When Newspapers Were New, or, How Londoners Got Word of the Plague

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Daniel Defoe's novel about London's 1665 plague can help us understand new media. No, really.

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The plague was abroad.

Londoners knew not where it had come from, only that it was upon Holland. "It was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus," Daniel Defoe wrote in the opening of his historical novel, A Journal of the Plague Year.

The book, which many read as something like non-fiction, bore the webby subtitle, being observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences, as well public as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665, and bore stamps of authenticity -- it was "Written by a citizen who remained all the while in London" -- and intrigue, having "Never [been] made public before."

Which, as a journalist of the web era, made me think: that Defoe knew how to gin up some pageviews! And in fact, Defoe did. (If you can't see the translation to the headline argot du jour, allow me: 73 Amazing and Horrible Things That Happened During the Plague, From Someone Who Saw Them With His Own Two Eyes. And no, I didn't count. But the point is: no one's counting.)

That is to say, Defoe would have been a mean blogger. He rose to national prominence as a journalist in the burgeoning print media scene of early 18th-century England. In part, he was so successful because he could crank out the copy. A biographer, Penn's John Richetti, called him a "veritable writing machine," and went on to say, "for sheer fluency and day-to-day pertinence and insight, there is nothing else in English political writing then or since quite like this extended and unflagging performance." He had his own publication, the Review, which he wrote and published three times a week for nine years straight! It is so like a blog that a Defoe scholar actually recreated it as a reverse-chronological Wordpress site: defoereview.org

And then, after publishing Robinson Crusoe in 1719, he produced the Journal in 1722, a strange little book based on nearly a decade's worth of collecting facts, accounts, stories, and anecdotes about the plague that hit London when Defoe (then still-named Daniel Foe) was a child. As documented by Katherine Ellison, a literary scholar at llinois State University and editor of Digital Defoe, the Journal is obsessed with how information, not just the plague, spreads. It's fascinated by where authority comes from and how people make sense of news, and whether the message is the medium (not really, for the record). The Journal forms a pillar of Ellison's book, Fatal News: Reading and Information Overload in Early Eighteenth-Century Literature.

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On the very first page of his book, Defoe signals that information ecology will be a key subtext (emphasis added). 

We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.

There was something so contemporary about this observation, delivered through his narrator H.F. The arch language, the irony. The impossibility of narrowly distinguishing whether the author was for or against these newspapers. He was a creator of (the new) print journalism, and yet he does not know what to say about its impact on his world. I mean, who has not felt deep ambivalence about digital media while clicking away on Facebook or Twitter or Google News or TheAtlantic.com? 

It could have stopped there. In fact, that was my plan for this post. Making fun of Vine, Ms. Vine User? Meet your ancestor, Daniel Defoe, patron saint of those who equivocate over their vocation. 

But, this one phrase stuck in my head: "to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men." It is brilliant. Positive words (improve, invention) end up attached to "rumours and reports," and become deeply ambivalent. Improved rumors, invented reports, invented rumors, improved reports. (At least one of these things is not so bad.) The newspapers, then, pervert ... not the simple facts, but "rumours and reports of things," the stuff brought by merchants and letter-receivers, printed by pamphleteers, dreamed up in coffeeshops, posted in Bills of Mortality, given as decree by governments, divined in comet-visitations, or seen with one's own eyes. The newspapers, it would appear, perverted the melange that was late 17th-century news before the proliferation and formalization of newspapers. (A mix reflected in his Defoe's own publication, according to Defoe scholar Christopher Flynn.)

And yet, the deliberate secrecy of the government and the asymmetry of access to information (i.e. the rich hoarding intelligence) is portrayed as an evil. Mismanagement of information in the word-of-mouth networks carrying tidings led to (more) people dying. Wannabe prophets and medical quacks ruled because people lacked the information to discriminate reality from whatever else. In that way, papers that helped news "spread instantly over the whole nation," might be ultimately redeemed. Life might be perverted as it was converted into information to be transmitted through this new medium, but maybe that was OK. Was the past perfect? No. Would the future be? No. But it could be better. 


I had to know more about Defoe. I called up Katherine Ellison to ask her about Defoe and her book on information overload. Reading her criticism and talking with her on the phone, I found a wonderful and nuanced account of a media system in a state of change with Defoe acting as both mover and shaken. He was not alone. Her book situates him among several other literary authors -- John Bunyan, Aphra Behn, and Jonathan Swift -- who dealt with the rise of a new kind of information age while they were writing. Ellison shows how they demonstrated strategies for dealing with this "information overload," a state that existed despite the word's slow entrance into broader usage. As new media flourished, perhaps too vibrantly, these writers found ways to navigate the new arrangements. She writes:

What a close analysis of representative works by each author reveals... is an awareness that goes much beyond acceptance or resistance. Each work traces types of adaptation that readers can adopt to deal with the perceived proliferation of texts. Each demonstrates its own process of technological problem solving.

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Rather than a categorical pro- or anti-printing technology stance, these writers figured out ways to work with the new things the technology allowed and society attempted. They gave literate citizens different reading, organizational, and genre strategies. 

"People didn't respond solely enthusiastically about the technology. They did not respond only with unbridled enthusiasm or only with horror, saying, 'We're going too fast, we're going too fast,' Ellison told me. "What you see the literary authors doing is already grappling with the consequences and strategies for coping with this perception of being overwhelmed."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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