Who knows whether posterity will not look at old photographs of today’s newsstands the way we look at images of ancient libraries, Alexandria or Baghdad— stacks of daily papers seeming every bit as peculiar as shelves full of papyrus scrolls?footnote1 Everything suggests that the age of information, circulating daily via printed paper, will last no more than three centuries, before being filed away as one among the many means by which humans have gathered and exchanged news and understanding. The daily newspaper was the invention, instrument and symbol of modern times: the banner of the rising bourgeoisie and the mould of ‘public opinion’. Today, the signs of its decline are everywhere, and first of all in the progressive disappearance of its point of sale, the newsstand.

Like all slow processes, this extinction is almost imperceptible. But then, one day you realize that the kiosk on the ground floor of Milan’s central railway station has gone, replaced by some shop selling tourist tat, and that among the tens of boutiques and plate-glass displays there is now just one newsstand left, on the upper floor, by departures. In Paris, what leaps to the eye is something that isn’t there: the piles of Le Monde, fresh from the printer, that ten years ago were dropped at two in the afternoon at every Métro entrance. On a Sunday, in any European city, it’s increasingly difficult to find a news vendor open. The stands themselves have also changed. Just as railway stations have been reduced to commercial centres in which trains seem a residual inconvenience, so the kiosks accumulate gadgets, dvds, candy, lottery tickets and scratch cards while the few surviving daily papers are tucked away in a corner, as if accommodated for form’s sake. But what does this disappearance mean?

The daily emerged in London, where by the end of the seventeenth century capitalist modernity had assembled a specific, peculiar and perhaps unrepeatable configuration of news, public opinion and money. The year 1702 saw the launch of what is considered to be the first newspaper of modern times, the Daily Courant, a single sheet devoted to foreign news, published ‘without comment’—but alongside advertisements. And it was not by chance that in 2013 the London Lloyd’s List—one of the oldest papers in the world, the house publication of the oldest insurance agency and in its special field of maritime information still the unrivalled authority—should have decided to close its print edition.

The print newspaper was an invention of bourgeois modernity, notwithstanding the claims made for precursors in earlier times and other economic orders, from the Romans’ Acta Diurna to the Italian Avvisi in the heyday of the city-states and the French Canards sanglants in the sixteenth century. But in reality there was nothing that resembled the modern newspaper which began to spread from the early 1700s and most vigorously in the next century. Many conditions were necessary for its take-off. The first was the self-assertion of the bourgeoisie and thus the new centrality of an entrepreneurial class, not only in commerce (like the big maritime interests) but also in industry and finance. Newspapers came into being because a sufficiently numerous stratum of economic subjects needed news of governments, journeys, the conditions obtaining in the places towards which their investments were directed or on which they depended. This was the first draft of globalization. A war, a famine, an earthquake far away had implications for goods, investments and the prospects for a financial return. It was this necessity to be up-to-date that formed the economic base of modern journalism. Keeping abreast of the world became indispensable for modern bourgeois existence.

Here we see a characteristic feature of invention: the frequent heterogenesis of purposes. The telephone was invented exclusively as a medium for business transactions, but within a few years was in widespread use for private chatting. (Bell’s patent was filed in 1877; by 1880 Mark Twain had written his hilarious skit ‘A Telephonic Conversation’.footnote2) Similarly the internet, invented for military purposes, was to become, among other things, the most widely used instrument of pornographic exchange. By the same principle of heterogenesis, it is evident that a means of communication designed to report political situations and events for financial purposes may be used to report economic information for political ends. Thus, the newspaper immediately became a powerful instrument of political struggle. As early as 1704 (just two years after the launch of the Daily Courant), Daniel Defoe, the first ever novelist-journalist, founded his Review of the Affairs of France for domestic political ends (that is, to support the Tory government that brokered his release from prison). In the era of revolutions this political function became ever more pronounced. The role of the newspaper developed from informative to formative. In entering the flow of the world it shaped a perspective on it. As Hegel put it, reading the papers is ‘the realist’s morning prayer’, orienting one’s attitude to the world.footnote3 Hegel was the first philosopher to edit a daily newspaper, the Bamberger Zeitung in 1807–08. He greatly admired the French press, which in the revolutionary period had shown itself to be an exceptionally powerful political weapon, so much so that, in the eleven years between the fall of the Bastille and the arrival of the Consulate, around a hundred papers were launched, among them Marat’s L’Ami du peuple (1789–94) and Hébert’s Le Père Duchesne (1790–94). Robespierre too had his paper, Le Défenseur de la constitution, which appeared in twelve issues between May and August 1792.

The second condition for the birth of the newspaper, and of journalism as a profession, was the advent of mass literacy: papers had an obvious need of readers. Unsurprisingly, the new form took hold first in the Protestant countries, where the ability to read was indispensable for making direct contact with God via his Book. The case of the United States is exemplary. In 1810, with only 7.2 million inhabitants, the us had 376 titles; by 1835 the total was 1,200 for a population of 15 million. Dailies numbered 27 in 1810, but as many as 971 by 1880. Weekly titles stood at 14,000 in 1900, by which date the us was publishing more than half of all the world’s papers, or two copies per head of the country’s population.footnote4 Everywhere, journalism developed in step with the ascent of the bourgeoisie and the spread of literacy. We need only track its growth in France, measured in copies per 1,000: from 1.3 in 1815 to 3 in 1831, then leaping from 8.5 in 1863 to 73 in 1880 and 244 by 1914.footnote5 Italy was for a long time excluded from this history, as a country where two-thirds of the population were illiterate in 1871 and readers (themselves more numerous than copies printed) were only a fraction more than one in a thousand.footnote6

Another enabling condition of the newspaper form was, of course, technological innovation. First, the revolution in transport: in the earlier half of the nineteenth century, the steamship and the railway network created a national market for the press—in Britain in the 1840s, in France, the main lines at least, from the 1850s. And it was trains that made possible the ‘national’ circulation of the big Italian papers (the local editions carrying breaking news went to press later). The second great innovation was telegraphy, which was at the core of nineteenth-century journalism and remained so in my own case into the 1980s, whenever I was abroad and needed to send my reports by teleprinter. For much of the later twentieth century, until the arrival of the modem thirty years ago, the most common means of dispatching articles was by telephone dictation to a copy-typist. Finally, and just as important, was an innovation that remained unchanged for a century: the rotary press with moveable lead type. Invented in the 1840s, this achieved its more or less definitive form in 1874, and linotype was installed at the New York Times in 1886. The rotary press enabled an unprecedented surge in print runs. In 1892, using a sextuple machine with three cylinders, Pulitzer’s New York World succeeded in printing 50,000 copies an hour of a 12-page paper, for a total run of 374,000. In Britain around the same time the Daily Mail surpassed one million copies. It was this technical advance together with the advent of mass education that accounted for the explosion of newspaper reading—an increase of 2,630 per cent—in the French Third Republic.