If news as [W. H. Russell, the great Victorian journalist] knew it, and as the last reporters in Fleet Street in the 1980s understood it, is now dying, when was it born? The answer is that it was a child of technology, achieving meaningful existence after the arrival of steam-powered printing presses about two centuries ago.

The hand-operated, Gutenberg-style machines in use before that didn’t have the power to reach large numbers of people quickly enough to be instruments of news. They carried some fresh facts, but editors knew that their technology was usually too slow to compete even with word of mouth, so they gave priority to commentary. The early Times, for example (it was launched in 1785), or William Cobbett’s famous Political Register, was primarily a vehicle of opinion: they tended to make just the same tacit assumption you now find in today’s daily papers — that the reader already knows the facts.

Another piece of historical symmetry here is that the first steam press was introduced at the Times in 1814 in an overnight coup designed to prevent sabotage by the old-style printers. It took a remarkably similar coup in 1986 — when Rupert Murdoch suddenly moved the Times to new premises in Wapping — to introduce computer production to British national newspapers. This was one of the developments that would eventually kill old-style news. Technology giveth, and technology taketh away.