THREE hundred years ago, the American press was born. Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick hit the streets of Boston on Sept. 25, 1690. Although Benjamin Harris's newspaper was a far cry from today's papers - it had no headlines or illustrations, and it was only three small seven-by-eleven-inch pages long - there are deeper continuities. The colonial publishers tried as hard as USA Today designers to make their product inviting. The early newspapers were expensive, and individual copies passed from reader to reader.
Many early papers never managed to turn a profit. To make ends meet, another Boston editor, John Campbell, doubled as a postmaster. So did Pennsylvania Gazette publisher Benjamin Franklin, who craftily barred other newspapers from the Philadelphia mails. Benjamin Harris continued to operate a coffeehouse and bookstore.
As markets grew increasingly competitive, hundreds of newspapers came and, through mergers, name changes, and closings, went. The American Minerva began publishing in New York City in 1793. It became the Commercial Advertiser in 1797, The Globe in 1904, The Sun and The Globe in 1923, the New York World-Telegram, The Sun in 1950, and the World Journal Tribune in 1966. In 1967 the World Journal Tribune, which represented the continuation of 38 different newspapers, ceased publication entirely, leaving no heirs.
So many papers have closed or merged that fewer than 20 cities now have competing daily newspapers, down from a peak of nearly 700 just before World War I.
Benjamin Franklin wrote that nearly everything published will ``give offense to some, and perhaps to many,'' and so printers soon ``acquire a vast unconcernedness as to the right or wrong opinions contained in what they print.'' Where Franklin counseled journalists to ignore criticism, John Adams urged them to relish it. In a letter to the Boston Gazette, Adams wrote that the ``stale, impudent insinuations of slander and sedition'' lodged against the newspaper by ``the gormandizers of power'' are ``much the more to your honor.''