Newspaper Production 1692-1792
By Rick Brown
With the exception of the one issue of Publick Occurrences previously published in 1690, there were no American-soil printed newspapers being published in 1692. For the most part, the colonialists obtained their newspapers from London to satisfy their news needs.
A newspaper office usually consisted of only two persons; the owner/editor/publisher and an apprentice. An apprenticeship usually lasted from age 12 to 21. While gaining the benefit of learning a trade, an apprenticeship was not the most desirable thing to happen to a growing lad. An apprentice was considered the owner's personal property that he owned. Judging by the number of ads in early newspapers offering rewards for runaway apprentices, many owners must have treated their apprentices in a harsh and cruel manner. Early newspapers usually had at least one if not several of these ads. When an apprentice turned 21, provided he had managed to earn/save about £50 he could buy enough second-hand equipment to open his own newspaper office.
In 1692, however, no one could make a living at just publishing a newspaper. A newspaper publisher was usually also the town postmaster or magistrate. In addition, he would publish pamphlets and books and sell them at his office. In almost all cases, one could also buy dry goods as well as staples like flour and wheat at the newspaper office. Despite all these sources of revenue, few, if any printers were regarded as wealthy.
Presses used in 1692 hadn't changed much from the one Gutenberg used 250 years before. They were made mostly of wood with a lever-operated screw to bring the platen down to the form on the bed of the press. The type was inked by a sheepskin ball filled with wool and attached to a hickory stick; the apprentice boy held two such sticks, transferring the ink from the slab to the form and often getting more ink on himself than the form. It took a full-grown man to pull the lever which resulted in the printing impression being transferred to the paper. 200 impressions per hour was considered a top rate of speed.
Newsgathering consisted of two primary sources: other newspapers and ship's captains. Recognizing the value of other newspapers, editors would give ships captains a stack of their own papers in exchange for single copies from other areas. Ship's captains, on occasion, could provide eyewitness accounts of some news events; typically the aftermath of a natural disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake. For these reasons, for the most part, news printed in newspapers of this era was at least one month old and more typically 6 months old and most of it happening hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. Towns were so small that everyone knew what was going only locally. It was for this reason that a newspaper rarely had local news in their pages.
A third source of news was from people that wrote letters to the editor. These letters were not the kind that we think of today when we hear that phrase. Rather, some people made a hobby of writing letters to editors of faraway newspapers giving the details of a recent major news event in their area. One could say that these were the first reporters although they never got paid for their efforts. ..It is from these people that we owe the original of the term "Foreign Correspondent" and "War Correspondent" used still today in the newspaper trade.
A newspaper editor in colonial times certainly had to be creative to fill the pages of his paper. Take for example the Boston News-Letter of August 10, 1719. Despite having correspondents in New York, Newport, Piscataqua (Portsmouth), Philadelphia, and Salem, the following excerpt appeared:
"There is nothing arrived either here or Philadelphia since my last, and therefore not a word of News. It is now a North East storm of Wind and Snow, blows hard and is very Cold."
There were no editorial pages and few formal editorial statements in colonial newspapers. Even the public-minded Ben Franklin rarely offered editorial comment. There are two notable exceptions. One was when he printed an editorial comment in the October 9, 1729 edition of his Pennsylvania Gazette concerning "free-born Englishmen" following the obituary for Governor Burnet of Massachusetts. The other was in the May 9, 1754 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin wrote an editorial commenting on "the present disunited state of British Colonies" at the time of the Albany Congress. The editorial was reinforced with the first political cartoon in an American newspaper - that of a divided snake. It was a common superstition at the time that if a snake had been cut in two it would come back to life if the pieces were joined before sunset. The cartoon showed a snake cut into eight pieces - one for each of the colonial governments - and the words "Join or Die."
According to Isaiah Thomas in the History of Printing,the earliest newspapers in America -- 1704-1755 -- had press runs (total number printed) of about 300 or less. By 1765 that number more typically was between 600 and 800. Aggregate circulation of all newspapers in America in 1765 is estimated to have been 14,000 on a weekly basis.
Distribution of newspapers within the town was by carrier; usually the same apprentice that had inked the forms earlier. Papers to outlying towns and points in other colonies were dispatched by the regular official postrider. Since, in most cases, the editor of the paper was also the postmaster, newspapers were by common custom carried from office to office free of charge.