Frankfurt Main, late May 1631, just another street corner:

“Special Edition! Special Edition! Town from the future in Thuringia ! Read everything about the year 2000: horseless carriages, lights with no flames, guns that shoot ten times without reloading. Only in the Allgemeine Zeitung. Don’t miss the woodcuts of scandalously short skirts on page 3!”

Okay, I admit down-timers will probably put the woodcuts on pages one through three, but let’s begin this article about down-time media where it started: in the dark middle ages when there were no media. Why? All texts had to be copied by hand and only highly skilled writers could do it, so the process was both slow and very expensive. There was no way to publish a newspaper under such primitive conditions. That required being able to mass produce texts and gather information in a reasonable period of time.

This changed in the sixteenth century. First Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1490. Now any text could be reproduced in huge numbers, little time and for little money. Printing shops were being built everywhere. Just ten years later 40,000 different books were already being printed in Germany. The first book fair was held in Frankfurt in 1564, Leipzig followed a few decades later, but in the early/mid seventeenth century the Leipzig book fairs had already become more than those in Frankfurt.

At the fairs early forms of newspapers were sold: little books with the news of the previous month. Another form of pre-newspapers was fliers. Local printers printed them and traveling merchants distributed them. They were quite inexpensive. An ordinary worker could easily afford a flier.

Also in 1490 the Taxis Family, later von Thurn and Taxis, started a courier system for the Habsburgs that developed into the Imperial Mail. In 1531 the couriers began to carry private letters and in 1597 the IM got an imperial monopoly for all mail, but it was challenged by local rulers for decades. As late as 1637 the Elector of Saxony did not permit the IM to operate in his province. Nevertheless the network of post offices got denser and of course the IM had its own “Pony Express”-like system of fast couriers.

Publishers got a never ending stream of information from freelance reporters from all over Germany, and could send their papers to the subscribers like Joe Buckley in 1634: The Galileo Affair. Everything was so quick and reliable that Johan Carolus published the first weekly newspaper in Strasbourg in 1604. He promised the readers of the Relation all the latest news from Germany, Europe and the West Indies. As well, the first Dutch weekly was published in 1618, the first French weekly in 1621, the first Scandinavian in 1644 and Spain was a bit of a latecomer(1704). Many newspapers existed for only a short time and the circulation rarely exceeded 300 copies, but they reached a large number of people and a wide range of the society. Subscribers ranged from noblemen to pub owners. Today we have sports bars that attract customers with HDTV and pay TV; in the seventeenth century pubs had a newspaper. Sending newspapers out by mail was too expensive to have more than one newspaper in the inns and bars. Unlike today, a newspaper was not thrown away. Typically it would be resold or given to a friend. This meant the number of readers was ten times higher than the number of subscribers.

The pre-war tensions caused by the Reformation were beneficial to the development of newspapers, for they provided a lot of “news” and a lot of anti-Catholic/anti-Protestant propaganda. Even before the war some towns had more than one newspaper. When the war actually broke out, the papers got even more sensational news for the news hungry readers. We can also see modern trends like partisan reporting, sensationalist reporting and even the news influencing public opinion to a degree where public opinion influenced politics.

Take for example the sack of Magdeburg:

Protestant papers called it a crime of biblical proportion, but the Catholic paper called it just punishment for a rebellion. And in case you think loony conspiracy theories are a modern thing, a paper from Cologne alleged Magdeburg had been destroyed by the Protestants in order to blame the Catholics.

Reports of this and other massacres infuriated the people to a degree that caused even absolutist monarchs to consider public opinion in the decision making process. Speaking of monarchs, guess which one had the best “spin doctors” and “press agents,” to use the modern phrases? King Gus of course! He could not prevent the sack of Magdeburg, but he exploited it to the fullest with fliers urging the Protestant Germans to redouble their efforts, along with self-glorification and promises of revenge.

This is the situation on Ring of Fire day minus one. What changes after the Ring of Fire?

Up-timers introduce some modern elements of PR as “press conferences” and “press releases” but the tone of the papers doesn’t change. In 1634: The Bavarian Crisis we get so see some post-Ring of Fire examples of wild speculations bordering on conspiracy theories.

Down-time newspapers are already spreading information very fast. It’s quite likely that news about Grantville reaches any major German town within a month since Thurn and Taxis “pony express” needs just three or four days for Frankfurt-Leipzig or Frankfurt-Hamburg and 15 for Frankfurt-Madrid. In the future, news will be even faster. Radio and telegraph are introduced quickly and infrastructure improvements will also have a major effect on newspapers. High transportation costs limited the circulation in more distant areas, but improved rivers and roads and, especially, the railroad will drastically cut costs, making a wider range of newspapers affordable.

News is a commodity and Grantville has 370 years of news about politics, religion, technology and arts. It must be a reporters dream. And more than publishers even dared of dreaming.

Down-timers had newspapers, but unlike today they were censored. The Botenmeister-Zeitung from Protestant Berlin regularly and harshly criticized atrocities committed by Catholic forces until imperial pressure led to the paper being banned in 1631. After King Gus dragooned Brandenburg into an anti-Catholic alliance, the paper could be published again, but it was censored in advance. Indirect censorship, like granting a local newspaper monopoly to one printer, was more effective than direct censorship. The newspaper’s owner knew very well his lucrative privilege would be taken away if the powers-that-be got bad press. As a result the papers usually printed “raw” information and refrained from commenting.

But in Grantville they have freedom of speech. It´s a place where you can print virtually anything. Even if you irritate the ruling powers 24/7, you can still get watertight legal protection. It must look like paradise and we can expect a lot of publishers will move all or a part of their business to places with freedom of speech.

And last, but not least, if the “tame” down-time press was powerful enough to influence the political decision making of absolute rulers, an uncensored press should have a lot more influence on elected officials.

We better hope the sense of responsibility increases just as much.



Geo Epoche Nr.29, Der 30jährige Krieg