On election eve it is not just the political parties who find themselves in a state of high excitement, but also the newspaper editorial offices. The papers publish projections of votes and victory with a keen eye for detail, updating them with every new edition. As the election results begin to become clear from around 6pm the countdown to the deadline in editorial offices begins to kick in. Commentary and editorial pieces must keep pace with the ever-changing coalition options. Judging the likely political consequences of all arithmetical eventualities involves the consideration of many unpredictable details; it is like watching the delight or disappointment as it becomes visible in faces. And though an article may have been drafted in advance, its skeleton will change shape in the writing. The deadline is a harsh taskmistress, cracking the whip to make one write faster and, where necessary, even doing away with the individual writer. A single author can write a 135-line commentary piece on an election in about an hour, if well-prepared. But a reportage piece of over 300 lines that includes reports from various locales and quotes from a range of voices requires several authors, all writing concurrently.
The word generally used for this merciless law of news-writing is “deadline”. There’s a plausible explanation of its origin in the history of the American Civil War and the prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville in Georgia. Prisoners here were not allowed to cross a simple barrier by the outer edge of the camp. To do so meant to risk being shot dead. During the press coverage of the Civil War, this “dead-line”, originally not a metaphor but a name for a line that meant death to those who crossed it, migrated over to journalism as “deadline” and came to mean a temporal rather than a spatial limit, the limit that a writer had to stick to in submitting articles if, for the purposes of the present edition, his text was not to die out. This deadline has not merely driven many an editor and section head to distraction. It has also given rise to ingenious notions and formulations, which would never have seen the light without it.
When a deadline is exceeded in print media, the news supply continues uninterrupted. While the newspapers are printed and distributed, their staccato rhythm still sets the pace for radio, television and the Internet, and when the print editions of the papers appear the next day, in most distribution points their latest voting figures are usually just the last before the deadline and, as the saying has it, already “old news”. Looking at the most up-to-date forms of online media, one must keep an eye on the range of media supplying news at different speeds, and on the overlap and hybridisation of their forms. Online media represent the vanishing point in this perspective, the closest possible conjunction of event and news report. I will follow this path in the opposite direction, however, and approach our current mix of print and online formats by going back to the original medium which first produced “the news” as a form of modern temporal experience: the printed news-sheet.
We have been led astray by the accepted image of a book-centred age of Gutenberg, beginning in the mid-fifteenth century and now drawing to a close, and we tend to dismiss the breaks and discontinuities within this Gutenberg era. This is above all particularly true of the most important break, when the news-sheet and then the newspaper appeared. First came the book as codex, and then the periodical press as a new medium in the world, a medium that certainly shared with the book paper as substrate and printing as technology, but which at the same time was different from the book. The printing press on its own was not able to produce a newspaper. After Gutenberg, it took a good 150 years before the first printed newspaper appeared on the market in Strasbourg around 1605: the Relation of Johannes Carolus. During these 150 years the modern infrastructure of the postal service developed in Germany, benefiting not just merchants but also the Humanists, who wrote letters and sent their books all across the land.
It was around 1600 that the Holy Roman Empire’s postal service – the Reichspost – definitively replaced the mediaeval system of city message-carriers and envoys, and brought in an increasingly regular system of roads. The new medium of the news-sheet found its niche in this infrastructure of smoother travel and faster circulation of goods and people. This was still the case in the eighteenth century, when the experienced diplomat Joachim von Schwarzkopf, Minister in Residence for both Great Britain and Brunswick at the court of Frankfurt, wrote his book about newspapers, Über Zeitungen: “Two institutions, themselves very tightly connected, reached out the hand of friendship and support to newspapers – the postal service and trade.” Here “trade” means the regional representatives of the great merchants, whose network of long-distance trade routes contributed greatly to the demand for reliable means of transport and for channels of news. This is an older meaning of “communication”, not yet primarily restricted to the spoken word, a meaning which Goethe still used as Kommunikation in the 1820s when he coined his neologism Weltliteratur – “world literature” – with an eye on the railroads, steam ships and express post services of his day. Kommunikation always had to do with the infrastructure of traffic and transport, the means by which space and time were overcome.
The emphasis that Schwarzkopf put on the way in which the newspapers benefited from the postal service and from the circulation of news among merchants has been shown to be justified by the detailed work of such historians of the Early Modern era as Wolfgang Behringer, and by historical scholarship on the press.
