Academic journal article Journalism History

Early American Newswriting Style: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

Academic journal article Journalism History

Early American Newswriting Style: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

Article excerpt

Between 1690 and the end of the American Revolution, colonial newspaper printers developed a fairly standardized writing style in trying to provide readers useful, informative, and entertaining news in as little space as possible. A long history of newsletters, government publications, English newspapers, apprenticeships, and news clipping, as well as shortages of supplies and a fear of censorship, helped shape this style. Printers recognized that readers wanted to know at minimum the basic information-who, what, when, where, why, and how-of a news story, and when space permitted, a few longer pieces, usually written in chronological order, included more details, background information, and dramatic introductory sentences. Overall, however, writers based their newswriting on fundamental storytelling.

The American colonial press period was both a time of tradition and invention. Colonial printers looked to the successful news venues in England and adapted their techniques to suit the needs of local readers. Along the way, these printers naturally developed a standard newswriting style, which was common up and down the eastern seaboard, that gave readers the information and entertainment that they wanted and needed. Imbedded in this writing style were many of the common newswriting style elements that journalists still draw on today, including the use of a narrative/chronological structure, the 5Ws and H, quotations and attribution, and an occasional dramatic and attention-grabbing lead. While the writing as a whole may have been terse and concise compared to later periods, it had a distinct style of its own.

The roots of the colonial writing style grew from three main influences. First, colonial printers reproduced the writing style and content of successful English newspapers and government publications that they received. Colonial printers realized English publications were successful, and they tried to duplicate that success by using similar methods. Second, the practice of handwriting newsletters - again brought over from Europe - had already set newswriting style standards for relaying news across distances. Colonial printers did not try to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, by creating a new writing style for a printed page. Instead they simply adopted and then adapted what they knew worked. Third, die practice of apprenticeship, in which experienced printers at home and abroad trained young boys in all the aspects of printing, helped perpetuate the same methods of news writing from one print shop to another. All three of these influences helped to create a basic standard American newspaper writing style that continued, in many respects, through the party press.

Most general media histories of American newspapers use the colonial period as a starting point. These texts explain that the colonial press style developed from a tradition of newsletter writing, which was handicapped because of a shortage of space, and resulted in what is commonly described as dry, terse, and factual accounts of the news of the day. These historians continued to say that subsequent "improvements" in writing style in later years were based on these simple beginnings. ' A few historians tried to go beyond a cursory description of style and explain why colonists wrote the way they did. Sidney Kobre argued that colonial newspapers were a social institution and their newswriting style and content were simply a product of multiple factors in the colonial environment. These factors included: a growing population; the expansion of commerce, trade, and agriculture, leading to increased advertising and subscriptions; changing political conditions; the technological conditions for making and distributing goods, including newspapers; and educational and cultural conditions.2 Sheila McIntyre attributed colonial writing style to the adoption of a similar terse writing style and mostly to a chronological structure, such as what appeared in the personal letters written and exchanged by New England ministers. …

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