From Popes to Paperbacks

When we pick up the daily newspaper from our doorsteps every morning, the centuries of work that’s gone into making the newspaper what it is today is rarely noticed. But, the colourful history and evolution of the printing press, and the humble newspaper, are really something to be cherished and remembered. So where did all this begin?

Originated from the ancient wine and olive press of the Mediterranean sea, the printing press owed much to the medieval paper press that is believed to have been established in Europe but sprung from the Chinese invention of woodblock printing. The Europeans adapted to similar techniques of printing of images on cloth developed into the printing of images on paper (woodcuts) and the same process to print substantial amounts of text together with images in block-books only, came about four hundred years after the development of movable type by Bi Sheng (990–1051) during the Northern Song Dynasty of China.

The invention of the printing press is considered to be one of the most defining inventions in the development of civilizations across the globe. Although it had a huge impact on the world, the story of the printing press began during the renaissance when Bibles were no more limited to just the popes in the church or the aristocrats of the city. The wide availability of Bibles paved the way to the invention of the printing press in order to spread the idea of Christianity even further around Europe, and soon to other countries around the world, and Protestant religion ideas such as Lutheranism. The availability of books encouraged more people to read and soon the Bible and other literary works were being translated into vernacular languages.

Before the invention of the movable printing, the literacy rates in and around the world were very low, and the only way people would spread information was through word of mouth when locals would gather at pubs to hear a paid reader recite the latest news, which was everything from scandals near the knuckle, to happenings at war. The cargo-carrying ships leaving and entering countries in Europe carried religious texts, literature and news from around the world. The press printers at Venice used to hand off news pamphlets to the sailors who on arriving at distant ports, would sell it to the local printers which were later distributed across the towns. Later on, Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press meant that books could be produced at cheaper prices and in humongous numbers and in a lesser amount of time. This led to a huge social and cultural revolution.

The Italian Renaissance in the 14th century decided to revive the Ancient Roman educational system that had produced giants like Caesar, Cicero and Seneca, and this operation of retrieving classic texts was in action long before the printing press. But publishing the texts had been arduously slow and prohibitively expensive for anyone other than the richest of the rich. By the late 1490s however, Venice became the book-printing capital of Europe. The Renaissance was vastly accelerated to rediscovery and sharing of knowledge with the invention of the printing press and suddenly, education was not limited to the few wealthiest elite in this society and it helped put a library in every medium-sized town and a library in the house of every reasonably wealthy merchant family.

Coming to a point in history much later, Martin Luther wasn’t the first theologian to question the Church, but he became the first to widely publish his timely powerful messages across Europe and all thanks to the printing press that helped Luther become the world’s first best-selling author. Luther’s translation of the New Testament in German sold 5,000 copies in just two weeks.

The printing press did not just help establish education, religion or literature but helped the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus publish tables from the pioneering text of “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium”. The English philosopher Francis Bacon in 1620, who’s three inventions that forever changed the world were gunpowder, the nautical compass and the printing press for writing a scientific method to develop them.

By the latter part of the century, a huge demand for printed material caused the creation of an entirely new industry of printers and the printing press had rendered their unique skill set all but obsolete with brick-and-mortar booksellers and enterprising street peddlers. Among those who got his start as a printer’s apprentice was future Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin.

The industrial revolution in the 19th century spawned giant presses capable of printing 10,000 newspapers per hour. Educated citizens of most European countries and the United States could expect access to some independent news and media, or political opinions, through news sheets published in secret. Basic formulae for mainstream newspaper businesses and their content was worked out by writers and editors, who were now a part of a new profession- journalism.

By the early 20th century, features like photos, banner headlines, illustrations, sports coverage, etc became common on daily newspapers, that already included mainstream political writeups and event news. Colour photographs and other colour elements changed how newspapers looked, and even though the colour print was an invention from 1894, it was both expensive and time-consuming to do. With a daily demand, this wasn’t feasible at all.

Although still at the top of the information food chain, newspaper companies started facing significant competition with mass production of the radio around 1920, and televisions in the 1940s. Threatened by larger conglomerates, who purchased many of the smaller publications, they were almost always on the edge, trying to up their game against these larger chains, which pushed political agendas and garnered a lot of the advertisement rich companies.

