Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Town Criers

Getting the news to the public has always been a rather perilous profession. Called heralds or town criers, these couriers used to travel from village to village providing information on military victories. 

All of course, know of the Battle of Marathon, where a Greek runner crossed some 26 miles to bring back the news of victory over the Persians to the populace ... and died from the effort of doing so. The subsequent Olympic Games, where the races commemorating this achievement were held, were in fact opened by a contest of those heralds or town criers. 

The tradition of heralds continued throughout history, evolving into using town criers in each city to announce laws, warn of impending danger, and pass on such news as was worthy. Since writing was something mostly restricted to the clergy and most of the populace was illiterate anyway, such a method seemed to be the most expedient way of circulating information to growing urban populations. The profession still had its dangers however, as the expression which grew up at the time, "don't shoot the messenger" implies. 

With the evolution in technology of the printing press and the extension of literacy to greater numbers of citizens, this function over time began to fall more and more to a newsletter or "newspaper". The herald no longer ran from city to city and the town crier no longer stood at the center of town, providing all of the news that was fit to speak. 

For the many years since, it was the responsibility of the daily newspaper to serve as that herald, and they have had success in doing so. But while they often made claims to some loftier perch than deserved as a consequence of their responsibilities, failures were often as spectacular as successes. While serving as the voice of the people, they were just as often the tool of unscrupulous politicians. While attempting to serve the needs of the common man, they were equally guilty of the vices of well-to-do ownership. While often the lone voice crying out against injustice, they were likewise the mouthpiece of more nefarious purposes. 

What has become of this noble purpose today? Well certainly some of those original names survive. The Herald, The Reporter, and The Courier among others still survive as the names of many daily newspapers around the country. Information on battles, on laws, and on local news and opinion are still a regular part of what they print every day. But like what once came before them, daily newspapers now face potential extinction in the evolution of information disbursement technology. 

Newspapers appear unwilling face such demise quietly however, and some now cry out to have the government subsidize what may be in fact an outmoded system. Undoubtedly like the heralds at the time of their replacement, they beg to be kept on to serve a need that may no longer exist. No longer able to reap the vast profits that for so many years made them such a lucrative business, they now claim to be a necessity of freedom as reason for continued existence and therefore financial support . 

I mourn this potential passing of my beloved daily printed printed page (a passing that could have serious implications for me personally), but find this no reason to provide them with taxpayer support. I am concerned about how this time of change will affect protection from the infringement of government, but find this insufficient reason to subsidize them. 

I feel sure that just as the first newspapers were sold on the street, their predecessors railed out at the injustice of it all and warned the populace of the impending danger if they were to be no more. Bellowing in stentorian tones (a term which comes from a Greek herald from Trojan War days who was said to have a voice as loud as 50 men), I have little doubt that they cast a pall of doom on their positional demise. Using the voices which had served their profession so well over the years, they now no doubt whined and cajoled for solace and support. 

And so with the clamor of the daily newspaper today for such support, we see a return to its true roots. As they join the line of businesses tightly grasping their "Oliver Twist" begging bowls in the hope of something more, they truly become what once they were ... a Town Crier. 


Maggie Thurber said...

nicely written!

Tim Higgins said...

Thanks Maggie, though in the spirit of full disclosure it seems to me that I recall a saying about blind squirrels and nut. :-)

Roland Hansen said...

Very good, Tim.
Incidentally, Sylvania, Ohio has had a town crier for many years. His name is Mike Lieber and I have known him for --- well, let me just say many years, every since I was a teen ager.

Tim Higgins said...


I am intrigued that such a position still exists and happy that he is a crier and not simply a whiner.

Hooda Thunkit (Dave Zawodny) said...


Alas with the many forms of electronic communications these days the job of town crier is swiftly joining the ranks of the dodo bird...