Such studies have shown that when in 1605 in Strasbourg, a well-connected city from the point of view of transport routes, the publisher Johannes Carolus unleashed the periodical press as the second Early Modern media revolution, he was already working to deadlines. He had the boundless innovation and energy of an entrepreneur who has spotted a gap in the market, and he filled it with a weekly news-sheet that assessed all the news that came in with one post and was sent out with the next. He tailored the whole operation so that it took only one night to write, set up and print his news-sheet.
Carolus’ business idea was to adapt the hand-written news-letter to the print format. The change of format depended for commercial success on making a profit through a higher output, even if to our eyes it still seems low – an edition of 150 copies. Hand-written news-letters were once themselves a new medium for the speedy circulation of news. The news-letters of the wealthy Fugger mining dynasty are probably the best-known example, though by no means an isolated instance. These news-letters were not a continuation of the merchants’ business correspondence as such, but rather a manifestation of merchants’ interest in any and every piece of news that might influence their decision-making. Such letters were a store of news which, while not entirely sealed off, did not seek publicity, whereas the printed news-sheets truly sought out the market and public exposure. The hand-written newsletters were very much like the printed news-sheets though, in that both placed great emphasis on political and military news from many countries, and reflected a range of topics and concerns going well beyond mere business news; both also relied on offering the latest news within a regular schedule. And despite what Marshall McLuhan’s general formula “from manuscript to print” may suggest, the medium of the hand-written news-letter did not vanish once the printed news-sheet had begun to appear.
When “news” and a “regular schedule” are brought together and shape one another, this creates the critical conditions for the newspaper as a medium. German newspapers still have names such as the Rheinische Post, reminding us that its regular publication derived from the regular delivery of post. However, as well as these temporal characteristics, newspapers have two further particular features: they are public, that is they address the public at large and aim to be generally accessible; and they are universal, that is they have no specialist readership and carry “all the news that’s fit to print”. These other characteristics, just like the historical roots in the postal services, can also be read in the titles of German newspapers today. The Frankfurter Neue Presse boasts in its title of the technology of the printing press, the Augsburger Allgemeine and Frankfurter Allgemeine both make a point of their universal coverage, and the Hamburger Abendblatt announces itself as a regularly appearing paper, new every evening.
News value, regular publication, public address and universal coverage are not a list of cumulative qualities but rather intertwined and interdependent characteristics. When Otto Groth (1875-1965) embarked on his ambitious attempt to provide a theoretical framework for the scholarly study of newspapers in the 1920s, this bundle of interconnected characteristics had no secure historical basis.
Scholarship on newspaper history only provided such a basis in the Sixties, rising to Groth’s challenge that we should recognise the periodical press as “an unacknowledged cultural force”. Research has supplied a nuanced reconstruction of the second Early Modern media revolution after the invention and cultural diffusion of book printing.
We have seen that the early news-sheets, entirely concerned with dry accounts of their political, diplomatic and military subject matter, were still a long way from the claim of being able to provide universal coverage. It was only in the seventeenth century that the constant hunger for news during the Thirty Years War – and in England, during the prolonged conflicts between Parliament and King – made the newspapers a power to be reckoned with, and their language slowly changed from the diction of the select few and became a truly public discourse. It was then too that the whole range of specialist sections appeared along with standards of layout and editorial work, and the figure of the journalist became differentiated from the ensemble of postmaster, printer and scribe – and newspapers began to reflect politically on the news they contained. Newspapers such as the Götter-Both Mercurius began, in the late seventeenth century, to reflect upon their own role once the habit of reading the news had become entrenched, not least in order to amplify its effects.
If we return once more to the deadline, we find that it is influenced by all four of the connected characteristics underpinning the newspaper as a developed print medium. The deadline exists because the classic newspaper as a physical object must be printed and distributed. Both of these take time, and though this time factor can be reduced by printing technology and by logistics, it cannot be entirely eliminated. The printed newspaper is subject to deadlines not only because it offers news, but because it offers news to all: the time required to print an edition varies not only according to the capacity of the presses but also with the size of the print run. Similarly, the time needed for distribution depends on the print run and on the newspaper’s regional reach. How much there actually is to print and distribute depends in turn on the criterion of universal coverage. The size of a newspaper is determined by its division into sections, politics, comment and culture, finance, sport, review, supplements, advertising features and so forth. Such factors as page count and print run, which result from the public address and universal coverage, combine with the demands of up-to-date news and regular publishing to make deadlines an absolute necessity for the printed daily newspaper.
