The New York Times

September 13, 1988, Tuesday,

SECTION: Section C; Page 17,

HEADLINE: Books of The Times; News, From 'Acta Diurna' to Modern Media

BYLINE: By John Gross

A History of News

From the Drum to the Satellite

By Mitchell Stephens

401 pages. Illustrated. Viking. $24.95.

''What's new?'' It is one of the basic human questions. Whether through curiosity, or boredom, or because they think it will help them, people have always been eager to learn the latest developments. In the words of a 16th-century English pamphlet - one of the many excellent quotations in ''A History of News'' by Mitchell Stephens - we are marked by ''the thursty desyer that all our kynde hath to know.''

Mr. Stephens's title means what it says. His subject is news itself, rather than newspapers or newscasts; he has set out to write a history of its changing (or unchanging) character, of how it has been gathered and disseminated, of the forces controlling its distribution.

In the beginning was the spoken word. Wherever people met - on a footpath, in a market place, around a well - they kept one another up to date. In time, elaborate oral systems developed for spreading the news further afield: drawing his examples from many different parts of the world, Mr. Stephens describes the role of runners and news criers, and the information networks of preliterate societies, the ''bush telegraphs'' that could so often astonish Europeans and Americans with their speed and effectiveness.

There are limits to what we can hope to learn about the history of oral news, especially about its more informal, street-corner varieties. But one thing seems clear: even when written news became available, it took a long time for it to compete effectively with gossip and the word of mouth report. There were newspapers in 18th-century London, but if you wanted to find out what was going on in the wider world you generally did better to visit a coffeehouse.

For practical purposes, the history of written journalism can be said to have begun in Rome, with two remarkable productions - the ''acta senatus,'' transactions of the senate, and the ''acta diurna,'' a daily summary of current events, including law reports and human interest stories. These were handwritten newssheets, published daily (over a period of nearly 300 years) by being posted up in public places. Copies of them, which could be bought from scribes, were widely read both in Rome itself and throughout the Roman empire.

There is a faint parallel in the bulletins that began circulating in imperial China at roughly the same time, but these were intended for Government officials rather than the public; and in Europe itself there were to be no further examples of written news until a few handwritten newsletters made their appearance in the 15th century.

In a world where rulers were determined to keep tight control over what could be published, the introduction of printing didn't initially transform the situation. For a century and more its chief journalistic consequence was the newsbook - a pamphlet, often in verse, sometimes recounting a battle or a royal marriage, but rather more likely to be devoted to a crime, a supernatural prodigy, a man-bites-dog sensation. Mr. Stephens quotes entertainingly from this sub-literature, with its gory details and tall stories; he leaves you in no doubt that the most traditional papers in present-day America are The National Enquirer and its rivals.

The first printed newspapers, ''corantos,'' made their appearance at the beginning of the 17th century. Like their immediate precursors, the handwritten newsletters of 16th-century Venice, which gave the world the word ''gazette,'' they were primarily concerned with matters affecting foreign trade. Many of them were printed in the great commercial center of Amsterdam - among others, the earliest surviving newspaper in English.

This began its life, in 1620, with a misprint (it was dated ''The 2. of Decemember'') and a cry of editorial despair (''The new tydings out of Italie are not yet com''). Still, the ball was rolling, and Mr. Stephens goes on to describe the subsequent growth of newspapers in England itself, especially during the English civil war -a period that saw such varied innovations as headlines (of a sort), newsboys and newsgirls, and above all what he calls ''spirited coverage of national news.''

At the heart of ''A History of News,'' for all its broader concerns, is a miniature history of the rise of the newspaper in Britain, the United States and, to a lesser extent, France. This is very well done. There is a particularly useful account of the development of reporting - an art that it took newspapers a long time to master; and at every stage Mr. Stephens's wide knowledge of his subject furnishes him with striking facts and analogies.

He is excellent on the unifying influence of the Colonial press during the period of the American Revolution, for example, the part it played in creating an American national consciousness. He also reminds you of some of the practical obstacles to unity: it took no less than six weeks for the first reports of the battles of Lexington and Concord to make their way into a newspaper in Savannah, Ga.

Only toward the end does he falter. His coverage of radio, television and recent developments in the press is too skimpy for him to be able to add much that is new, and he skirts around some of the most important contemporary issues.

Throughout the book, for instance, he stresses the role of news in binding a society together, reinforcing a sense of common aims and interests; but when he gets to the 20th century, this makes him seriously neglect the adversarial and critical role that journalists are free to play in a democracy. He might have been less inclined to slight this aspect of the story if he had found room for an account of the press under less open regimes.

All in all, then, a lively and original historical introduction; but less satisfactory as a guide to the present or a pointer to the future.

GRAPHIC: photo of Mitchell Stephens (Jim Hauser)