News Media Canada is pleased to provide information regarding the history of newspapers in Canada and worldwide.
- The First Period, 1752-1807
- The Second Period, 1807-1858
- The Third Period, 1858-1900
- The Twentieth Century and Beyond
One of the earliest publications that could be described as a daily newspaper appeared in Rome around 69 B.C. It was a primitive news sheet called Acta Diurna (acts of the day) and described the activities of the Roman Senate.
Marco Polo, after his 13th century journey to the Orient, returned to Europe with the idea of the court gazette, thought to be the oldest continuing newspaper in history, since it did not disappear in China until early in the 20th century. Gazette, however, has Italian origins. In Venice in the 16th century, accounts of frequent wars of the time were printed in a news bulletin, a copy of which could be bought with a small coin called a “gazetta.” The name stuck as a description of the paper and outlasted the coin.
Another early newspaper appeared in the Germanic states of the 1500s. The German people had long been accustomed to broadsheets (single page news sheets printed on one side only), pamphlets and books. Then, news pamphlets began appearing in special shops, dealing with new topics such as battles, disasters, miracles and coronations. In the 1700s, more or less regular newspapers began to appear all over Europe, many inaugurated by travelling Germans.
Journalists in England, during the revolution of the 17th century, enjoyed considerable freedom which has lasted for good and bad for 250 to 300 years. Strict printing laws of that time were relaxed or repealed altogether. This launched the English tradition of freedom of the press, and it followed the growth of representative government after 1688.
Birthplace of the American press was the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England in the 1630s. Since tyranny of class, government and church were the reasons most people migrated to the colony, the first small news publications naturally dealt with these problems. Because many settlers were from the new middle class of England, their educational level was high and printers held an important place in the community. However, newspapers then were licensed and suppressed if they irritated authorities.
The first successful and regularly published newspaper didn’t appear, however, until 1704, some 80 years after the colony was established. Then, during the pre-revolutionary period, other regular newspapers began publication. These played an important part in the fight to sever ties with Britain. As the lawyers and activists spread the doctrine of revolution by oratory, printers and journalists did so in print.
After the American Revolution came the era of the partisan press. Political interest groups came to rely on the press to spread their ideas. Many groups even formed their own newspapers. The opposing views of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton are examples.
Soon, newspaper editors and publishers began to strive for independence from powerful partisan ownership. Papers with universal appeal, embracing a spectrum of political news, were seen to offer greater economic rewards. The rising costs of operation and the need for more advertising brought about the “penny press” around 1833, a newspaper designed for the common man. Originally of a sensational nature, these eventually developed into more literate and responsible organs.
In time, as papers became larger, advertising became more important as a source of income. At the same time, the move toward editorial independence gave new stature to the news function. Printers and editors knew that the readers wanted news that was factual and current.
Then came a key development that transformed journalism and newspapers: the formation of wire services to gather and collate news from all over the world and transmit it by the telegraph.
Set up on a national, then international scale, wire services could gather and report all the world news, and give it to subscribing newspapers faster than ever before. For the first time, the readers were put in close touch with events outside of their communities.
The transformation, in terms of technology, efficiency and journalist ideology, has continued unabated.
In the last two decades, the pace has quickened, ushering in a new era of newspapering. Words such as telecommunications, satellite transmission, laser beams, video display terminals (VDTs), electronic journalism, online newspapers, Internet, videotex, fax newspapers, and databases have become buzzwords in the industry. Typewriters and teleprinters of the 1970s were replaced by video display terminals and then desktop computers which can design pages, thus changing, reordering and in some cases displacing some of the ancient printing crafts.
Out went hot lead and linotype machines which had done the work up until the early 1970s; in came computers which churned out “cold type” film to be pasted on newspaper flats. As the mid-90s approached, many newspapers had invested in the new desktop publishing phenomenon and designed their entire newspaper on computers. Gone was the stereo department which cast the heavy plates for the rotary presses; in came the wafer-thin plates engraved photographically and placed on highly sophisticated presses.
Today, newspapers which address a national audience can be assembled and printed in one city and simultaneously be generated in a variety of other cities.
Pace-setters in the field in Canada are The Globe and Mail and the National Post which publish in Toronto and transmit those pages by satellite to printing plants in major cities across the country. Similar endeavours are operated south of the border by The New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal.
Today, a newspaper is more than just the traditional product on newsprint. There are online editions of almost all of Canada’s daily newspapers, audiotex, blogs, pod casts, interaction, multi-media, video, partnerships with broadcast, CD-ROM, news databases, and email newsletters, among others. Newspaper companies are attaching themselves to many forms of new media as they diversify and converge to meet the increasing demands of a news and advertising consumer.