In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther used the word Zeitung, which today means newspaper, to mean what its English cognate tidings still means – a message, a piece of news, an announcement. Later on that century Johann Fischart could write that “they had no tidings of the saints” – “Auch hatten sie noch keine Zeitung von unseren Heiligen“. However, since the seventeenth century, in modern German the word Zeitung no longer meant the individual item of news but rather the medium that gathers and spreads the news. As Niklas Luhmann liked to point out, even in its role as a medium for books, the printing press valued the new over the old and over tradition, not least since in the world of the printed book the latest, newest edition always had to meet the highest standards of truth and accuracy. In contrast to which, in manuscript culture, where texts were produced by way of longhand copying, the latest manuscript is the furthest from the original and most suspected of containing scribal errors from many hands. In contrast with the printed book, however, the accelerated production and distribution of news favours the cultural emphasis on what is new and stimulates curiosity – or in German Neugier, the greed for the new, the theologically suspect but insatiable curiositas.
One hint of this comes in the lamentations of readers with deep roots in the learned republic of letters, who bemoaned the demands and temptations of faster circulation of news. In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1628, the scholar Robert Burton did not just complain of the incessant demands of all those catalogues of new books clamouring to be read; he also revealed himself to be an eager if protesting consumer of every possible kind of “news”. He seeks confirmation in classical authors such as Pliny that even in ancient times, the appetite for news was nothing new, but he knows at heart that there is no historical precedent for the clouds of news that sweep across his awareness with ever greater speed: “Every day almost come new news unto our ears, as how the sun was eclipsed, meteors see’n i’ the air, monsters born, prodigies, how the Turks were overthrown in Persia, an earthquake in Helvetia, Calabria, Japan, or China an inundation in Holland, a great plague in Constantinople, a fire at Prague, a dearth in Germany, such a man is made a lord, a bishop, another hanged, deposed, pressed to death for some murder, treason, rape, theft, oppression, all which we do hear at first with a kind of admiration, detestation, consternation, but by and by they are buried in silence: thy father’s dead, thy brother robbed, wife runs mad, neighbour hath killed himself; ’tis heavy, ghastful, fearful news at first, in every man’s mouth, table talk; but after a while, who speaks or thinks of it?”
Robert Burton belonged to the first generation of newspaper readers. He laments not just the sheer quantity of news, but also the disparate juxtaposing of the neighbour who has killed himself and the earthquake in China, the floods in Holland and the famine in Germany at the time of the Thirty Years War. In the first printed newspaper mentioned above, the Strasbourg Relation of Johannes Carolus, there was no local news section. Burton’s list of “news” is characterised by correspondents’ reports from all around the world, which were such a prominent feature of early newspapers alongside the political and military coverage.
This example shows that when we think about news, we are thinking not just about a concept of time but also about the intersection of objective and subjective ways of coordinating oneself in time and space. Newspapers bring together a scattered readership, making one community of experience from many readers all through the physical space of their distribution network. Thus they supplied one pre-condition for the formation of the “man of his time”. And they also united the present time of the non-traveller with the more or less contemporaneous present moment in China or Japan. Today, we would discuss this spatial dimension of the news covered in newspapers with the term “globalization”. The table talk that Burton mentions also extends the reach of the public that the printing press created. It is not by chance that he talks of how news comes upon our ears, and the passage quoted sounds as though it was written less from the experience of reading the printed news-sheets as from listening to the hubbub of voices which news becomes in the tavern or coffee house. Newspapers were often read collectively, and read aloud, so that they very often reached even those who could not themselves read. The average newspaper had at least ten – usually male – readers. When this reading public took shape as a counterpart to the predominantly female readership for novels at the time, this laid the groundwork for the public sphere of argument and political discussion which took shape thereafter – and we may remark that this all happened earlier than we read in Jürgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.
We can already hear the dialectical structure of the interplay of regular publishing with new content in Burton’s lament, “But after a while, who speaks or thinks of it?” This rhetorical question expresses the insight that regular publication not only supports new content by ensuring that the news is reliably delivered, but also sweeps away the new content as it goes along. News suffuses the newspapers with an aroma that is soon dissipated. The modern saying that there’s nothing so old as yesterday’s newspaper captures only one side of the dialectic. It talks of the material side of this process, the way that today’s newspaper becomes wastepaper. But the change from “news” to “old news” is not quite the same as news vanishing without a trace. In the periodical press, the newest copy of a newspaper does not delete the news of previous editions so much as produce a palimpsest, a continuation, enriching the older editions, and even the topics that today’s copy does not address do not vanish without trace into the maw of oblivion. A regular publication is a form of intermittent continuity. News grows old by passing through people like food, which we consume periodically in much the same way.
