03/25/2014 07:39 am ET Updated May 25, 2014

Digital Futures: The Lessons From History

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We are all digital readers now: or are we? Huffington Post regulars hardly need to be told that we are living through a remarkable period of media transformation. New publications spring up, old media must adapt or die. No one knows quite where it will end.

Challenging certainly; but not unprecedented. For historians there are uncanny echoes here of the last great media transformation, which followed the invention of printing five hundred years ago. That too ushered in an age of frantic experimentation and change, accompanied by confident prognostications of the future: all of which turned out to be wrong.

Nowhere was this more evident that in the development of a commercial market for news. The appetite for news is timeless, and reaches back to the first human civilizations. But before the print era, regular access to news was the prerogative of Europe's power elites: the church, government, and international merchants. Print provided the opportunity to expand this market dramatically. In the early sixteenth century, enterprising publishers addressed new markets with a torrent of short, snappy pamphlets on contemporary affairs: battles and sieges, earthquakes and floods, horrible crimes. These were incredibly popular, but they did not drive out earlier forms of news distribution. Elites continued to prefer a superior, and rather more dispassionate news service, provided as hand-written booklets distributed by bespoke news agencies. And many of Europe's citizens got all the news they wanted for free: by word of mouth, in the market place or tavern.

The passion for news was fed in ingenious ways. A familiar figure in sixteenth-century Europe was the news singer, traveling from town to town, singing out ballads based on the news. Sixteenth century authorities were in fact far more concerned by the disorders caused by this sort of performance than they were by print.

So this was a truly multi-media market, even before the invention of the newspaper in the seventeenth century. The first newspaper was published in Germany in 1605: a rather dull compendium of miscellaneous news items compiled from Europe's major news hubs. This set the tone. The first newspapers were hard going. In trying to differentiate themselves from the more engaged and entertaining news pamphlets they took the duty of dispassionate reporting to extremes. The news was recorded in clipped reports, with no explanation or commentary. There were no headlines or illustrations; nothing in fact to make this litany of events in faraway places more digestible. It is no wonder that newspapers struggled to find subscribers, and many survived only with a discreet subsidy from the local government. It was hard to predict that this would be the future of news.

These austere traditions were carried over into the first American newspapers, which filled most of their pages with stale news from the courts of Europe, now six or twelve months out of date. The current and actual controversies of the American colonies were mostly passed over in silence. Newspapers pursued an Olympian neutrality; sensible if they were the only local paper and did not want to alienate a part of their readership, but dull. It was only with the great political upheavals of the late eighteenth century -- the reform movement in England, the Stamp Act Crisis in America and the French Revolution -- that newspapers found their voice, and moved at last to the centre of the political debate. The great age of the newspaper was at hand.

The creation of a commercial culture of news was a long and difficult process, stretching over several centuries. Taking the long view we can see that the newspaper was never the ideal or inevitable form of news delivery: in fact the great age of the newspaper in the 19th and 20th century was relatively short, sandwiched between two periods when the news was a truly multi-media business. Put another way, our 21st century new world is nothing new, but a recreation of the vibrant, various and creative era before the great age of the daily paper.

It also tells us that in periods of rapid media change the future is impossible to predict. All technological change is accompanied by a great deal of false prophecy, often promoted by groups who have invested heavily in particular solutions, and need to persuade consumers of their inevitability. Consumers, in fact, adapt very smoothly to new opportunities. They tend to embrace the new, without abandoning old familiar forms of media. Five hundred years ago Europe's citizens gathered in their news from multiple sources: from friends and family, correspondence, down at the tavern, listening to the latest edict being announced at the town hall. Sometimes they would buy the occasional pamphlet to read more about news passed on by excited travelers. They were sophisticated, skeptical readers. News was part of their life, and just like us, it was one of the things that gave life shape and meaning.

Andrew Pettegree is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. His latest book, The Invention of News; How the World Came to Know about Itself is newly published by Yale University Press.