Much of the following is a condensation of the book, A History of Journalism in Canada, by W. H. Kesterton, published by McClelland and Stewart Limited in 1967.
Newspapers were transplanted to Canada from the New England colonies. The first was the Halifax Gazette, issued on March 23, 1752, by John Bushell, a printer from Boston. It was during this 55-year period that Canada’s early easternmost provinces saw their first newspapers established, including the Quebec Gazette, whose roots still exist in what has been cited as the longest surviving newspaper in North America, the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, a weekly in Quebec City.
The early newspapers depended on government patronage for revenue and were therefore subservient to the officials of the day. Their content consisted of government announcements and foreign news. Even though the news was months out of date, people read it eagerly. Advertisements were small and unimaginative, ranging from property for sale to general store commodities. Early news sheets rarely contained more than four pages, and publication was usually once a week.
As settlers arrived from Great Britain and the United States, newspapers began to grow in the Maritimes and the two Canadas. Self-sufficient editors began obtaining revenue from commercial advertisements, rather than government business. Editors were usually politicians, and their newspapers were labelled according to the political stands they took (for example, Reform or Tory).
In 1835, Joseph Howe undertook his own defence after being brought to trial for having published a scathing criticism of the Halifax police and magistrates in his paper, the Nova Scotian. Against all odds–and contrary to the advice of the judge–the jury acquitted him. Howe was later elected to the legislature.
As responsible government evolved, a new climate of intellectual tolerance and newspaper freedom was introduced. Some important Upper Canada newspapers at this time were the Kingston Gazette, established by Stephen Miles, 1810; the Bytown Packet, established by William Harris in 1844, now The Ottawa Citizen; Toronto Globe, established by George Brown in 1844; and the Colonial Advocate, established by William Lyon Mackenzie, 1824-1834.
The press spread westward with new settlers. The discovery of gold between 1856 and 1858 brought people to the Pacific Coast region, while the Homestead Act of 1872, the Canadian Pacific Railway, and development of hardy wheat varieties brought settlers to the Prairies.
There was an interest in domestic affairs, such as the Riel Rebellion and Confederation, and more current foreign news. Illustrations, mainly line drawings, made their first appearance.
In the east, more newspapers appeared. The Montreal Gazette was founded in 1855 by P.D. Ross. As well, there were mechanical changes, such as wood-pulp newsprint manufacturing and electrically-driven rotary power presses after 1890. Press freedom became clearer as its limits were outlined in new statutes.
The 20th century began an era of immense change for Canadian newspapers. Through two world wars, a depression, and the post-war years of industrial and technological development, the circulation of French and English newspapers together grew to a level of more than 5.7 million in 1989 before a recession took its toll and an explosion of other forms of information began to compete for a reader’s time. Today, about 5.2 million Canadians receive a daily newspaper.
At the beginning, from 1901 to 1911, Canada was the fastest growing country in the world. In 1900, over-all newspaper circulation stood at 650,000. Eleven years later, that figure had more than doubled. In 1938, the number of general interest daily newspapers reached a peak of 138, subsiding to 87 in 1945, then rising steadily into the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, there were 110 daily newspapers in Canada; today, there are 105.
In 1917, Canadian newspapers banded together to form The Canadian Press, a news-gathering co-operative which ensured that stories at one end of the country would be available to papers at the other end. For the first time, the Canadian reader was in close and immediate touch with events all over the world through the telegraph wire.
Since the 1960s, several major newspapers have closed, including the Toronto Telegram, Montreal Star, Ottawa Journal and Winnipeg Tribune. At the same time, new dailies have been started in Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec, including Canada’s second national daily, the National Post, in 1998. Ownership has devolved–not without controversy–to several major newspaper chains, among them CanWest Global, Hollinger International, Quebecor, Torstar, Osprey Media Group, and Power Corp. The once-mighty Thomson newspaper chain, which had 40 newspapers in the early ’90s, sold its last two Canadian newspapers, Winnipeg Free Press and Brandon Sun, to a pair of Winnipeg entrepreneurs in 2001. Thomson maintains ownership in The Globe and Mail.
In the area of press freedom, the “unshackled press” demanded by Joseph Howe in 1835 has remained an active legacy to Canadian citizens. A body of newspaper law has grown up, covering matters of libel, contempt of court and copyright. As well, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms passed as part of the Canadian constitution in 1981 guarantees “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”
Canadian newspapers continue to face challenges and competition in their role as bearers of news in the information age. While information itself proliferates at an astonishing rate in a variety of forms, methods of storing and distributing it have grown more encompassing and complex. Yet newspapers keep pace, performing energetically the job of bringing people what they need and want to know in clear, responsible and convenient manner.