Press, Politics and the Public Sphere in Europe and North America, 1760-1820

By Hannah Barker; Simon Burrows | Go to book overview
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8
The French revolutionary press
Hugh Gough

Any analysis of the French press during the Revolution is made difficult by the contrast between the brevity of the period and the volume of the material. If we take Napoleon's accession to power in 1799 as the end of the Revolution–and it is just one of many possibilities–then the event lasted around ten years. During that short time, over 2,000 newspapers were published, together with some 13,000 political pamphlets and posters. But it was the newspapers that caught the eye of contemporaries. The author and journalist Louis-Sébastien Mercier noted: 'there is no street without a newspaper print shop and three journalists in the attics, writing–or rather doing a scissors and paste job on–their newspaper columns'. 1 Not all the newspapers have survived, but those that have still leave a daunting amount of text to analyse. The nature of this text was new too, as literature and books, which had dominated the reading habits of the nobility and bourgeoisie under the ancien regime, now tooksecond place to newspapers and pamphlets. Charles de Lameth remarked to the National Assembly on 16 January 1790 that most Parisian printers had, of necessity, made the switch from quality to quantity, from books to newspapers. 2 Most of their customers had too, and although many of the newspapers that they read were ephemeral, a significant number were impressively durable, lasting for months and even years. That durability was in turn the result of a radical change in editorial and publication habits, as speed became the order of the day, replacing the more sedate rhythm of the ancien regime. Journalists had to adapt to the condensed format of newspapers, which imposed severe constraints on length and style. Writers used to the leisurely literary cadences of formal style had to learn how to summarise at speed and how to phrase their articles in a manner that would attract readers and their subscriptions. 3 The change was difficult, yet those who succeeded found themselves in a new and influential profession which carried a political weight that even the Enlightenment philosophes had never enjoyed. A new role, new styles, new vocabularies and new production habits therefore transformed the French press in the revolutionary decade.

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