However, in India the radio and television were something that was affordable only to affluent Indian and British families, so the newspaper and the press were not only widely consumed, but also played an important role in the movement for freedom from the British Raj. Near the last decades of the Raj, when the civil disobedience movement was well underway and Gandhi had taken out the salt march, the Press (Emergency Powers) Act was passed in 1931 and strengthened during the WWII. This helped the British press clamp down on all activities of the Congress. To combat this, the press in India formed the All-India Newspaper Editors Conference, with the aim to fight for the freedom of the press. The press continued its resistance of their rule, with clever art, graffiti, radio and underground papers, and this continued till the British finally left, creating two countries in 1947 – India and Pakistan.

In the west, the 1960s experienced increased competition from television news programming and the overall rise in production cost (especially those driven by powerful labour unions) which drove many newspapers into consolidation and a cease in publication. Later on, between 1962-63, strikes by newspaper unions, caused several papers to shut down by the end of the decade.  In 1982, USA Today caused a controversy, and nearly 8 years later in 1990, the idea of the daily coloured newspaper was made a widespread practice. Newspaper design soon evolved around the addition of colour, to not only attract the attention of daily consumers but to also facilitate colourful advertisements, with flashy logos and graphics. However, they continued to struggle to keep themselves afloat, among the rising competition of digital news and media.

Coming to the next century, the scene wasn’t any different. Although the loyal older generation consumers preferred the simple daily newspaper, many of the newer generations preferred news that had a newer fresher digital delivery – the television, which was sometimes cheaper from a production standpoint.

In response, large metropolitan newspaper publishers began experimenting with free tabloid versions of their daily papers; their goal being to build brand recognition among younger readers who were less likely to purchase or subscribe to traditional newspapers.  But the plan actually backfired, with these free publications joining radio and television, posing a threat to paid subscription papers.

Soon, newspapers started playing smart again, with digitised newspapers on their websites, or poems and articles being written by famous writers. Looking on the brighter side, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Austria remain the world’s most popular newspaper markets, with Asian markets quickly catching up. Hong Kong, for example, attracts investors who believe there’s still an opportunity in printed newspapers. China and India are teeming with a market potential of unprecedented numbers. Asia is emerging as an epicentre of the industry’s growth.

The situation, however, isn’t all that favourable in the west. Newspaper circulations fell by 17% over a given year period from 2007-2011, and some of the companies are still struggling to spring back. The World Press Trends states in a statistic, that circulation revenue still accounts for 50% of global newspaper revenue, which is mostly a positive trend to note. And since the circulation of a newspaper depends mainly on its core content, it points back to the first thumb rule of the media business: “Content is key”.

Most of the publications in the west have turned to digitise their newspaper content and actually having online newspapers. The newspaper companies, in turn, benefit with their wider audience base and don’t lose out on the money spent in trying to produce their content and physical newspapers. This trend shift has been a positive outcome, after decades of a worrying decline in the revenue generated by the industry.

Statistics by Comcore reveal that over 40% of the global digital audience now reads a newspaper online.  By 2012, newspapers accounted for 19% of the global advertising revenue, television 40%, internet 18% and other mediums 23%.

Newspapers now are proactively incorporating cutting-edge innovations and user-friendly models for online content, metered or free, to keep their audiences engaged. The dynamics of engagement might have changed, but the driving principles of the industry haven’t. Content remains king, the context queen, and the customer, the absolute kingmaker.

With the news also being one finger tap away on our screens, everyone from the age of 5 to 80, can now know about new technology, or government schemes that spark debate. Whether national or international news, websites now offer a variety of articles and statistics, to not only educate everyone but provide fast and accurate information to those who look for it.

And of course, owing to the fact that there have always been grandparents who stay loyal and prefer a daily newspaper with a cup of coffee every early morning, or a curious child wanting to know what’s happening in the world around him, the newspaper was and is, and always will be the most user-friendly news delivery service to the world.

This article is written in collaboration with the talented members of Blank101, the public speaking club of Manipal, and is Manipal Digest’s 101st article.

Feature image: Surjonarayan Motilal

Written by: Supriti and Srushti

Edited by: Anusha and Sohini

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.