Such gastronomic metaphors can be found early on in tracts on newspaper-reading that discussed the need for news in terms of the legitimacy or otherwise of curiositas, viewed in mediaeval times as a sin. Readers devoured new books as quickly as the catalogues of the book fairs could deliver them, and more quickly still they gulped down the news in the periodical press. Even when the executed murderer or deposed bishop was forgotten, the knowledge of living in a present moment remained – a present that was no less eventful and varied, at the horizontal level of time, than the synchronous level of past time. The awareness of the present was created not by this or that piece of news, but rather by the institutionalised interplay of new content and regular publication. “Every day come new news to our ears”, says the scholar Robert Burton. The periodical press, with the newspaper at its pulsating core, was the key medium in which the sense of present time was produced and perceived from the seventeenth century right down to the twentieth. It made the present moment into an epoch in its own right, and awoke in the “man of his time” the awareness of belonging to that epoch. Curiositas was interested in what was new in the newspapers, a form of knowledge that departs drastically from familiarity with tradition and the knowledge imparted thereby. Curiositas though was justified by overwriting the older philosophical concept of actualitas with a journalistic view of the new. One aspect to consider here is that modern concepts lag behind the phenomenon itself, which had already taken shape as a medium of news in the early seventeenth century. The modern concept only becomes generally accepted in the nineteenth century. Another aspect to consider is that although French and German adapted the old concept of actualitas for their new purposes, this did not happen everywhere else.
It takes a century and more after the appearance of printed news-sheets before the first usage of the modern term is recorded, still in adjectival form, in the Manuel Lexique, ou Dictionnaire portatif des mots françois, dont la signification n’est pas familière a tout le Monde of 1755. This was a general conversational dictionary aimed at a reading public who, not always familiar with classical languages or with the terminology of the then modern sciences, did not wish this unfamiliarity to impede their reading of books and newspapers. The author of the dictionary was the Abbé Prevost, also author of the Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731), one of the most successful of the eighteenth-century novels of sentiment. The Abbé Prevost however was not just a novelist, but at the same time an active journalist. The brief entry for “actuel” in his Dictionnaire for readers of the newspapers and magazines skips any etymologies or derivations, and merely proffers the pithy definition: “ce qui se fait ou ce qui se passe au moment présent”. In French, as later in German, what is “actual” is whatever is happening at a given moment.
The Abbé Prevost thereby put a seal of learned approval upon a development in everyday language, which highlighted the temporal aspect of a philosophical tradition of what is real and (in the continuing English sense) “actual”; in French and German, this temporal aspect became the core meaning of the actuel/aktuell. “Ce qui se passe au moment présent” – this is the stuff that newspapers are made of. The adjective became a noun in the realm of French journalism and thence reached Germany, where it kept its French air as late as the end of the nineteenth century, as recorded in the entry for “aktuell” in the Brockhaus encyclopaedia of 1894.
“Gegenwärtig bezeichnet der Ausdruck (in Anlehnung an den Gebrauch bei den Franzosen) das, was zur Zeit noch lebendiges Interesse oder zu den Tagesfragen Beziehung hat, im Unterschied zu dem, was ‘nur noch historisch’ interessiert.” In Germany just as in France, the development of the periodical press became part of the etymology and validation of actualité, bound up with the multiple meanings of the “moment présent”. The Grimm Brothers’ dictionary offers a richly documented history for the German word Gegenwart – the present moment – and one continuing trend here is the way that German usage has shifted the meaning of the word toward the temporal dimension at the expense of the meaning of “physical presence” – although this spatial meaning has never been quite lost.
In Anglo-Saxon usage, there never was any such import from the French. When a British or American speaker talks of “what I actually mean” he is not stressing that this is the opinion that he holds at present, but rather rhetorically underlining that this is what he really, truly thinks. Thus the English “actual” has remained more faithful to the Latin conceptual tradition of actualitas, while English uses the word “news” for what is actuel/aktuell. When Robert Burton, in a characteristic turn of phrase, speaks of “new news”, this is not a tautology but rather a tip of the hat to the interaction of new content and regular publication, the newspaper’s intermittent pulse.
