Early U.S. Journalism


In order to understand contemporary journalism and how it may continue to develop, it is important to understand its past.

Journalism did not begin in the United States. Early examples of news texts can be traced back to the 1470s, and what is generally recognized as the first newspaper — the Relation — was published in France in 1605. However, although the early development of U.S. journalism took many cues from its European counterpart, it would soon begin to chart its own path and would later go on to be a key exporter of journalistic technologies and values to the rest of the world.

The Early Colonial Press

Early U.S. journalism was very different from what we see in today’s newspapers. First, there were no headlines or images, meaning that journalists had to depict events with nothing more than their words. Second, the early press generally focused on international news. Domestic affairs were often left alone because publishers did not want to upset local leaders, who could draw upon their governmental authority to shut down the newspaper. Additionally, this emphasis on international affairs led to a very different understanding of ‘news,’ as information was often weeks if not months old by the time it was printed. Third, a single person would often serve as the publisher, editor, and reporter, and they often filled news pages with the things they heard from other people as they arrived from abroad (or with things they read in other texts brought by the travelers). Fourth, the news was written for the political and mercantile classes, meaning that the issues were tailored to economic and political interests and used a language suited to the well-educated. Finally, much of the early press was subsidized directly either by the government or by wealthy patrons, which again created risks for journalists who wrote things that upset local officials or benefactors.

We can see these features, and key developments in the early U.S. press, play out in the newspapers of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The first multi-page newspaper published in the United States is believed to be Publick Occurrences, which was published in Boston in 1690. It was just four pages long and focused on international topics, including criticisms of the British military’s treatment of French prisoners and rumors of incest within the French royal family. Although it was intended to be published regularly, it only lasted one issue because the colonial government shut it down for not having a license to publish.

In 1704, the Boston News-Letter became the first licensed newspaper, proudly proclaiming that it was “published by authority” (of the governor). It was heavily subsidized by the British government and primarily contained transcripts of political speeches and details about European politics and wars.

Growing Independence

By 1721, however, the U.S. press had begun to assert more independence, as evidenced by The New-England Courant. That newspaper was published by James Franklin, and his little brother, Benjamin, wrote scathing critiques of the local government under a pen name. In fact, James Franklin was ultimately imprisoned after refusing to reveal who was behind those critiques. However, the paper’s critical tone helped make it popular, especially among more independence-minded citizens. That popularity encouraged other newspapers to take a more critical tone, and for new, even more critical publications to emerge.

This period was pivotal in that it helped to loosen the early governmental restrictions on speech and publication — which were the norm not only in the colonial United States but in many parts of Europe. Censorship made governments appear fearful and could actually intensify curiosity, speculation, and rumors. Moreover, publishers were sometimes able to evade orders by relocating their operations or simply changing the name of the newspaper.

More importantly, however, during this period, journalism became a vehicle for capturing and consolidating public opinion, and for conveying citizens’ concerns to public officials. The expanding reach of journalism meant that public officials could no longer easily pretend to be unaware of the concerns raised in the growing publications. Unsurprisingly, however, those officials soon began to realize that establishing friendly ties with news organizations (by supplying editors with favorable ‘news stories,’ and sometimes even direct income) could serve their interests better than outright censorship. Additionally, new political party-sponsored newspapers also emerged during this time.

This period also saw the expansion of press freedoms. Proponents of the liberty of the press argued that unfettered expression was a matter of human dignity, personal self-fulfillment, and representative governance. A key example of this occurred in 1734, during the prosecution of John Peter Zenger. Zenger published articles in The New York Weekly Journal that were critical of the royal governor of New York, William Cosby, and Zenger was subsequently charged with making claims that were harmful to Cosby’s reputation. At that time, in England and its colonies, defendants were more likely to face a severe penalty if their claims were truthful. (The logic was that a more truthful claim was even more harmful to a person’s reputation than a false one because the allegations were, well, true.) However, Zenger’s attorney was the first to successfully argue that the press has “a liberty both of exposing and opposing tyrannical power by speaking and writing truth.” This was a fairly novel argument at the time, and it captured the growing public support for independent and critical journalism. The argument’s success led to truth becoming a legally recognized defense against libel and defamation while further bolstering public support for freedom of the press.

A later example also captures the growing independence and power of the colonial press. To generate more revenue and maintain control of the press, the British government passed the Stamp Act of 1765. The Act imposed a tax on colonial publishers and required that many printed materials in the colonies be produced on stamped paper produced in London. The law was violently resisted in the colonies — it spurred cries of “no taxation without representation” — and the British government soon had to rescind it.

By 1775, there were roughly 37 weekly newspapers in the colonies. Those newspapers played a major role in defining the grievances of the colonists against the British government. Many of those newspapers, which were generally supported by different political factions, wrote in a highly interpretive, subjective manner. Moreover, they often wrote in support of independence. Put another way, during this period, the colonial press was hardly neutral. Additionally, it was loyalist newspapers that were being increasingly forced to shut down during this time, due to pressure — sometimes violent — from the colonists.

The Press in a New Nation

Shortly after its declaration of independence, the United States became a world leader in terms of its official guarantees for the freedom of expression. Citizens sought to secure the right to free expression, and nine of the 11 revolutionary-era state constitutions expressed that liberty of the press ought to be “inviolably” preserved or “never” restrained. Indeed, this sentiment is reflected in the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that Congress shall make “no law” abridging freedom of the press.

Such absolute guarantees did not manifest in practice, however. Historically, deviance from that principle has been especially pronounced during times of hysteria and partisan animosity. For example, the Federalist majority in Congress responded to international and domestic tensions by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. The Sedition Act in particular criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government, and it was used in the prosecution and conviction of many Jeffersonian newspaper owners who disagreed with the government. Shortly after the Federalists lost control of the government in 1800, the Sedition Act expired.

Nevertheless, truth continued to be recognized as a defense against important legal threats — in this case, against charges of sedition. However, some journalists were still convicted when their expressed opinions were not provably true. Despite these unfortunate incidents, the newly formed United States still generally promoted press freedoms by engaging in acts like opening legislative branches to the press (galleries were established to allow journalists and citizens to observe both branches of Congress) and continuing a tradition of open courtrooms.

Key Takeaways

  • Journalism during the colonial period was vastly different from journalism today, not only in format but also in its focus, manner of expression, and funding.

  • It was not until the 1730s that truth became a successful defense against charges of libel and defamation. Prior to that, truthful claims were seen as being even more injurious to a person’s reputation, and thus were subjected to higher penalties.

  • The colonial press was crucial in helping to consolidate colonial grievances and mobilize public opinion toward independence from the British government.

  • The freedom of the press is codified in the founding documents of the United States, though there is also a long history of U.S. government restrictions of the press.