Ramblings & ephemera

A history of the public notice

From Sasha Issenberg’s “On Notice” (Legal Affairs: July/August 2005):

In the Middle Ages, the Crown designated a half-dozen sites in London where a herald would read proclamations from the king. These announcements first found their way into print in 1665 when the London Gazette, considered the first English-language newspaper (at least as we now understand the term), began publishing. It was the Crown that put out the Gazette, and thus the newspaper was little more than a broadsheet filled with public notices.

In the 1690s, private competition reached the London newsstand. Yet even those newspapers that were not published directly by the government continued to seek its consent and imprimatur. In 1704, across the Atlantic, a newspaper called The Boston Newsletter hit the streets of the Hub; like many early American newspapers, it bore the slogan, “Published by Authority.” Though newspapers had ceased to exist merely for the purpose of publishing government decrees, they continued to run the notices as proof of the papers’ journalistic credibility. “Unlike in our day, it was looked at as an act of authenticity,” says Charles Clark, a professor emeritus of history at the University of New Hampshire who wrote about early American newspapering in a book called The Public Prints.

Sometimes these announcements appeared under the rubric “Proclamations for Royal Government,” Clark explained, but usually papers “just printed the notices in what we would think of as the news columns – even though that distinction is a bit of a stretch for those days. In many instances the notices constituted the news.” (Toward the end of the 18th century, according to Clark, newspapers also began to feature private-sector legal announcements: creditors demanding payment were popular. “The most frequent things,” Clark said, chuckling, “are men putting in notices: ‘My wife is leaving my bed and board. I shall no longer be responsible for her debt.’ “) …

In 1789, among the acts of the first session of the Congress was a directive to the secretary of state to publish all bills, orders, resolutions, and votes in at least three newspapers.

For its efforts at transparency, the fledgling government was rewarded with an increasingly suspicious press. During the 1790s, the Philadelphia-based Gazette of the United States made it clear that government would not be left to speak for itself through notices; the paper placed a correspondent in Congress. “He reported what he saw, not the official words,” Clark said. After the election of George Washington, the colonial press that had cuddled with government gradually became American media that sought to establish distance from it. In addition to soliciting the government for announcements, the press began to cover the government journalistically. …

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