Benedict Anderson, in his study Imagined Communities (1983), and John C. Sommerville, in The News Revolution in England (1996), both remarked on the continuously updated character of newspapers, the way they sliced up and apportioned the knowledge they convey through regular publication and the focus on the new. Both scholars also interpret this aspect of newspapers as moulding a new way of looking at the world, one which gravitates toward instability, risk and change. In this view of things, the newspaper is the medium which leads away from the world of religious certainty, established tradition and static, hierarchical society – true even where newspapers support the status quo, either of their own accord or under censorship. This is because newspapers change the world into one of continuous flux, and thereby amplify economic, technological and political change.
If this is so, then it is no great leap to the thesis that the periodical press, as a dynamic force, helps create the present on which it reports. Indeed in the late eighteenth century the press was often compared to the dynamic power of galvanism and electricity. Contemporaries saw this creative dynamism at work in the French Revolution, itself a great machine that produced and condensed news. The end of the ancien régime created a rapidly expanding, highly-differentiated newspaper market for new Royalist and anti-Royalist titles, all of which took part in the revolutionary process. This participation, and its dramatic potential, are touchingly captured in Jacques-Louis David’s painting of the murder of the journalist Jean-Paul Marat – a work of contemporary history painting. The work reifies a central feature of the modern world, a feature that rose to greatness in the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon, and is omnipresent today – “contemporary history”.
This is history not yet grown cold, where the immediate present moment and the barely past meet in the experience of those generations still alive to see them. In Strasbourg, where the first printed newspaper had appeared barely two hundred years before, a newspaper was published from 1790 onwards with the title Geschichte der gegenwärtigen Zeit – “History of the present times”. A generation later, Heinrich Heine was to write his series of articles on “Französische Zustände” – “Conditions in France” – for the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, with the claim that he was “writing the history of the present moment”. Thus alongside the periodical press, its own particular style of historiography also develops.
Sometime between 1801 and 1804 in Jena, Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel made a famous remark about the daily ritual of reading the newspapers: “Reading the morning papers is a form of morning blessing for the realists. We determine our attitude to the world either by turning toward God or toward the world as it is. In either case we have the assurance that we know where we stand.” These sentences offer the post-revolutionary antithesis to the newspaper as an instrument of erosion and change, the medium that amplifies all crises and revolutions. News, and its intermittent, regular appearance, continues quite independently of whether it is reporting on battles or peace treaties, as an agent of “assurance” in the world order. Hegel declared that reading the newspapers was a secular analogy for the morning blessing, a prominent ritual in Protestant daily practice, spoken as each day begins. The German text of the blessing was by Luther himself, who recommended that the believer cross himself before speaking the words. It opens with:
Das walte Gott Vater, Sohn und Heiliger Geist! Amen.
I thank You, my heavenly Father,
through Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son,
that You have this night
preserved me from all perils and dangers,
and I pray unto You
that You will preserve me also this day
from sins and from all evil,
that all my deeds and my life may be pleasing to You.
The New Testament, the text which underpins this morning prayer, is at one and the same time a revelation and “good news”, the original English meaning of Gospel. “Behold, I bring unto you good tidings” – and in tidings we hear an echo of the German Zeitung. The Gospel gains currency by being repeated ever anew, always the same message, and ever since Luther’s day it has reached the public through a fusion of preaching and the mass circulation of printed Bible translations. The New Testament also claims to offer universal coverage inasmuch as it is addressed to all mankind, and it achieves regular publication inasmuch as it is an element of churchgoing, of the morning blessing and evening prayer. Hegel had interpreted reading the morning newspapers as a secularized form of the morning blessing, but even before him the seventeenth century saw a sacralization of the newspapers, culminating in Kaspar Stieler’s Zeitungs Lust und Nutz (“The enjoyment and utility of news-sheets, 1695), the first comprehensive study of newspapers and newspaper-reading. In this work God appears as, in his own way, both novelist and newspaper-writer, while the newspaper derives from the Gospel and continues it, being like the Gospel a medium wherein God reveals himself to men. “The newspaper is a pulsating, continually updated medium which writes the progress of world history, the history in which God shows himself – and as such, the newspaper is hard at the heels of God himself, the divine maker of history and author of all time.”
