Press reading: from face to face connection to participatory culture

What are your morning rituals? You may prefer reading your newspaper while eating breakfast or on your way to work, or you may think that checking your phone is a more convenient way to be aware of what is happening around the world. In both cases, these actions belong to the press circulation process, and have been creating connections between human beings for centuries. Here is the history of the building of these networks.

Connecting face-to-face

Before books and newspapers circulation spread, oral tradition tinged with religion dominated in Western countries. Educated people transmitted their knowledge to chosen apprentices who would then go on to teach each other. It was the same with news: word of mouth transmission was the most common.

In the 1450s, Gutenberg’s printing press started spreading in Europe, but the first newspapers, as we call them today, had still a long way to go. In comparison to present day, news was sometimes sung, like ballads. It was distributed in a printed format, but the peddlers who sold it were also performers. People gathered around them to listen to the freshest news and judge if they were going to buy the printed version1. In France, canard sellers (another name for newspaper) were essential to connect their audience to the news. Thomas Cragin notes they “created an audible text for collective consumption and interpretation.” 2

However, from the 17th century, regular newspapers carrying recent news appeared. In the 18th century, daily American and British newspapers were published, and this periodicity brought a habit which rooted in people’s lives: the more news they received, the more news they expected. Nevertheless, as for any new medium, newspapers were criticized. They were allegedly creating division between readers: the oral tradition echoed a community formed by the commonly shared religion, whereas reading was seen as an isolating act leading people to deviate towards individualism and skepticism. But were these worries justified?3

“Discussing the War in a Paris café,” London Illustrated News, 17 September 1890 (Wikipedia)
“Discussing the War in a Paris café,” London Illustrated News, 17 September 1890 (Wikipedia)

Newspapers were part of face to face community: consumers would meet to read or discuss the news in coffeehouses and barbershops.4“There, for the price of a cup of coffee, you could read the latest pamphlets, catch up on news and gossip, attend scientific lectures, strike business deals, or chat with like-minded people about literature or politics” as described by the Economist5. The “news frenzy,” defined by journalist Joseph Addison in 1712, caught everyone in England, from working classes to middle classes. While Swiss tourist César de Saussure, traveling to London in the 1720s noticed that workmen of the English capital habitually began “the day by going to coffee-rooms in order to read the latest news,” a Prussian visitor was surprised that newspapers’ audiences included fishermen who also exchanged about their readings. Even those who had not had the opportunity to go to school were given an alternative, they would “huddle around people who could read and beg them to read a paper aloud.”6Even though people could read individually, they would still reunite to share the knowledge they had just acquired.

Today, people have more and more options to have access to the news (Gurwin's keyboard)
Today, people can have access to the news via a wide range of formats, « Electronic internet web and paper media concept » by Mark Oleksiy (Shutterstock)

What about today? It seems hard to picture some young people gathering at Starbucks to share their newspapers and debate vigorously. What is more, the arrival of the Internet and later, of smartphones, has generated a plethora of debates about social isolation. But what happens when you combine press reading and new technology? You obtain all the apps, electronic versions and pages developed by printed newspapers that exist nowadays. In 2012, 78% Americans answered they read online to ‘keep up with current events’ to a Pew Research Center’s (U.S.) poll on Americans’ e-reading habits. Just as people once gathered to discuss the news they read on their newspapers, today’s audiences can talk about what they read on their screens wherever they feel like.7

We have talked about physical gathering, but the press also has the power to gather people without bringing them together in the same place.

A broad network

In “The Growtown Bugle” written by Sarah Jewett Orne in 1888, an old lady finds a newspaper published in a far city. She starts feeling concerned about the lives of its people, invests money in the city and even subscribes to the newspaper. As the story evolves, the character is more and more absorbed by the remote town where she has never been, and never will go to. Nevertheless, the links she establishes with the inhabitants of Growtown are strong, even stronger than the ones she has with her own neighbors. Even if this story is highly critical, it shows how a newspaper could, and can, create a network between two or more persons who had never met as the telegraph, the radio and the Internet did later.

This phenomenon is what Benedict Anderson calls an imagined community. He suggests that people, build a community by the mere act of thinking they form part of it8. Decades before this concept, newspapers’ audiences already felt concerned about what was happening during war (e.g the Civil War in the United States). Newspapers were a way to be aware of the soldiers’ fate but also to rally around the same cause, to feel more patriotic than ever, or to reject the country’s involvement. Now, imagine you are planning to live in a different country: what a better mean to read a newspaper published in your own language, belonging to your own culture, to think about your loved ones when you get there? Anderson names this “long distance nationalism,” not only to talk about immigrants but to talk about any newspaper reader.

