective the newspapers and pamphlets were in creating this new world.  Pope and the satirists had to attack the public sphere in the press, that is, in the public sphere.  The revolutions of the people against the monarchy would follow later in the century. I doubt we would have had the democratic revolutions of the 1700s without the opening of the public sphere through pamphlets and newspapers.

EDITOR’S QUESTION  — Can we compare the revolutions of the 1700s – French and American – brought on by a new openness in communications from printed pamphlets, to the “Twitter” revolutions or near-revolutions in Iran, Egypt and elsewhere?  Why or why not?  

The comparison of 18th century newspapers to blogs involves this concept of the public sphere.  In today’s world, an expensive corporate media empire can be compared to the aristocracy of the 1700s.  As individual middle-class people, we can’t really enter the public debate as we see it in The New York Times or on network television.  We can’t start our own newspaper because that’s far too expensive.  Forget about television or radio, where all the available frequencies are already gone. Debate in the public sphere has been restricted somewhat to what we hear in the media from traditional sources — those with education, connections, or political clout.

Social networks, Twitter and blogs have upset that environment.  They are cheap — anyone can start a blog or join Facebook or Google+ one if they have enough money and education to own or operate a computer or a mobile phone.

The range of public participation in debate has expanded dramatically since the arrival of blogs and Web journalism, to the point where some traditional newspapers are threatened financially.  A lot of people in the media have had to get over their despise of blogs, as aristocrats despised the colonial newspapers, because blogs break their monopoly of information control.

Lots of people hate the media today for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons is that they don’t really have access to it. It’s defining the public sphere but we don’t feel as much a part of it as we do when we walk into a bar and somebody’s talking about something. At least we can engage. Social networks and blogs are a way of breaking through that. They have really upset the environment.  They are cheap, like broadsides and pamphlets were in colonial America. Lots of people can use them. They have an open democratic marketplace quality to them.

Blogs and social networks have changed journalism and a lot of newspapers are concerned.   They are expanding the public sphere by bringing more of the general public into expanded conversations.  This and other new forms of journalism are going to transform the media and have an important effect.

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