Newspapers, in the sense of regularly published material for the purposes of conveying information, have existed for centuries. While forms of widely-disseminated written information date as far back as the first millennium BC – both the Romans and the Han dynasty in China publicly posted handwritten news sheets to inform their citizens of important events and information – these government-generated sheets were relatively limited and reached only those who happened to pass by the location at which they were posted. The invention and development of the printing press in Europe in the 1450s made possible the publication of hundreds or thousands of copies of written information for widespread distribution. By the seventeenth century thousands of publications circulated throughout Europe. Both single-sheet publications and short pamphlets grew in popularity, although none of them were in the form of recurrent publications that characterize newspapers.
The Venetians published the first true ancestor of the modern newspaper in the sixteenth century: news sheets called gazettes that covered political and trade developments for the vibrant Venetian merchant networks in weekly publications. By the early seventeenth century, weekly publications had taken hold in various cities of the Netherlands, England and the German principalities. The abundance of news coming from the continent, generated by the Wars of Religion in the seventeenth century, coupled with political contentiousness within England leading up to and following the English Civil War, provided unlimited subject matter for these periodic publications, and English newspapers increased dramatically. Governmental attempts to control these publications, and the print shops responsible for them, ultimately influenced the American insistence on the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Privately owned newspapers abounded in the American colonies and continued to be the major source of news for most Americans until only recently. Broadcast media, on both radio and television, has challenged newspapers as the primary source of news in the country. The relatively short amount of time that broadcast media could spend on any particular story, however, kept coverage to a minimum, and newspapers retained the ability to cover a wide variety of information in relative depth. The low cost of newspapers, coupled with their availability on the street or by home delivery, helped them to maintain a strong presence throughout the twentieth century.