It's no small treasure that sits on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. as part of “Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper.” It's the very first issue of Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, published on Sept. 25, 1690, the first independent newspaper in the American colonies. It is also the last issue. The authorities quickly shut it down, not for questioning the crown or challenging the Puritan establishment, as later colonial "printers" would do. No, Publick Occurrences published a scandalous report that the King of France had cuckolded his own son. Clearly the editor was a genius, and it's a safe bet the public wiped out the newsstands, if they had such things in those days.
This week The New York Times ran Edward Rothstein's fine review of the Folger exhibit, and The New Yorker's Jill Lepore had an unrelated but equally absorbing piece on the early history of the American newspaper business. Both mention the irresistible Publick Occurrences, though it's Lepore who has the goods on why it lived such a short life. They are great companion reads: Lepore is all about early American newspapering, and Rothstein looks at the earlier phenomenon in Renaissance England. Both limn a very similar picture: those early "printers" were rabble rousers intent upon upsetting some facet of the religio-political order and living "by the zeal they can kindle and the schisms they can create," as Thomas Jefferson once put it.
Lepore's piece tries to establish relevance it doesn't really need -- arguing in a paragraph undoubtedly inserted by a nervous editor that the modern newspaper industry is almost dead and therefore, "That makes this a good time to ask: what was the beginning about?" That's an engaging question to ask whether or not today's newspapers are cooked. The answer in Lepore's romp through the scurrilous, heroic and incendiary early days of "printing" is that journalism, that supposedly objective enterprise today commanding a certain respect, was pretty much absent, and, "Early American newspapers tend to look like one long and uninterrupted invective, a ragged fleet of dung barges." Powerful nonetheless, as the British acknowledged by their shoot on sight orders for "those trumpeters of sedition, the printers Edes and Gill," the operators of the Gazette, a mouthpiece for the likes of Patriot firebrand Sam Adams. Edes escaped the British seizure of Boston with a set of fonts and a press by rowing across the Charles River in darkness.
Somehow the trials of Edes and his ilk are more exciting than the trials of Arthur Sulzberger. And maybe Lepore did ask the right question: in the early days of journalism, if we can call them that, it was plainly important to be ready to run for one's life and start a new in safer abodes. There's a modern lesson there.
(My friend Pat Spain, who counts among his passions the digital preservation of really old and all-but-lost documents, found where Publick Occurrences has been digitized and archived on line. Thanks, Pat! )