Daniel Defoe: The Father Of Modern Journalism

Daniel Foe, born circa 1660, was the son of a London butcher. He changed his last name to Defoe, to make it sound more gentlemanly.

Who was Daniel Defoe?

Daniel Defoe was a faithful husband, a devout Presbyterian, and a true genius who invented the modern novel and modern journalism. Defoe grew up in turbulent times. His youth was marked by the great fire of London, many wars with the Dutch, the plague, and the persecution of Dissenters. His later life would also be seriously unstable, mostly because of his continuing financial issues.

Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe: A Review of the State of the British Nation

The Review Story

His biggest achievement was his periodical, called the Review, which he launched during Queen Anne’s reign. For a long period of time, from 1704 to 1713, he wrote this periodical single-handedly. In the beginning, it was a weekly paper, then in 1705, it became a thrice-weekly publication.

His political enemies had him imprisoned in 1713 on various pretexts, but still, even then he continued to produce his paper. It eventually became the main government organ; but in addition to politics, Defoe discussed current affairs in general, trade, morals, religion, manners, and so on.

Defoe in the Pillory
De Foe in the Pillory

Daniel Defoe: Poetry and Journalist

Even though Daniel Defoe is best known for his novels, we often forget the fact that much of his writing was related to social, political, and business issues.

With his writings, he made proposals for highway maintenance, education, banking, and insurance. Each sector needed improvement, and Defoe offered constructive suggestions in his works.

He also wrote about contemporary religious problems, and once he was charged with libel for one of his pamphlets.

It is interesting to note that his punishment was to stand in the pillory, a punishment that subjected him to the whims of the mob. What happened next no one could really have expected.


Daniel Defoe turned occasion into an opportunity

His friends helped him turn this occasion into an opportunity for him to sell his pamphlets to the mob. Defoe invented something that in our time is known as “live reporting”, in which he tried to report immediately from the scene.


Obviously, back then it was hard to spread news instantly, but he would turn out a printed report at such speed that in just a few hours everyone knew what had happened.


He was the first master, if not the inventor, of almost every feature of modern newspapers, including the lead article, investigative reporting, foreign news analysis, the agony aunt, the gossip column, the candid obituary, and even the kind of ‘soul searching’ piece which Fleet Street calls the ‘Why, Oh Why.,  wrote the British journalist Richard West. 


Defoe’s example is a perfect precursor of modern journalism, with its bright and dark sides. The dark side is the fact that whoever pays more gets space in the newspapers, and the highest bidder in return gets propaganda that will ”talk” in his favor.

Daniel Defoe was a leading pioneer in this. For one significant period in his life, he was working as a propagandist and political agent, so he produced many essays promoting the cross-border alliance of England and Scotland. Later he continued working for Whig and Tory administrations, both at the same time.

But it’s easy to understand this because Defoe had the mindset of an entrepreneur, he wanted success at all costs. His goal was to create something that would become mainstream, which again reminds us of the current situation worldwide, where everyone’s goal to make something that will become an instant sensation. Writings of contemporary portals, newspapers, and magazines – starting with the headlines – have only one goal – to be sold. The accuracy and reliability of the information are secondary considerations. Shocking headlines will seldom seem justified once you start to read the article.

Through the example of Daniel Defoe we can see that few things have changed, especially in mass media. There is always a certain pattern, and there are always certain media characters that are biased because of the simple fact that for many of them it is just a business, and there is no real desire to present the actual facts to the readers.

In the end, Defoe summarized everything in one of his famous quotes:

Necessity makes an honest man a knave.

More you can read here.

The New Ethics of Journalism: No Ethics. New YT Magazine Is Out!

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