Hegel suggests that the regularly appearing, ever-new newspapers have inherited the structural function of the rituals of Christian daily practice and the church calendar, growing into their space, replacing and transforming them. “Give us this day our daily press” – the rhythms of secularity are no different from the religious morning blessing, a way to offer solace and assurance. News can infect everyday life with the disquiet of revolutionary times. But it can also, when published regularly, act at the same time to integrate new experience continuously into the status quo and make reading the newspapers into a declaration of trust in the world, on an equal footing with trust in God.
Nineteenth-century novels are full of newspaper-readers, but the most charming example of this effect is beyond doubt Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky, in whose house Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina begins. Hegel would have loved him. Ever since his wife discovered his infidelities, the whole household has been in uproar. The cook has taken to his heels, the kitchen maid and coachman have given notice, but amidst all this confusion Stepan Arkadyich does not dispense with his morning rituals. As he drinks his coffee, he picks up his morning newspaper, where the ink is not yet dry to show that it offers the very latest news, and begins to read: “Oblonsky subscribed to and read a liberal paper, not an extreme liberal paper but one that expressed the views held by most people. And although he was not particularly interested in science, art, or politics, on all such subjects he adhered firmly to the views of the majority, as expressed by his paper, and changed them only when the majority changed theirs; or rather, he did not change them – they changed imperceptibly of their own accord.”
When Tolstoy’s Oblonsky incorporated Hegel’s theory of the blessings inherent in morning newspapers, the erosion of the papers’ monopoly on the news was already in sight. Only a few years after Hegel had sketched out the theory of the morning blessing in Jena, an article appeared in the 12 October 1810 edition of the Berliner Abendblätter, a daily paper published in the Jägerstraße that had roused lively interest in its first quarter. The article was entitled “Entwurf einer Bombenpost”, (A suggestion for postal delivery by artillery”), and signed with an abbreviation which we now know was used by the editor himself, Heinrich von Kleist: “In our days we have seen the invention of the electric telegraph to further exchange within the bounds of all four continental land-masses of the world; a telegraph that can send news with the swiftness of thought, I may say in a shorter time than any chronometric instrument can register, by means of the electrophore and of metal wire; so that only provided the necessary apparatus were in place, if one wanted to ask a good friend in the Antipodes, ‘How are you?’, this friend could answer as quickly as we might turn over our hand, just as well as though he stood there in the same room, ‘I am very well’.” Not without irony, Kleist goes on to qualify this sketch of the telegraph with the proviso that “this means of telegraphy has the imperfection that it is suited only to the transmission of very short and laconic messages, hardly advantageous to the needs of the merchant, and is not suited to sending letters, reports, enclosures and packets”. For this proviso applies not only to merchants but also to Kleist himself, whose carefully constructed sentences would have defeated telegraphy in its early days. When Kleist describes messages flying back and forth between Berlin and a friend in the Antipodes, perhaps in Australia, when he imagines a medium that can cope with his own elegant sentences, with long letters and enclosures, he is describing not the telegraph of his own day but the electronic communication of our own time, the back and forth of e-mails with text and images files attached, across all continental boundaries. News has made its niche in this infrastructure just as it once did in the postal services, and has thereby left the discontinuities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries behind. At first, the newspaper as medium was able to employ the latest newscasting technologies, and often proudly included them in its title, calling itself for instance The Daily Telegraph. The telegraph after all was built upon the old infrastructure of the postal services. Newspapers profited from faster delivery of news, especially of foreign correspondents’ reports. Newspapers still had the monopoly on news, even in the area of “breaking news”, for which they had developed a special format since the Napoleonic era, the “Extra”, familiar from the newsboy’s call – “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” These extra sheets, once mere supplements, now became the medium of breaking news, signalling the drama of reports from the battle front – the “extra” used the newspaper’s normal infrastructure but broke the rhythms of its regular publication. We may remark a break in the media history of the twentieth century; at the outbreak of the First World War, the main format for breaking news was still the “extra” – Karl Kraus’ drama The Last Days of Mankind begins with the call “Extraaa!” – but at the beginning of the Second World War it was the special radio bulletin, offering even closer temporal proximity to events. Although in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the printed newspaper could integrate the increasing speed at which news arrived, and could accelerate the speed at which it was produced, it could not speed up distribution at the same rate. “There were morning sheets and evening sheets”, Karl Kraus records – but the printed-medium newspaper could not keep up with news updated hourly.
