The newspaper business is a precarious one. No, no, I’m not going to whine about how we were on easy street with ad revenue until some fool invented the Internet. I’m talking about the sad, inspiring tale of “Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick” which appeared in Boston on September 25, 1690 and… promptly disappeared.
It has the distinction of being the first newspaper published in the Americas. There had been single-sheet “broadsides”. But now you got one of those multipage things you can’t cope with on a bus and I can only imagine what it was like in a carriage or wagon. (BTW I am old enough to remember the first appearance of the Toronto Sun, following the demise of the old Telegram, with ads in the subway saying “You don’t have to be Houdini to read the sun” and showing someone not looking at all like Houdini failing to escape a broadsheet. But I digress.)
I love the name. Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick. With lots of “ks” despite the drudgery of typesetting in those pre-digital days. Never mind “National Post” or “Globe” or “Star”. Let’s go long. Especially with the brilliant acronym POBFAD. I also love the fact that it promised to appear monthly “or, if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener.”
That’s quite an “if” to contemplate in the modern world with its obsession with novelty and an ever-faster pace of change. It’s also disquieting, especially for someone with claims to be a journalist, to reflect on what we would do if there was only enough news to publish once a month except in the unusual event of a “glut of occurrences”. Or to wonder whether we manage to create the impression of such a glut every day by failing to distinguishing the truly important from the trivial and faddish on the theory that there has to be news, an endless stream of it, or we couldn’t print it.
In the case of POBFAD, it turns out there was a glut of occurrences directly related to its publication. It was a one-event glut. But one is enough if it’s the colonial government striking you down five days later as presumptuous, offensive and inaccurate and insisting that anyone wishing to “Set forth any thing in Print” get a state licence.
In fact Americans went right on publishing things the authorities considered scurrilous, not always without cause, especially from the time of the early 18th-century Great Awakening. And these newspapers played an important role in the development of a colonial identity leading up to the Revolution at which point the authorities certainly had a “glut of occurrences” on their hands.
Looking back, I’d rather be killed by the Internet than the Massachusetts government. At least that way you can still blog. I think POBFAD would be a good name for a blog, come to think of it. Even if the Internet sometimes seems to represent the ultimate glut of non-occurrences.