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Thursday, April 1, 2004

Celebrating 300 years of blogging! (see update note below)

Bofton's First News Aggregator, April 1704

Boston's first blog-aggregator: The Boston News-Letter brought news clips to Massachusetts from London and Europe, starting in April 1704.<br>OK, so this started on April Fool's Day, but I'm serious. The first regularly-published newspaper in colonial North America was the Boston News-Letter of April 17-24, 1704. And, as my headline suggests, it was a bit like an aggregator-assisted weblog. The "really simple syndication" in those days involved getting other newspapers through the mail and reprinting items, which is what newspapers did.

The Boston News-Letter filled most of its space reprints from the overseas press. In fact, its first edition's first sentence was "Letters from Scotland bring us the Copy of a Sheet lately Printed there..."

The linked sample is from the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. Here's another excerpt, thanks to a UC Berkeley course archive, and one from The Library of Congress, Boston Public Library and Harvard are other places that have archives or microfilm of the paper, judging by a quick look at their catalogs.

The Boston News-Letter wasn't the first newspaper in Boston, though. Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick was published in 1690 and lasted one issue before the colonial government suppressed it for doing more than aggregating. That link goes to the BPL's background, and here's more of the story, thanks to Rick Brown's newspaper-collectors' site called

The Boston News-Letter, you'll notice, carries the imprimatur, "Published by Authority," something that went away after the American Revolution and that revolutionary First Amendment to the Constituion. (The News-Letter itself ceased publication when the British evacuated Boston in 1776.)

Back to the online publishing of today, see what's shaping up to be a great discussion of weblogs and journalism, starting with Jay Rosen's notes for one of several news-related sessions at Bloggercon -- a gathering that convenes at Harvard on April 17, 2004, just in time for the 300th anniversary of news-aggregation across the river in "Bofton."

(Incidentally, it was Pablo Boczkowski's talk at MIT, which I mentioned yesterday, then an e-mail from Wm. David Sloan on a journalism history mailing list, that reminded me of The Boston News-Letter anniversary year and inspired me to go looking for the exact date.)

Update, April 3;
Dates & Context: As you can see on the Antiquarian Society's reprint, the News-Letter's first issue carried the dates "From Monday, April 17, to Monday April 24, 1704," which led me to assume April 17 was the date of publication, which would be a great Bloggercon coincidence. However, Professor Sloan tells me that colonial-era practice meant the actual date of publication was the 24th. Still, that must mean the News-Letter was taking shape on its editor's desk on the 17th.

For readers who would like to know more about the paper itself, David Sloan has allowed me to post his detailed history of the News-Letter online at the AEJMC Newspaper Division site: John Campbell and the Boston News-Letter. It's an interesting story. The paper began as a quasi-official government journal when Campbell was postmaster, but he kept it going when a new postmaster took over. That inspired his successor to launch a competing "official" paper, and (shades of the weblog world) the two even traded insults in print, as well as taking partisan stands on the religious politics of the day. Along the way, Campbell and his successors developed more personal styles and added some variety to their news reports.

The Boston News-Letter wasn't the best model of an independent "public watchdog" newspaper. However, it survived for 72 years, which is pretty good for a "new media" operation, no matter what Revolution put it out of business.

For today's online journalists, whether citizen webloggers or paid professionals, I think the Boston News-Letter's "launch" is worthy of toasting this month -- as the American news media's first successful "startup," and as a model of the "mediamorphosis" that's still in progress. See you at Bloggercon!

2:33:08 PM    

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