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Blogging in the Middle Ages: what’s old is news again

11 March 2010 · by Joel Van Valin

Newspapers are still trying to find the right balance with their modern-day counterparts.

I admit I was not giddy with expectation when the blog craze hit in the mid-1990s. Web logs — their name shortened to the nifty-sounding “blog” — seemed to me just a different type of web page, one with periodic news updates, like a diary. What I failed to grasp was that the blog was not a new technology, but a new do-it-yourself model for news dissemination. It was new, at least, for the internet. For the print world, the blog is a very old concept — one that led to the birth of newspapers themselves.

A print equivalent of blogs can be found in the pamphlets and broadsides of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, which contained news of recent events (battles, coronations, new laws). By the early 17th century, individuals and mercantile companies had begun publishing a regular series of such news summaries; for example the Mercurius Gallobelgicus of Cologne, appearing in Latin yearly from 1595 to 1635. In England, translations of Dutch corantos (“currents of news”) were appearing by 1621. States also had their news outlets, such as the fogli d'avvisi put out by the Venetian government during a war with Turkey in 1563. These newssheets were read aloud in public, and the cost for a reading was a gazeta (about ¾ a penny), from which the modern term “gazette” derives. (This was arguably the first paid content strategy!)

These proto-newspapers were like blogs in many ways — their appearance was irregular, they were most often written by a single person, and the publisher was not a disinterested party. By the beginning of the 18th century, the number of readers had increased, the postal service had improved, and censorship had lightened somewhat — changes that laid the ground for the first modern newspapers: The Daily Courant, the Tatler, the Spectator and their ilk. These publications were different than what came before; they were assembled by teams of journalists who gathered and reported the news, and the publisher was an independent and disinterested party (or, at least, pretended to be).

Newspapers are still trying to find the right balance with their modern-day counterparts. Most blogs are too self-interested and scattershot to appeal to a broad readership. Bloggers and citizen journalists, even highly regarded experts, typically lack the polished writing skills and journalistic standards required for newspaper publication. Yet more than one major news story in the past few years was broken by a blogger. For example, a blogger discovered that memos excusing George W. Bush's military service, as reported by Dan Rather, were faked.

Blogging is not for amateurs only. Last year, Simon Owens of Bloggasm ranked the 50 most popular newspaper blogs. Simon found that the New York Times, with 22, had the most blogs on the list. The Los Angeles Times came in second, with nine. Eight were in the top 100 most popular blogs on the internet, while all 50 blogs made it into the top 5,000.

One thing seems certain: after an absence of 400 years, the do-it-yourself publication has returned and is ready to write history.

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