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The Rise of the Newspaper in America: Boston 1690-1719

Newspapers in Boston in the early 18th century
Years Newspaper
1690 Publick Occurrences
1704-1719 Boston News-Letter
1719-1721 Boston News-Letter; Boston Gazette
1721-1726 Boston News-Letter; Boston Gazette; Boston New-England Courant
1726-1727 Boston News-Letter; Boston Gazette
1727-1731 Boston News-Letter; Boston Gazette; New-England Weekly Journal
1731-1734 Boston News-Letter; Boston Gazette; New-England Weekly Journal; Weekly Rehearsal


The invention of movable type and the printing press made possible the ability to produce cheaply enough for the masses. This meant that knowledge could be disseminated to all and was no longer the exclusive property of the rich. Therefore, an audience was created out of the common colonial in America that was a decidedly different audience from the rich and authoritative. Several newspapers emerged out of the colonial pre-revolution presses that illustrated the rise of the newspaper as a voice for the masses as well as both a record of the spoken word and as a record of the emergence of journalism. These newspapers were primarily in Boston, Philadelphia and New York with Boston serving as the so-called birthplace of the newspaper in America. Early American newspapers display how taking advantage of the affordances of movable type and the printing press allowed for attention to be paid to the physical presentation of the news as well as the content itself. Two early American publications, Publick Occurrences and the Boston News-Letter , show two distinct styles of reporting, organizing and disseminating news.

Pioneer Newspapers

Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick, 1690

Benjamin Harris's Publick Occurences, Both Forreign and Domestick published in 1690

Founded by British printer Benjamin Harris, Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick is often referred to as America’s first newspaper. However, the very definition of newspaper requires that there be continuity in its publication and while Harris intended it to be published more than once, it only made it to its first issue as it was banned for being critical of colonial policy and for displaying bad taste (Emery et al., 2000, p. 23). The primary purpose for the creation of Publick Occurrences was to provide a medium that the public could rely on for accurate local information that was understandable to the masses amidst chaotic conditions. Additionally, Harris intended to use the paper as a forum from which he could speak out on select issues (Sloan & Williams, p.4). In this regard, it is clear from the beginning that the rise of the newspaper in America was a direct public response to the politics of the day.

The suppression of Harris’s paper following its first publication was due to the issue of authority. The governing council claimed that they were the legitimate authority and as such, publications required the authorization of legitimate authority in order to “speak”. This early American form of censorship led the newspapers that followed to clear state “published with authority” on the front cover. The government mandate stated “that no Papers, Bookes, Pamphlets &c should be printed in New England untill Licensed according to Law” (Royal Instructions to British Colonial Governors 1670-1776, as cited in Sloan & Williams, p.6). This issuance was essentially recognition of the power of the printed word. Clearly, the governing council recognized the power that the newspaper presented in not only printing opinions, but also in distributing them quickly and easily and providing all readers with greater accessibility to this knowledge because of the brevity of the text.

Interestingly, it is reported that Harris left the fourth page blank so that “the reader could add his or her own news items before passing it on” (Emery et al., 2000, p.22). Harris's intentions for Publick Occurrences have some definite parallels to modern blogging. Publick Occurences can be described as a fact and opinion piece disseminated to the public with a space intended for comments or contribution - a definition that could also be applied to blogs. The fact that the publication was banned after its first issue because it was not issued "with authority" shows that perhaps, the world of 17th/18th century America was not ready for blog style literature.

Boston News-Letter, 1704

John Campbell's Boston News-Letter published in 1704

Following the unsuccessful Publick Occurrences, Boston was once again the birthplace of a new kind of newspaper, the Boston News-Letter created by postmaster John Campbell. Campbell created the Boston News-Letter with “authority” of course, to formalize the correspondence process and was influenced by the London Gazette as he copied the format exactly, as well as much of the content. Despite its name and “[w]ith the rare exception of local events that he had observed at first hand, Campbell’s news had come to him by way of oral reports form mariners in arriving ships or, more usually, by British ‘public prints’ carried in the same vessels” (Emery et al., 2000, p.78). As such, the events that the viewer read about originated in Britain and/or Europe and were 3-6 months old, depending on the length of time a ship took to cross the Atlantic.

