In May 1693, ex-poet laureate John Dryden wrote to his friend and fellow poet William Walsh to gossip about life in London. While assuring Walsh “there passes nothing in the Town worth your knowing,” he noted that writer Thomas d’Urfey’s newest play “was woefull stuff, & concluded with Catcalls,” adding with a touch of glee that it had been “kick[e]d off” the stage.
But then Dryden turned to weightier matters regarding the ongoing Nine Years’ War, which pitted England and its allies against France. “For other newes ’tis all uncertain,” he wrote, “But we all believe that the King of France, who was to set out from Versailles on Saturday last, is gone for Flanders; & intends to offer Battle.” Later in the letter he added an update: “I spoke with a young Gentleman, who is just arrived from Flanders & came from Bruxelle. He assures me that not above a fortnight ago, the French burnt a village, within a mile of the Town.” Dryden advised Walsh, who would be elected a member of parliament a few years later, not to embark on “publique business” at such an uncertain time. Indeed, Walsh did not enter politics until 1698.
Why would two literary writers exchange military news they had heard secondhand, trusting each other’s reporting as authoritative enough to influence career decisions? Why would they take the time to send this information by letter rather than simply picking up a newspaper?
The answers lie in the origins of the news industry in the 17th century, when the periodical newspaper had just been invented and there were not yet any professional reporters. In many ways, our current media moment harks back to this era, during which readers faced a proliferation of unfamiliar news sources. As we are doing now, they had to devise ad hoc methods for assessing journalistic authority and objectivity as they adapted to a large-scale media shift.
While newsmongers at the time did not have “objectivity” as a goal, newspapers did not have the aggressively partisan character that they would develop in the later 18th and 19th centuries. The earliest papers launched in the mid- to late 1600s, predating the birth of formal political parties themselves. In this environment, the news was less politicized than personalized, as writers and readers used social networks to judge stories’ trustworthiness.
The first printed newspapers, which were simply short summations of letters sent by the editor’s “correspondents,” took over from professional newsletter services. News writers, some of whom had hundreds of subscribers for their handwritten letters, produced reports remarkably similar to Dryden’s in tone and content as they sent updates on politics, war and trade to their readers.
For example, in July 1693, just a few months after Dryden’s and Walsh’s exchange, a Derbyshire resident named Anne Pole received a professionally produced newsletter informing her, “there is a report come over land that the Elizabeth & Modena, 2 outward bound E. India Shipps[,] are taken.” The following February, her thrice-weekly letter included the news, “A Gentleman who came Wed. last from Newport sayes that severall officers of that Garrison are in Custody being questioned for designing to betray that place into the hands of the French.”
Like Dryden and Walsh, this now-anonymous professional journalist did little in-person investigation into the stories he was retailing — in fact, newsletters often featured more reports on foreign affairs than details of London events. Instead, the author relied on information he received in the mail and other secondhand accounts that had been verified by a network of informants.
And when printed papers started up, beginning in England in 1665, they largely republished items from newsletters as well as from their own “foreign correspondents,” acquaintances who exchanged news with the editors. It was in fact by importing the newsletters’ style of source verification that the newspaper was able to take off and ultimately outstrip its predecessor. Readers who were used to finding news in letters and trusting personal connections saw these same methods replicated in public, printed newspapers.
It may be this mode of journalism — rather than the aggressively partisan news of the yellow journalism era — to which we are now returning. While we often hear that the digital revolution has produced a bifurcated media system with each side speaking to an “echo chamber,” this may have more to do with how we encounter and authenticate news now than with a decline in objective journalism.
A 2015 Pew Research Center study showed that Facebook was the most common source of news for millennials, with 61 percent receiving their news from the site in the previous week. Meanwhile, 37 percent of them had watched the local TV news. These numbers were an almost exact inverse of those for baby boomers, 60 percent of whom got news from a local broadcast and 39 percent from Facebook.
It’s not just that, as we know, Facebook’s algorithms identify users’ beliefs and preferences for targeted advertising, but also that we rely on friends’ recommendations to come across articles and comment on the news. I know who posts interesting political, academic and cultural items and where to go when I want alternative points of view. That is, I know whose news judgment I trust, and this knowledge is often based on personal relationships. With consumers on both the right and left increasingly skeptical of traditional journalistic sources, these practices become more prominent.
Dryden and Walsh were corresponding at a time when print was still a suspect medium and there was only one legal newspaper, the government-controlled London Gazette. By using their letters for news reporting, they could verify stories printed in the Gazette and add details or contextual information. They combined personal vouching with the public news.
Look again at how Dryden introduces his items: “We all believe …,” “I spoke with …,” “He assures me …” When these kinds of phrases come from a trusted friend, or even from a more distant member of one’s social network, they imply an individualized level of knowledge. If you trust the person, you’re likelier to trust the information.
These strategies have come to the fore during an election season when many cannot understand how a person could vote for the other side’s candidate. Immediately following the first presidential debate in late September, the TV pundits I was watching declined to anoint a winner, saying that the outcome would be “decided on points” and that there had been “no knockout blow.” So I took to Facebook and Twitter to confirm what seemed obvious, that Hillary Clinton had dominated the exchange. There, people whose opinions I trust — from friends to professional reporters — were already sharing GIFs of her celebratory shimmy. Like the rest of the Internet, I counted Clinton the winner, an assessment based on a confidence in the personal reportorial methods that social media are once again bringing to the fore.