J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

What the Censor Did Wrong from the Start

In the first issue of The Censor, dated 23 Nov 1771, printer Ezekiel Russell announced that it would be a weekly publication “if suitable Encouragement is offered,” and that the price was “Two Pence per Number to Subscribers, and Four Pence single.” The masthead stopped mentioning the single-issue price after that. But even the subscription rate would have come to eight shillings, eight pence for an entire year.

Around the same time, Isaiah Thomas announced in his almanac for 1772 that the price for a year of his weekly Massachusetts Spy was six shillings, eight pence. So The Censor was over 20% more expensive than the publication it was created to counteract.

Furthermore, the Spy was a newspaper, with news reports from other cities, public notices, business advertisements, and other practical information. You got a lot for your money. The Censor was completely devoted to local political arguments, starting with a refutation of an attack on Gov. Thomas Hutchinson that had appeared in the Spy.

The Censor was easier on the eyes, to be sure. It was in magazine format, with white space between paragraphs instead of crowded columns. But again, that meant readers got less material for their eight shillings.

Russell apparently tried to broaden the publication’s appeal and/or revenue on 29 Feb 1772 by adding a two-page “postscript” which looked very much like a newspaper. It had two columns of closely spaced news from London and from other newspapers with advertisements at the back, including the first solicitation for a book of poems by Phillis Wheatley (eventually published in Britain).

The number of advertisements grew in the following issues. Almost all from merchants who would be Loyalists. For example, William Jackson offered tea for sale, defying the Whig boycott (which had become weak and tepid anyway). The 11 April “postscript” was four pages, almost half advertising, and two weeks later the two extra pages were more than half covered with ads.

But the “postscripts” didn’t change the fact that The Censor was a luxury product, aimed at gentlemen rather than busy shopkeepers or workers, even those interested in politics. The magazine was designed to be a forum for pro-Crown views, but it wasn’t designed well to change people’s minds.

I see The Censor reflecting how Massachusetts’s royalist elite viewed politics—those gentlemen never understood the resistance to Parliament’s new taxes and other laws as a popular movement. They saw crowds as being manipulated by shameless or devious gentlemen, rather than as lots of people acting from their own grievances or principles. Most of the court party felt that if they won over enough other members of the elite, the people would follow. And so they kept being surprised by how persistent and strong the opposition was.

Meanwhile, Thomas was aiming his Massachusetts Spy newspaper at the working class, in price and in content. Guess which publication had more readers. Guess which one went out of business after less than six months.

TOMORROW: The Censor’s changing motto.

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