From imperial messenger and town crier to Citizen Kane: a vigorous history of the rise of the news business.
Who needs news, anyway? Well, writes Pettegree (Modern History/Univ. of St. Andrews; The Book in the Renaissance, 2010, etc.), first there is the potentate, who needs to know the doings in the far corners of the realm. Then there’s the merchant, who needs to know conditions in distant markets, the better to buy low and sell high. The author first examines such fledgling news enterprises as the couriers of European rulers and entrepreneurs, who, it can be surmised, were not always trustworthy, given the advantage they found in controlling what news was released and when. He then turns to such pioneers as the curious (in both senses) Cologne burger Herman Weinsberg, who kept dossiers on his relatives and neighbors: “It was only after his death that his appalled family members discovered that he had memorialised all their doings in an expansive chronicle of their lives and times.” Weinsberg also gathered accounts of political events, noting the importance of what emerged as a significant theme in Pettegree’s book: the integrity of the teller. The author takes a refreshingly broad view of what constitutes journalism—he includes medieval balladeers in the mix, for “singing ballads was a powerful part of information culture”—and of the genealogy of problems that any old-school newspaperperson will recognize: from the proper balance of ads to editorial copy to making decisions on what to run and what to spike and, as always, reaching audiences whose members might not always have appreciated that they needed the news that was on offer.
Was the newspaper an instrument of liberation or control? Can any news be trusted? Is the free flow of information essential to a democracy? Learned and well-written, Pettegree’s book ventures fruitful answers.