A young man from Strasbourg, Johan Carolus, had his Gutenberg moment in 1605. The proprietor of a successful news agency, each week he would scrutinise the letters, news reports and despatches that passed through this busy city and produce from them a hand-written digest of news, which he copied for subscribing clients.
Struggling to keep up with demand, he had recently bought a printing press and put a proposition to the city council. He would turn his weekly newsletters into print if the council would grant him a monopoly.
To Carolus this probably seemed a relatively routine legal transaction. Like Johannes Gutenberg 150 years before, Carolus was seeking to deal with a situation where demand had outstripped supply by mechanising an existing process.
In Gutenberg’s case this involved replacing manuscript books, copied one by one, with a technique for producing several hundred copies. Carolus proposed to do the same for news.
Since the invention of printing in Europe in the 15th century, publishers had gradually broadened the market by experimenting with new forms of books. Among them were an increasing number of pamphlets dealing with current affairs: wars, battles and natural disasters.
But these news pamphlets were occasional publications, printed when great events caused a spike in public interest. Those who required a regular digest of news – diplomats, merchants or officials, such as members of Strasbourg’s town council – turned to news agencies like that of Carolus, which offered a weekly subscription service. These newsletters, which originated in the great Italian news hubs of Rome and Venice, were highly regarded but expensive. Carolus now proposed to broaden their appeal and lower their cost by having them printed.