What those guys back then 200 years ago tapped into was obviously something so elemental that you go to Kenya, or you go to Tibet or you go anywhere and you talk to journalists there who are not trained, never been to journalism school, maybe never even read an English language publication, but they start putting out little publications and they instinctively know that what they have to do is to help the people in their village or their town understand what is going on.
-- Bill Kovach, former New York Times Washington bureau chief; curator, Nieman Foundation for Journalism Fellowships at Harvard
The American experience, as it has been called, provided a unique set of circumstances -- a seedbed for the growth of a freewheeling, undisciplined press in which flowering eloquence and farsightedness grew among the weeds of demagoguery and self-interest. The evolution of journalistic practice that accompanied the growth of the early American newspapers is, in many respects, a premeditation of responsible modern media.
In colonial America, and after independence, any man who could afford the equipment might become a publisher. The range of pamphleteering, partisan vituperation, monitoring of public officials, and reporting of legislative debates before and after 1776 inexorably developed a market for daily and weekly newspapers. Historical estimates of literacy in colonial America vary substantially, but there is general agreement that probably close to half the white adult males could read. The newspapers that appeared in the early years of the eighteenth century had very small circulations not only because of limited literacy but because publishers were concerned with an elite property-owning readership. In the southern colonies public speaking and printing were controlled to the point of censorship, particularly in regard to slavery. The northern colonies permitted greater diversity. Partisanship and individuality were developing characteristics in