More on the time lag in news reporting…

August 10, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

journals_and_journeymen_briSome weeks ago I commented on the time lag between a news event and its appearance in newspapers of the day, focusing on the publication dates of the Declaration of Independence in various newspapers.

Because time lag is a major factor in looking for news reports prior to the use of the telegraph in the mid-19th century, I thought more discussion should be given to the issue.  Again I turn to Brigham’s “Journals and Journeymen” for much valuable information.

Obviously the  delay in receiving news of world events was beyond the control of newspaper publishers. The news of the death of Queen Anne on August 1, 1714 arrived in America on September 15. George I died June 14, 1727 but his subjects in America did not learn of it until August 13. George II died October 25, 1760 and it was two months later before the news arrived at Boston. Even the significance of the Treaty of Versailles at Paris which ended the Revolutionary War was first heard of at Boston on October 22 and not published in a newspaper until October 30 despite the event happening on September 3.

Ocean travel was dangerous & speed was dependent on the weather. Foreign wars & privateering also made voyages quite hazardous. The first issue of the “Boston News-Letter” of April 24, 1704 carried London reports of December 20, 1703. It was common for ships to load their passengers & their London newspapers and then wait around in the Channel for up to 3 weeks or more before sailing. During the first two years of newspaper publication there were exceptional voyages of five weeks, but the average was about two months.

After the Revolution & before 1820 merchants began building larger vessels which meant improved speed. In 1820 there were frequent sailings of 28 to 30 days, but there was no dependable time schedule.

Noting the diaries of some famous travelers we gain some insight. In 1722 Samuel Johnson traveled from Boston to England in 39 days. Benjamin Franklin in returning from England to Philadelphia in 1726 did so in 67 days. William Beverley sailed from Virginia to Liverpool in 37 days. Abigail Adams, whose story of a voyage is one of the most detailed on record, sailed from America to England in 30 days in 1784.

Postriders took a week to travel from New York to Boston, and at least two days from Philadelphia to New York. When stagecoaches came into use around 1785, the delivery of letters & newspapers was quicker & more consistent.

But by the establishment of the magnetic telegraph in 1844 and the laying of the Atlantic cable in 1858 (but not perfected until 1866) news was transmitteed from country to country instantaneously.