What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The Printer is sensible that the Courant is very badly printed.”
Throughout the colonies, printers had difficulties getting subscribers to pay for their newspapers. They regularly inserted notices calling on subscribers to settle accounts, especially when one year ended and another began. Such was the case when Ebenezer Watson ran a notice in the December 15, 1772, edition of the Connecticut Courant. He asserted that for most of his customers “the Year … terminates with this Day’s Publication (No. 416).” That made it a good time for him to “return his sincere Thanks to all those Gentlemen who have not only been his Customers a Number of Years, but who have been very punctual” in paying for their subscriptions. The printer requested that those who had been punctual continue to pay their bills in a timely fashion because “it is by their kind Assistance that he has been enabled to continue his Business to this Time.” Watson depended on them for the “Continuance” of the Connecticut Courant.
He also addressed those who still owed for their subscriptions, declaring that he “takes the Liberty, ONCE MORE! To ask all those indebted to him, whose Accounts are of a Number of Years standing, whether they don’t think it REASONABLE that he should NOW, call upon them for PAYMENT.” With a bit of exasperation, Watson underscored that his subscribers had a responsibility to settle accounts since he had made the request so often. With a bit of sarcasm, he advised that “If they think the Request UNREASONABLE, after having been waited upon such a Length of Time, they are hereby inform’d that they are at Liberty to take their own Time.” Unlike other printers, Watson did not threaten legal action. Instead, he sought to shame delinquent subscribers into paying, suggesting that none of them could really consider his request unreasonable given the amount of time that Watson supplied them with newspapers.
The printer then made a curious admission in a nota bene. He stated that he was “sensible that the Courant is very badly printed.” Furthermore, he acknowledged that “the Complaints of his Customers on that Account are very just.” Such critiques applied to the material quality of the newspapers produced in Watson’s printing office, but not to the quality of the news that he collated and disseminated to readers. Those complaints also did not justify withholding payment. Indeed, if subscribers wished to see an improvement in the quality of the printing then they needed to send their payments. Watson explained that “his Types are worn out” and he could not “procure new ones” without “a large Sum of Money.” That being the case, “an immediate Settlement is the only effectual Plan to be adopted to replenish the Office with a new Set of Printing Materials.” That was a different strategy than most printers deployed when they called on subscribers and others to settle accounts. Watson sought to negotiate with his customers by promising that the quality of the newspaper would improve but only if they fulfilled their half of the bargain by making payments that he would then use to purchase new type. The printer gambled that a carrot, the promise of new types, would be more effective than a stick, threatening legal action, in convincing recalcitrant customers to pay their overdue accounts.