Exploring the Origins of Newspapers

Instructor: Mary Matthiesen-Jones

Mary has worked around the world for over 30 years in international business, advertising, and market research. She has a Master's degree in International Management and has taught University undergraduate and graduate level courses .

Newspapers have been around for millennia, not just since the invention of the printing press. In this lesson you will learn about the history of newspapers and what they have meant for freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Early Newspapers

Acta Diuran

Want to know how your favorite gladiators were doing? Interested in what was happening in the Roman Senate? Starting around 130 B.C.E. Roman citizens turned to the Acta Diurna, literally translated as Daily Acts. Carved onto stone or metal tablets, these daily gazettes, or public notices, first published by government authorities, served to inform Romans about what was happening in the Empire. This included everything from official announcements to the price of grain. These tablets were posted in public places around Rome from the forum to marketplaces and public baths.

Printed Newspapers

The first newspapers printed on paper started to spread across Europe in the 15th century once Johannes Gutenberg's printing press and his use of movable type made possible the easy printing of large quantities of books and documents.


The first news periodicals in the English language called corantos began to appear in 1620. Derived from the French word courant, meaning running, they came to stand for something that is current. They were first printed in Holland; however, because the printing of news in England about what was happening in England was actually against the law until late in the 1620s!


While ''diurnal'' actually means daily, diurnals first began appearing weekly in England in the 1640s. The popularity of these accounts of local and European news became a mainstay of another emerging English institution, the coffeehouse, where men would go to meet, drink coffee, and debate the news of the day. Printed on both sides of one sheet of paper, diurnals were the forerunner of what we think of today as a daily newspaper.


Often news and public announcements had to be delivered quickly. As early as the 1500s broadsheets/broadsides, printed on one side only and not folded, were appearing across Europe. This format rapidly became popular for communicating all types of information, in addition to news, such as scientific observations and theories. Easily distributed, they could also be written on, so that as they were passed along, each person could add their own observations. The size of these single-page papers became the forerunner of today's tabloid newspapers.

The Boston Newsletter

In 1704, the Postmaster of Boston, John Campbell, began publishing the first newspaper in the colonies that lasted for more than one edition, The Boston Newsletter. A post office was a center for news and gossip as people collected their letters and newspapers from Europe there. As Campbell heard it, he wrote it down, starting with a handwritten newsletter and eventually arranging to have copies printed. Although he included both news from Europe as well as the colonies, Campbell avoided offending authorities by claiming that it was ''Published by Authority,'' implying that it had government approval. Printed front and back on a single sheet, it resembled the earlier English diurnals.

Freedom of the Press & Freedom of Speech

Today freedom of the press, found in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press, speech, religion, and assembly, is often taken for granted. While censorship of what appears in newspapers still occurs in many countries, it is the exception, not the norm. Freedom of the press, like the printed newspaper itself, is a relatively modern invention.

European Restrictions

As soon as the power of the printing press was evident in the 1500s, European authorities began to restrict what could and could not be printed. The Church required anything printed to first be reviewed by censors to avoid heresy and offending monarchs, and in much of Europe until the mid-1600s, printers had to be licensed.

A common feature of these early European newspapers was that they were tightly controlled and so rarely printed anything critical of the governments. In England the ''Act for Preventing the Frequent Abuses in Printing Seditions, Treasonable and Unlicensed Books and Pamphlets; and for the Regulating of Printing and Printing Presses'' was introduced in the mid-1600s, prohibiting any negative news about the monarch and the government. Only in 1695 was licensing of the press abandoned, and by the early 1700s, freedom of the press finally began to emerge on both sides of the Atlantic.

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