“Reading the war news in Broadway, New York” published in the London Illustrated News, 15 June 1861 (Beck Center at Emory university)
“Reading the war news in Broadway, New York” published in the London Illustrated News, 15 June 1861 (Beck Center at Emory university)

Reading your paper in the morning might be considered as what George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel defines as a « mass ceremony. » In Anderson’s words, the fact of reading while drinking your coffee would equal a « morning prayer »:

It is performed in privacy in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.”9

In other words, while a big headline appeals to our attention, we know and feel we are not the only interested ones. As monks gather to pray silently in monasteries, press readers gather symbolically by reproducing the same ritual and reading the same content at the same time.

The rise of participatory culture

As already mentioned, the press can connect its readers by creating interactions, or just by giving them the option to feel part of a community. But it can also link the audiences and journalists. This cooperation is what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory media culture.” It “contrasts with older notions of passive media spectatorship.” For him, producers and consumers obtain the same importance in the process of news making, gathering under the general term of “participants.”10

This participatory journalism or citizen/civic journalism11 has its origins in print newspapers. Indeed, the first newspaper published in American colonies, Publick Occurrences (1690) gave to its readers the opportunity to fill its fourth blank page with “their own news before passing it to someone else.” But this audience participation withdrew with the professionalization of journalism, until recently.12 In 2001, during the legislative session, the Indianapolis Star made printed ballots available to its audience to share with lawmakers what they wanted them to focus on. By doing so, the newspaper turned its readers into writers, and let their voices be heard as loud as its journalists’ ones.13

The newspaper Publick Occurrences left its fourth page blank enabling its readers to comment what they read (Openmargin Dialogue)
The newspaper Publick Occurrences left its fourth page blank enabling its readers to comment what they read (Openmargin Dialogue)

But the turning point of participatory journalism happened with the rise of the Internet. While letters to the editor and other interactive possibilities existed with the paper journal, the Internet broadened readers’ possibilities to become active thanks to comments, forums, or even blogs14. These opportunities are what scholars have called “affordances”, the “possible actions that the properties of the medium make available to the users.”15 This new audience can “collect, report, analyze and disseminate news and information” as Jewett’s character did when she responded to the newspaper’s solicitations to contribute to the city’s expansion, or as you may do when sharing an article you enjoyed reading on Facebook, favoriting a striking news item on Twitter, pinning an interesting info graphic on Pinterest or posting a commentary on any newspapers’ website you like.


News consumption has not stopped evolving since its democratization: it switched from oral tradition to print tradition, and more recently, to what we could call ‘online tradition’. But in every case, it managed to connect people, like a huge social media network. Whether you listen, discuss, read, share or comment the news, you not only belong to a community but you take part in a whole complex system. So next time you read a piece of news, stop for a minute and think: you will never be alone.

1 John Sommerville, The News Revolution in England  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

2Thomas Cragin, Murder in Parisian Streets: Manufacturing Crime and Justice in the Popular Press, 1830-1900 (Lewisburg PA: Bucknell University Press, 2006).

3 John Sommerville, The News Revolution in England  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

4 Lyn Gorman and David McLean, “The Press as a Mass Medium” in Media and Society in the Twentieth Century: A Historical Introduction (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

5 “Coffeehouses: The Internet in a Cup,” The Economist, 18 Dec 2003. Accessed 12 Apr 2015.

6 Matthew Green, “Fleet Street: the surprising origins of Britain’s newspaper industry, ” The Telegraph. 22 Jun 2012. Accessed 12 Apr 2015.

7 Lee  Rainie et al., “The rise of e-reading” Pew Internet, 4 Apr 2012. Accessed 12 Apr 2015.

8 Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities Revised Edition (london: Verso, 2006).

9 Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities Revised Edition (London: Verso, 2006), 35.

10 Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, “Introduction” in Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: New York Press, 2013), 3.

11 Jane. B. Singer, et al., Participatory Journalism : Guarding Open Gates at Online Newspapers, First Edition. (West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 2011), 2.

12 Ibid, 12

13 Eric Bucy and Robert B. Affe, “The Contribution of Net News to Cyber Democracy: Civic Affordances of Major Metropolitan Newspapers Sites” in Internet Newspapers: The Making of Mainstream Medium. (Mahmaw: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, 2006), 227-242.

14 Joseph Daniel Lasica, “What is participatory journalism” Online Journalism Review. 7 Aug 2003. Accessed 19 Apr 2015.

15 Erin Bradner, Social Affordances: Understanding Technology Mediated Social Networks at Work. October 2000, PDF article; Ken Monkhern, “Visual interaction design: Beyond the interface metaphor” SIGGH Bulletin, 29 (2), 1997; Donal Arthur Norman, The psychology of everyday things (New York: Basic Books, 1988); Donald Arthur Norman, The invisible computer: Why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex and information appliances are the solution Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).

Credit cover image

Arthur Hopkinson, « Lt Sangster and Capt Mulligan reading newspaper, » The Tibet Album 5 Dec. 2006. Accessed 22 May 2015.

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