Radio and print media have coexisted for decades now, but this coexistence depends (among other factors) on a spectrum of news that is not exactly the same as “breaking news”, not tied to the passing minutes and hours. This spectrum of news may stretch across days or even weeks, and since historicism updates events in the past ever anew, figures such as Charles Darwin may be garlanded with headlines the whole year round on their anniversary. Radio does not present one homogenous understanding of news, any more than newspapers do. Radio broadcasts not just news headlines, but also pre-produced features; the newspaper sports pages are still keenly read on Monday, even though every football fan has known the results of the league matches since Saturday.
The Internet has intensified this acceleration of newsgathering and newscasting, which was initiated by the radio and increased by television. The net has taken over the formats of the live report and has at the same time realised the potential of linking archives to current news, a potential which was latent in the classic-form newspaper. And as an interactive medium, the net has made the recipients of the printed paper into media actors in their own right, far beyond the limits of the classic “letter to the editor”.
The breakthrough for online journalism was 11 September 2001. At the same time, this date marks the beginning of the end of competition for solely temporal newscasting. Ever since Twitter became established as the way to broadcast short messages and snippets of news, it has largely become impossible for professional online journalism to circulate the news faster than potential recipients are already doing themselves. The decisive factor now is no longer the number of times an online portal is accessed. Increasingly, the decisive factor is how long a visitor stays on the page, how readers can be fished out of the stream of clicks and kept on the site. In place of the race for hard news delivery based on time and dateline, there is now a race for “soft news”. The formula here is to have the best story, after a while – the story that is recommended, forwarded on and linked to on the web. Online journalism has changed the way time-based news is presented, moving it from sheer up-to-the-minute news value to develop ever new formats in which a story may be told and reflected upon; in this it resembles the news-sheets and newspapers of the Early Modern period.
And so, by a roundabout route, we return to the deadline. Although deadlines are still set in stone for print media, they are elastic in online journalism – in a medium where “regular publication” frays at the edges. Competition for public attention rewards the time invested to change the raw stuff of news into commentary, explication and opinion pieces. Conceivably an online journalist may actually have had more time for his article on the Pope’s abdication than an editor in the print medium. “The best story, after a while” – the formula that brings print and online closer together.
Online journalism, including Twitter, has made the temporal aspect of newscasting as fast as it ever can be. This has also had its effect on how daily newspapers appear, on their regular publishing schedule. The printed product remains, with its clearly distinct editions appearing at set intervals and offering less up-to-the-minute news, while the online product offers more breaking news while its publishing schedule frays at the edges. Here, unlike in the print medium, an article might stay on the page for days at a time. In both media the basic rhythm of night and day remains unchanged, but in the online format constantly refreshed content all through the day (and potentially through the night) has replaced the defined moment at which an edition appears. The self-contained separate issues of the print edition appearing on any given date form a staccato, in contrast to the successive metamorphoses of the online formats.
It is part of newspaper history to feign astonishment that every day, just enough happens in the world to fill the pages of the next day’s paper. It’s an old joke, but it brings to the fore a basic feature of the print-medium newspaper; that its universal coverage of the latest news is circumscribed by the temporal and spatial limits of the medium. These limits have been taken so much for granted that they have seldom been fully considered in all their consequences. Now, however, they become more evident, inasmuch as electronic media combine with the infrastructure of the net to do away with the limitations of the printed newspaper. The elementary particle of limitless content is the link embedded in the text of an online article. Another such feature is the way timelines, back-stories and archive material can all be appended to a posted article. Use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media has expanded the classic model of news supply by the agencies, and similarly the link embedded in the finished text has expanded the scope and scale of reading.
The self-contained nature of the printed newspaper has never really needed to justify itself. Newspapers have been accused of covering this or that story too late, or not at all, of paying too much or too little attention to such-and-such a subject, but they have never had to explain why they appear as a temporally and physically distinct product, which like the book can only be updated and revised by being reset. The asymmetries of the interlinking, hybridized print and online formats of the newspaper derive from the fact that the online format can offer a plethora of options that are simply unavailable to the print formats. However, as in the early history of the news-sheet and newspaper, these options become part of the raw material of news, and subject to editorial decisions; in other words, subject to being edited away. Links, for instance, are not just ways to enrich the content of universal coverage, they also offer options to leave the page, and this could conflict with the goal of keeping the visitor on the site for as long as possible. This is why the print edition newspaper is not merely a pale shadow of the plethora of electronic options. It is self-contained, as a result of the way it is produced and of the print medium: but the online formats will have to develop comparable forms of self-containment to compensate for the abundance of options.