The first newspapers were social media for the public good


On Monday, the Online Safety Bill committee in Westminster gave Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen the opportunity to repeat the central points of testimony she gave earlier this month to a subcommittee of the US Senate on Consumer Rights.

augen’s exceptional claims are now familiar. For Facebook, profit takes precedence over the public good. His algorithm provides a “flow” that diverts people from the political center to the extremes – in cocoons, echo chambers for like-minded people, who share hatreds. In an Instagram mirror, you’re never the prettiest of all – it makes young people feel bad about themselves.

One is loath to suggest that our old media has always been perfect, but the power of technology, controlled by a handful of companies, is such that we must maintain space for reasoned discourse. We need insightful journalism that pulls us out of the cocoons that Facebook, Twitter and others would gladly put us in.

Haugen’s appearance in Westminster came a week after the opening of a conference hosted by Derry City and Strabane District Council to launch David Dickson’s book The first Irish towns, a wonderful interweaving of socio-economic and cultural history that will fascinate anyone interested in the creation of modern Ireland.

One of the hallmarks of a prosperous city in the 1700s was the publication of a newspaper – a sure sign of commercial and cultural vitality. And these 18th century newspapers can now provide a perspective to consider the influence of various forms of media in our time and what we lose when we find ourselves in echo chambers.

In the Northwest, where Dickson’s book was launched, the first newspaper was John Alexander’s Strabane newspaper or general announcer, launched in 1771. The following year George Douglas, a young Dublin-trained printer, created the London-Derry Journal and General Advertiser as a bi-weekly.

Advertisements were their stock-in-trade, often accounting for more than half of what were just four-page newspapers (a single folded sheet). Among them were the merchants’ announcements of the cargoes landed in Derry, encouraging traders across the country to place orders.

There were also lost and found notices, land and buildings for sale, vacancies and notices alerting the public to runaway women, placed by husbands lest they charge goods to their accounts ( the Tyrone wives seem to have been particularly inclined to flee) and masters in search of runaway apprentices.

The rest of an average issue contained a lot of “news”. Once again, trade issues were important – the arrival and departure of ships, the state of the crop, the movement of bands of counterfeiters passing basic coins or hawking “dried straw and leaves. elderberry “like tea -“ to the detriment of honest traders and public health. ”Brief reports have also been made of rape and theft, murder and accidental death and countless“ wonders ”both local curiosities – longevity in Raphoe, papists renouncing errors of Roman religion at Kilmacrenan, and a transvestite visit to Derry. There were national and international goodies – earthquakes, comets and eclipses , Indian raids against settlers in America and, then, as now, the actions of British royalty.

Yet “politics” made up most of the columns unfilled with advertisements, both actual “news” – decisions of the Mayor of Derry, parliamentary debates and the like – and opinion pieces, songs. , letters and speeches.

Many of these articles were taken from other Irish newspapers or from foreign newspapers from ships plying between Derry and major British, European and American ports. Most importantly, the readers, usually hidden behind pseudonyms, submitted their own thoughts on public affairs.

Although primarily concerned with regional issues such as the need for an “academy” in the region (there is one problem that has not gone away), they addressed themes of wider interest, such as the enslavement of the Irish parliament to the British government. In the 1770s and early 1780s they wrote for and against Britain’s war in America.

By making room for politics, the campaign printers found it difficult to keep up. Unlike the editors of the big circulation Dublin newspapers, who were often fiercely attached to one faction or another, the editors of regional newspapers could hardly afford to alienate advertisers or readers by appearing too partisan. They therefore attach great importance to their own “impartiality”, understood not as neutrality but rather as a desire to let all parties express themselves.

This “impartiality”, in turn, gave rise to long-term discussions, with “scribblers” making arguments for and against particular proposals.

Thinking back to his first year as editor-in-chief of the Derry Journal, George Douglas remarked that while he had tried to publish material which “educated as well as entertained”, he had made it his “main study to avoid anything that might tend to distract or distract the least. to inflame the good affections of the people, nor to admit anything personal and slanderous, or which could offend the most delicate ear in the slightest.

In truth, “impartiality” was sometimes more honored in the rupture than in the observance. Douglas was an enthusiastic supporter of the “People’s Party”, a supporter of reform, and his closest friends became United Irish. He had his own editorial algorithm that hinted at his own political position. A little slanderous language from time to time didn’t hurt his circulation. But he always positioned the newspaper as promoting reasoned speech and respectful debate that allowed its readers to weigh and consider different opinions.

Fundamentally, the cultural and political impact of newspapers involved more than the information, education, and entertainment modestly professed by their printers: “the newspaper” cultivated interest in public affairs. And, no less than Facebook in our time, it has transformed social routines, its appearance on a particular day becoming an opportunity for people, especially men, of all classes, to come together and “take the news”: that is, to read the newspaper or to hear it read.

Where once people depended on the word of those whose prejudices they knew too well (their neighbors) or not at all (the last-haul travelers) to bring and interpret the news, there was a voice of reason and of judgment. authority. It allowed people to imagine belonging to a larger community and to recognize that they had a lot in common with people with whom they did not agree on everything including religion.

A more enlightened society came to be reflected, with remarkable rapidity, in the very language of the newspapers which called it into existence. By the late 1770s, “he must be Protestant” was much less common in Northwestern newspaper advertisements for shop boys and apprentices than it had been a few years earlier; by the early 1780s he was virtually unknown.

Likewise, Roman Catholic or simply Catholic has quietly replaced the derogatory terms papist and papist in “public printed matter” and reports of people renouncing “errors of the Roman religion” have become rare.

The Derry Journal still circulating in northwest Ulster: it remains the paper of choice for many between Dunfanaghy in County Donegal, Dungiven in County Derry and Castlederg in County Tyrone. Next year will be 250 years since its inception in 1772. The means by which people “get the news” mattered then and it matters now. Faced with the hidden hands of social media giants pushing people into cocoons and echo chambers, the state, for the good of society, must strengthen the institutions that foster broad involvement in the debate, especially the press.

As for this conference earlier this month in Derry, the star was not an academic but the mayor of Derry, Alderman Graham Warke of the Democratic Unionist Party, who opened the debates.

Rarely have I seen a politician on such occasions do more than make the few obligatory remarks, take the pictures and then leave. But not the Mayor of Derry. He took an interest in the debates and hung around for the evening. He represented his city and its citizens very well.


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