Satisfying the Demand for News

“ALL Athenians and the foreigners sojourning there would spend their leisure time at nothing but telling something or listening to something new,” reported the chronicler Luke almost 2,000 years ago. (Acts 17:21) A century earlier the Roman government, recognizing the public appetite for news, had begun displaying Acta Diurna, daily bulletins, in prominent places.

By the seventh century, the Chinese were producing the world’s first printed newspaper, called Dibao (Pao). In Europe, where many people were then still illiterate, traveling storytellers spread accounts of wars, calamities, crimes, and other matters. Later, handwritten and woodcut-illustrated newssheets regarding such things were sold in public markets and at fairs.

In time, trading houses enriched their business letters with important news items. Eventually, these items appeared on an extra sheet called nova (news), which could be circulated.

The Birth of Newspapers

At the start of the 17th century, two German newspapers began regular publication. Relation (relating the news), of Strasbourg, was first printed in 1605; Avisa Relation oder Zeitung (news advisory), of Wolfenbüttel, began publication in 1609. The first daily newspaper in Europe was the Einkommende Zeitungen (Incoming News), which appeared in Leipzig, Germany, in 1650.

That first daily paper in Leipzig consisted of four pocket-size pages. These presented  news items in random order. Single copies of this paper were fairly inexpensive, but a year’s subscription would cost a well-paid worker a whole month’s wages. Still, the demand for newspapers grew rapidly. By the year 1700, in Germany alone there were between 50 and 60 regular newspapers, and these reached several hundred thousand readers.

At first, news sources were letters, other newspapers, postmasters who received news by mail and reproduced it, or simply gossip picked up by newsmen in public places. With growing competition, however, publishers worked on improving the quantity and quality of the news. They hired their first professional editors. And because most publishers could not afford an extensive network of news sources and journalists, the appetite for news led to the formation of news agencies for gathering and distributing news to subscribing publishers.

Vital Contributing Inventions

The newspaper business would not have been possible without important inventions, especially Johannes Gutenberg’s method of printing with movable type. Further inventions made newspaper production practical and affordable. In the 1860’s, for example, the web rotary press made it possible to print on a continuous roll of paper rather than on separate sheets. Shortly afterward, the Linotype machine was used to compose metal type into pages for printing. Then, in the latter half of the 20th century, computer typesetting replaced costly hand work.

In the meantime, news itself traveled ever faster as the telegraph began to come into common use in the 1840’s, typewriters in the 1870’s, and the telephone at about the same time. More recently, in the lifetime of millions now living, the use of computers, e-mail, and fax machines has become common in the newspaper business. Reporters arrive at the scene of their story ever sooner​—by rail, automobile, and airplane. And speedy transport now delivers ever more newspapers.

What Gets Into the Paper?

Finding enough news is not a problem in many places in our ever-shrinking world. “The difficulty lies more in selecting from a vast and never-ending torrent of news,” according to the editors of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. News agencies flood Germany’s newspapers with some 2,000 items each day. Reporters, correspondents, news broadcasts, and other sources inundate newspaper editors even further.

Two thirds of the news consists of announcements​—press statements and reports about scheduled events, such as concerts, sports events, and conventions. Editors must know their market to meet the demand for information on subjects of local interest, which might include harvest results, anniversaries, and celebrations.

Sports sections, comic sections, political cartoons, and editorials are popular parts of newspapers. Feature stories, reports from foreign countries, and interviews with prominent figures and experts on particular  subjects can be both insightful and entertaining.

Newspapers Face a Crisis

“Germany’s newspaper industry is facing the toughest financial crisis of its history,” reported the newspaper Die Zeit in 2002. And for 2004 the Swiss Press Association reported the lowest total circulation in ten years. What has happened to the demand for newspapers?

For one thing, the global economy took a downturn, cutting back advertising, which had generated two thirds of many papers’ revenues. Between 2000 and 2004, the U.S. Wall Street Journal lost 43 percent of its advertising revenue. Will the ads return in the wake of an economic upswing? Many classified ads for real estate, jobs, and cars have been lost to the Internet. Today newspapers compete with electronic media​—radio, television, and the Internet.

On the other hand, the demand for news is alive and well. Professor of media economics Axel Zerdick remarked to a Frankfurt, Germany, newspaper: “The crisis is not quite as bad as most journalists believe.” The chief editor of a German daily’s local section echoed that view, observing: “The regional [newspaper] is still going strong.”

Even if it is granted that nothing beats newspapers for in-depth coverage and the power to trigger public discussion, the questions remain: Can you trust their slant on the news? How can you benefit most from the newspapers you read?

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JOURNALISM​—A DEMANDING PROFESSION

One might envy journalists. “Having one’s name in the press can give a journalist a feeling of personal glory,” admitted one longtime French journalist. Yet, journalism can also bring its frustrations​—a story snapped away by a rival, an interview request turned down, countless hours spent waiting for an event that never materializes.

A newspaper writer in Poland noted another challenge. “We do not know when we will have time off or when we will have to work,” she said. “Sometimes our privacy suffers, and the pace of work may disturb our family life.” And a former journalist in what was then the Soviet Union pointed to perhaps the greatest frustration, “I worked so hard, but in the end it was still not published.”

A sports writer for the largest newspaper in the Netherlands revealed: “I am often told that I am ignorant. Some readers get angry or frustrated, and as emotions at times temporarily run high in sports, people have even threatened to kill me.” So, what motivates journalists to continue?

For some, of course, it could be the paycheck​—but not for all. A journalist who works for a French paper spoke of his love of writing. A Mexican journalist said, “At least you manage to provide something worth knowing.” And in Japan a senior editor of the world’s second-largest daily commented, “I find joy when I feel that I have helped people and when justice is served.”

Newspapers, of course, are not the work of journalists alone. Depending on the size and structure of the publishing house, there may be editors, proofreaders, fact checkers, archivists, and many others who work very hard, but anonymously, so that you will get your paper.

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An early German newspaper and a modern newsstand

[Credit Line]

Early German newspaper: Bibliothek für Kunst-und Antiquitäten-Sammler, Vol. 21, Flugblatt und Zeitung, 1922