The last days of real journalism

Q. What links Friday; a war over eggs; and coffee?

A. The (ig)noble art of journalism.

Daniel Defoe, who gave us the tale of Robinson Crusoe, the sailor marooned on a deserted island with only a single companion – Man Friday, was the first well-known journalist.

He was also a spy, a pamphleteer, a trader and a writer – none of which put him above the way we view many journalists these days.

He is regarded as the pioneer of modern journalism because of his publication of The Storm which was the account of a severe storm which hit London in November 1703 and lasted seven days.

In providing the first ever report of a hurricane in England he used eye-witness reports. He didn’t actually work to a deadline for his report as it wasn’t printed until early 1704.

Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, a tale which recorded details of the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu over which end of a boiled egg should be opened, edited The Examiner, a political periodical, from 1710 to 1714.

We talk today of media bias to one or other of the political parties. This was as nothing compared to this period in English history.

The Examiner promoted a Tory perspective of British politics at a time when the new monarch, Queen Anne, had replaced the Whig ministers of her predecessors (her sister Mary and Mary’s husband King William III) with Tories.

Although the Tories were in power the majority of the print media at the time favoured the Whigs which is why John Morphew launched The Examiner – to counter the Whig press.

Swift was also a man of many parts as a priest, a poet and a political pamphleteer.

Finally we come to the coffee, often the best way to round off a delightful repast.

Edward Lloyd ran a coffee shop in London where merchants, brokers and shipping agents used to meet and discuss business.

To make life easier for his customers Edward produced a weekly summary of shipping movements which became known as Lloyd’s List and continued in print form from 1734 until 2013 when it became an online publication.

Lloyd was a coffee shop proprietor, who also became an auctioneer, and the publication that bears his name is probably better known to the public than he is.

These were not, of course, the first newspapers in Britain.

In the 16th century the main centre for newsletters was in Antwerp where the printers and publishers could send copies to France, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, in one direction, and to Spain, Portugal and Italy in the other.

The main news at the time centred on wars, other military actions, what was happening in the major royal courts, and, the staple diet of many newspapers to this day – gossip.

By the 17th century news pamphlets were still controlled by the state and became more popular because they provided fairly reliable sources of news especially by the middle of the century with the Civil War.

Copyright laws had been dropped by the 1640s and 1650s and there were at least 300 news pamphlets being issued.

The Royalist ones that did not fall by the wayside included Mercurius Aulicus, Mercurius Melancholicus, and Mercurius Electicus.

Certainly not the sort of titles you would ask for in your local newsagent. It doez give you an idea where the modern newspaper title Mercury originated.

The London-based news sheets nailed their colours to the Parliamentary mast with such delights as the Parliament Scout, Spie, and The Kingdome’s Weekly Scout.

Despite all we hear about the draconian rule by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers the press was reasonably free during the time of the Commonwealth.

This came to an end with the Restoration when Charles II brought in the Printing Act 1662 which restricted printing to: the University of Oxford; Trinity College, Cambridge: and to the master printers of the Stationer’s Company in London.

This reinstated the regulations and restrictions previously lifted by the Puritans.

It took another major upheaval to gradually loosen the chains around the press and it was the Protestant King William III who eased the shackles once more and this was mainly because he didn’t want to upset the burgeoning press in light of the growing politicisation of Parliament.

Over the centuries newspapers have come and gone but also many have stayed. Whether the level of journalism remains constant is another matter.

In the early days you only needed a publisher for you to become a journalist, quite often an editor.

Nowadays you only need access to the web to call yourself a journalist.

No real change there then.

In between there have been examples of real journalists. Some in the latter years of Victoria. Definitely some during both world wars but real journalists were still going strong through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and into the 80s.

As the old hands died off or retired there remained very few true journalists by 2000 and 20 years later the real journalists are an endangered species hovering on the brink of extinction.

We are not dinosaurs – we are principled professionals.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

3 thoughts on “The last days of real journalism

  1. Fantastic blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or
    go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally overwhelmed ..
    Any recommendations? Many thanks!

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    1. I would suggest a platform such as WordPress to get you started. Quite often a paid for website with all the bells and whistles will overpower your initial writings.


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