Private news services: Journalism’s beginning is also its future


Private news services -- one of the oldest things in the news business -- is now one of the more profitable things in the news business. According to the Columbia Journalism Review

Some of the companies faring best in the news business today have built an entirely different model, what we might call private news, and are working on an entirely different balancing act. Their challenge is to determine the right mix of focused, professional content—sold to a relatively small client base, usually bundled with data, for extremely high rates.”

This is fascinating for a couple of reasons. First, this is how the news business started – rich people paid correspondents in other places to send them information that might be of interest to them. Second, it encapsulates exactly what consumers try to get via RSS feeds and other news aggregators: News that is tailored to their interests.

I do not know who started the private news service but the one I am most familiar with is for the Fuggers – who were the bankers to many of the Catholic monarchies – especially the Hapsburgs — in the 15th & 16th centuries. The bank’s news service was started by Count Philip Eduard Fugger for an audience of one – himself. The archives of those newsletters are an amazing trove of information which has been all but forgotten today.

I have been re-reading George T. Matthews’ selection of archives of the Fugger Newsletters and wondering why they seem to have been so thoroughly overlooked. They are, in style and content, the forerunners of what we find on the Web today: An idiosyncratic description of events around the world that are frequently illuminating whether or not they are factual. From Matthews’ introduction:

“Even in the 2nd part of the 16th century, the Fugger interests were world-wide in scope. Partners, factors, clients and servants of the firm were located in nearly all the commercial and political capitals of Europe, Spanish America, Mediterranean Africa and the Orient. … It would seem when the Fugger representatives abroad learned of the Count’s extraordinary interest in the news, quite routine dispatches were fleshed out with whatever information on whatever subject the agents could obtain.”

The Count saved these and augmented them with information both from the rumor sheets of the day, called Neue-Zeitungen, and professionally compiled news reports known as Nouvellanten. As a result the newsletters are filled with descriptions of events great and trivial – from coronations to street crimes. One of my favorites concerns an attempt by creditors to seize someone who was playing Jesus in a church festival by using someone else who was dressed up as – wait for it – Judas.

The newsletters mostly report issues today known to few people who don’t specialize in the history of this period, but that is no matter. I read them for the stories and the glimpse into worlds easily as strange as anything our science fiction and fantasy writers have created. I have never read of anything as lavish or opulent as the 51 day festival in Constantinople by the Sultan Murad in honor of the circumcision of his 16-year-old son Mehemed in 1582.

“On the third day various artificially created objects were exhibited, among them about three hundred large figures of animals, made of sugar. This lasted until midday, thereafter gifts were presented to all the Ambassadors who had been invited by His Majesty. The Hippodrome was sprinkled by twenty water wagons. A juggler performed there, he hit himself in the face with a stone with all his strength without any harm resulting therefrom. Another executed bold somersaults and was masked. Both were presented with gifts from His Majesty. The Sultan ordered seven thousand flat cakes made out of cooked rice to be brought, also six thousand large loaves of bread and great quantities of mutton. When all this was spread upon the ground, all the poor came rushing in the greatest haste to get hold of the food, and this proved a very entertaining sight. Thereafter was held a hunt of Hungarian boars. In the evening there were once more illuminations and fireworks.”

And there are forty-eight more days to go each, as they say, better than the one before it. I defy any Russian oligarch, Mexican narco-lord or Wall Street hedge-fund owner to top that!

Some of the letters are nearly complete novels in themselves. This one paragraph describing Lisbon following the death of the Portuguese king in battle in 1578 tells an entire epic just from the aftermath of the event.

“Otherwise business here continues as though nothing untoward has taken place. The ships that arrived from India are being unloaded, the merchants ply their trade and go to sea; it is the nobility and soldiers alone who have perished. No merchant has suffered thereby since they all stayed behind. The four regents whom the king appointed to rule the kingdom in his absence were ratified in their office by the Cardinal. The Government and Officials deal with the people in so friendly a manner that everyone is astounded thereat. In spite of these terrible tidings no riots have occurred and if a stranger, who had never been here before came to the city, he would swear by all that is holy that no ill-fortune has befallen this kingdom for a hundred years.”

There are many references to the Newsletters online – but the texts themselves aren’t available. None of the descriptions on the web give a feel for the vast richness of the archive. The Wikipedia entry on the Fuggers doesn’t even mention the newsletters and they are by far the family’s most significant legacy (note to self – update Wikipedia).

The kind of personalization that Count Fugger got is what consumer’s want today. The most successful information ventures today are the ones which are the most specialized. The niche is all. Find a way to deliver that to the mass market and your fortune will be made. Barring that here’s a hint about how to find the niche’s that aren’t currently being served. Look at all the various Federal departments, bureaus and secretariats. Find the ones which, due to media cutbacks, no longer have beat reporters. Need an example? Check out And remember me when the money starts to come in.


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