On this day in 1702, the first issue of The Daily Courant was published. It was England’s first national daily newspaper. It was started by a woman, Elizabeth Mallet. But a year later, she sold it to Samuel Buckley, later of The Spectator fame. And it managed to remain in publication for 34 years.
It was printed on a single (and as you can see) long piece of paper. On the front was the news, and on the back was advertisements. But if you look closely at the first issue, you will see that a good one-sixth of the first page is also an advertisement. Then, as now, there appears to have been more commerce than actual news.
Something that most people don’t realize is that the flashy advertisements that we are used to is quite a recent invention. Until not much more than a hundred years ago, advertisements took the form of text and only text. Here is a reprint of the first paid advertisement in an American newspaper, The Boston News-Letter. It dates from 1704:
Neil Postman noted in Amunsing Ourselves to Death, “As late as 1890, advertising, still understood to consist of words, was regarded as an essentially serious and rational enterprise whose purpose was to convey information and make claims in propositional form.” It does seem that we are always behind those who want to manipulate us. And now we have reached a time where people don’t even care. Monday night saw Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore congratulating each other in their irrational desires for an Apple Watch.
But image that: just over 300 years ago, people thrilled to a daily paper that consisted of nothing but words. Advertisements consisted of straight forward propositions, “I have something I would like to sell to you.” The way advertising treats us today is insulting, “You’ll be cool if you use this product!” The journalism has improved, I think. But it too has troubling implicit elements to it. The main “advancement” is that The Daily Courant was published every morning and now we have a constant stream of news — the illusion of change in an economy so ossified that the petrified forest seems like it is streaming along.
Happy birthday The Daily Courant!