History of Professional Journalism
By Katrina Goldammer

In the Beginning…

Ever since humans could communicate with one another they’ve been asking each other the same basic question, “what’s new?” Our ancestors didn’t think about this spreading of news as an earth breaking idea which would eventually lead to a multi-billion dollar industry, to them it was just satisfying their natural need for information. But it is the natural human curiosity that created the journalism industry and continues to shape it today.

It all began with word of mouth. People instinctively shared stories and events with one another as they traveled. Eventually they discovered that if they wrote down the information they could share it with people later on in time. Carvings and paintings on stone began to appear. But this still limited the spread of information by location. The real breakthrough came when people began to write things down on paper, papyrus and vellum, which could be easily transported from place to place. Effectively moving information through time and space.

The Acta Diurna

It’s generally accepted that the first act of journalism occurred in ancient Rome in 59 BC. It was then that Julius Caesar ordered a handwritten newsletter called the Acta Diurna posted daily in the forum (Journalism, History.com). However hand printing was slow and costly and so limited the spread of news. The first printed newspaper was made in Beijing in the 7th or 8th Century AD and was printed off of carved wood blocks (Journalism, History.com). However the process of printing wasn’t made practical until the invention of movable type by German Johann Gutenberg in 1450 made it easy to reuse and reset printing blocks (Printing, History.com).

The Newspaper…

The development of the printing press when combined with the growing availability of paper and steadily increasing literacy rate of Europeans during the renaissance lead to a boom in the production of newspapers. The first newspapers were published in Germany in 1609 (Journalism, Britannica). Within the next twenty years newspapers popped up across Europe eventually making their way to London in 1621 and Paris in 1631, these papers were small and had no headlines or advertising and looked more like newsletters than today’s newspapers (Newspapers, History.com).

The first newspaper to be published in the American Colonies was The Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, a three-page paper that was published in 1690 in Boston before being immediately suppressed by the government. The first continuously published colonial newspaper was the Boston News-Letter, which was published by John Campbell in 1704 and was censored by the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony (Newspapers, History.com).

Freedom of the Press…

A breakthrough came in 1734 with the trial of John Peter Zenger. Zenger was a German-American printer who was acquitted of seditious libel after publishing critical articles about the New York Colonial Governor (Freedom of the Press, History.com). This trial set a precedent for American freedom of the press. In 1789 when the first U.S Congress met to adopt the Bill of Rights, it included a protection of the freedom of speech and of the press. The United States was one of the first countries to allow such complete freedom to its press and many countries would later follow suit.

The News Gathering Organization…

With the industrial revolution came new technology that sped up the production of newspapers to meet the increase in demand that came with the rise in urban population and the new focus on education. As the American Newspaper Industry grew so did the need for mass amounts of information fast. In 1848 a group of reporters joined together to share the cost of bringing news to New York City by telegraph (Newspapers, History.com).

This organization eventually became the Associated Press, the United States first news agency (Newspapers, History.com). The AP and other news agencies were able to efficiently gather news and then share it with newspapers in a nonpartisan objective matter. This allowed the newspapers to focus their workers on reworking the stories to fit their political associations or to focus on gathering other “soft” news.


Radio was popularized at the beginning of the 1900s and began the decline of newspapers as they began to report current events in the 1920s. News was now broadcast live over radio waves directly into people’s homes. The popularity of radio boomed during World War Two when the radio was the first to bring the people news of the war and word from the White House in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats (Journalism, History.com). Radio has retained a loyal following for music and news despite loosing much of its news audience to television in the 1950s.


With the invention of the television came another revolution in the world of journalism. Sound and images could now be broadcast directly into people’s homes. Instead of simply telling people what happened, journalists could show them. The popularity of television spread quickly and by 1981 98% of all American homes had at least one television (Journalism, History.com). Local and network newscasters became public figures as the evening news became the primary source for news.

Journalism as a Profession…

With the growth of newspapers, television and radio came a new emphasis on journalism as a profession. The first school of journalism was established at the University of Missouri in 1908 and for the first time journalists were trained in a school environment rather than through apprenticeships and on the job training (Journalism, Britannica). This focus on journalism as a profession led to a massive increase in literature on the topic, which went from being virtually nonexistent in 1900 to extensive by the end of the century (Journalism, Britannica).

Journalism Ethics…

Along with the development of journalism as a profession, came a new focus on the ethics of journalism. It was only in the late 19th and 20th centuries that people began to look at the social responsibility involved in the profession of journalism (Journalism, Britannica). Prior to this the major motivation of journalists was to further their own political views and to create interest in their product.

As newspapers fought over audiences in the 19th century they often engaged in sensationalism and “yellow journalism” but they also built their reputations on their ability to expose the abuse of the common man. These “muckrakers” not only built a loyal following for their papers they also helped bring about a number of reforms (Journalism, History.com). This watchdog mentality stayed a part of journalism into the late 20th century as television and newspaper reporters exposed abuses of power in the Vietnam War and political scandals such as Watergate (Journalism, History.com).

So Now What???

The profession of journalism is an ever changing and growing field. The way that people get their news has changed dramatically over the years. Each new invention that affected the way people communicate revolutionized the journalism profession. Right now, technological advances such as communication satellites, computers and the internet are further changing the ways in which we receive our news and more are on their way in the future.

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Works Cited

JOURNALISM, (2009). History.com. Retrieved 09:47, Dec 9, 2009, from http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=213400.

“Journalism” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved December 09,2009 from Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/306742/journalism/3769/History

NEWSPAPERS, (2009). History.com. Retrieved 10:14, Dec 9, 2009, from http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=217613.

PRESS, FREEDOM OF THE, (2009). History.com. Retrieved 09:58, Dec 9, 2009, from http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=219796.

PRINTING,. (2009). History.com. Retrieved 10:12, Dec 9, 2009, from http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=219846.


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