The Boston News-Letter presented interesting issues of both space and time. By publishing items, almost verbatim, from the British public prints, American readers were exposed almost the same news as Londoners were exposed to. Unlike what Harris tried to do with Publick Occurrences by publishing about local occurrences, Campbell was trying to do the opposite. Despite the issue of space, local vs. foreign, the Boston News-Letter was still able to create a readership that relied on the newspaper for consistent information. Additionally, Campbell treated the issue of time in a unique regard. Using what was referred to as a “thread of occurrences”, Campbell attempted to present the news in a completely chronological manner. Keeping track of all of the news he collected, Campbell would print as much as possible in chronological order on one page, which sometimes pushed news items back even farther in the printing order. This presented a problem due to the length of time elapsing between the arrival of foreign news and its subsequent re-reporting in the Boston News-Letter. It also proved challenging because Campbell was adapting his news from public prints that used a categorical first, chronological second approach to organizing news.

“John Campbell’s ‘thread of occurrences’ is an extreme example of the chronological presentation of the news, an example that his competitors and successors modified in various ways. The main difference between Campbell and the others, however, was in his eagerness to construct a record that was in some measure complete as well as systematic, not in his use of a chronological format.” (Clark, p.216).

Despite the flaws in the presentation of the Boston News-Letter, the publication represented an attempt to take into account not just the audience of the news and the content of the news, but also the features afforded by printing technology in order to improve presentation. Regardless, these organizational features of the newspaper illustrate the point by Ong that “typographic control typically impresses more by its tidiness and inevitability” (2002, p.120). The early newspapers in America were indicative of the move from chirographic to typographic cultures and future printers would look to the examples set by both Harris and Campbell in order to improve upon their content, organization and appearance.

The Future

As a result of newspapers, “American colonials were moving into a more acute consciousness of their place in an ever more glorious empire in which they were proud participants” (Clark, 1994, p.252). Foreshadowing was in plain sight in the newspapers of the American colonies as they indicated an impending clash between the American colonials and the British. A series of events that included the Stamp Act of 1765 led to the American Revolutionary War lasting from 1775-1781. Instead of newspapers retreating as a result of the war, they exploded with the kind of journalism and reporting we know today. The early newspapers in America continued to build upon their predecessors and themselves by paying due attention to the actual presentation and organization of the news as much as the content itself. The affordances of movable type and the printing press were certainly realized by some of the pioneers of the newspaper and the public, whether subconsciously or consciously, began to think about news in terms of how the newspapers of the time were presenting it. The chronicling of different political voices echoed the sentiments of Walter Ong who observes “once the word is technologized, there is no effective way to criticize what technology has done with it without the aid of the highest technology available” (2002, p.79). As such, newspapers were embraced as a way of not only reporting but also rebuking, reneging, revoking and resolving issues that were both occurring and being printed. This revolutionary press served to solidify the newspaper as more than a voice; establishing it as a source of quickly printed breaking news and as a forum for political partisanship.


Clark, C. (1994). The Public Prints: The Newspaper in Anglo-American Culture, 1665-1740. New York: Oxford University Press.

Copeland, D. (1997). Colonial American Newspapers: Character and Content. Newark: Associated University Press.

Emery, M., Emery, E., & Roberts, N. (2000). The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. Cornwall: Routledge.

Publick occurrences : both forreign [sic] and domestic : Boston, Thursday Sept. 25th 1690. [Phoenix, Ariz.], [18--?]. 4pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. University of British Columbia. 21 October 2009

Sloan, D. (2005, Winter/Spring). John Campbell and the Boston News-Letter. Early America Review , VI (1).

Sloan, D., & Williams, J. (1994). The Early American Press, 1690-1783. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Accessed 24 Oct 2009 from

The Rise of the Newspaper in America: The Revolutionary Press 1763-1775