THE BRITISH LIBRARY 

The Newsroom blog

News about yesterday's news, and where news may be going

Introduction

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14 April 2016

Using old newspapers

Denise Bates is a writer on social history whose latest book, Historical Research using British Newspapers, is a guide to using newspaper archives in research, particularly the British Newspaper Archive. In this guest blog post, she describes what led her to write about using digitised newspapers. 

Bates

The inspiration for Historical Research Using British Newspapers was a very modern concept; the blog. I used old newspapers extensively whilst researching my first two books, Pit Lasses and Breach of Promise to Marry. The positive reaction to my blog for the British Newspaper Archive about the differences between national and local newspapers surprised me as I had not expected this to be new learning. After more investigation I realised that twenty-first century historians have an exciting new resource, digitised, on-line newspapers, but little information about using them effectively. The seeds of my next project were planted.

When I first started using old newspapers, like many researchers I was learning on the job and made mistakes along the way. These included not knowing which titles were the best ones to consult first and thus wasting time trying to understand a topic that was well-covered in a different publication. I also made unrealistic assumptions about how much time was needed to locate and study reports. I decided on a book which brought together the many issues that are relevant to users of old newspapers, including the history of the press, how to find good quality information, how to use it productively and the pitfalls to avoid.

Digitised newspapers have a growing fan-base. Their preserved pages contain a rich vein of forgotten material, allowing researchers to broaden their enquiries from the standard sources on many topics and to cite new examples, rather than recycling the same few. Newspapers sometimes offer an unorthodox view of the past, with content which challenges the version that has been handed down in exam syllabuses and popular histories alike. For topics that have not been studied or written about, newspapers are an accessible way of rediscovering aspects of the past that have been forgotten.

Police

Illustrated Police News 29 July 1882. An artist's impression of a breach of promise case and a case of child cruelty.

Unanticipated discoveries have changed my understanding of the nineteenth century. When I used court reports to delve into the archaic world of the jilted women and men who sued a former fiancé for compensation, I found that no-win-no fee lawyers, who I had previously believed to be a product of the late twentieth century, ran flourishing practices as early as the 1820s. When I looked at several cases involving child cruelty or neglect in the 1890s, I entered a world of high-minded social workers who could not comprehend how the people they were trying to help had to live. Amongst some very serious and indisputable instances of ill-treatment, were several shocking but unwarranted accusations of laziness, selfishness and drunkenness made against caring parents whose wages were too low to feed and clothe their children properly, even though they had been instructed about cleanliness and nutrition. Suddenly I knew the roots of the fear that haunted working-class families as I grew up in the 1960s, that if you didn't do as 'they' said, 'they' might take your children away.

Vesuvius

'Eruption of Mount Vesuvius', Penny Illustrated Paper, 17 October 1863. This scene would have been a revelation to most readers of the time.

Every type of material has its drawbacks and old newspapers are far from being the perfect resource. The number of pages that are already on-line can make them unwieldy to handle if a query produces a large number of matches. It is possible to become overwhelmed by detail and miss important information or insight. There are plenty of places in the news chain where error can creep into a report and sometimes they cover a topic in a very superficial way. Occasionally a researcher may strike lucky and quickly locate an editorial or journalist's investigation that provides a complete answer. More usually it will be necessary to find, collate and analyse a number of individual reports in order to uncover the full story or unlock relevant learning.

Almost all sources are affected by bias and newspapers are no exception. They have been subjected to censorship, may have printed propaganda or portrayed opinion as fact. These problems are not insurmountable, but users need to know how to recognise and manage them in order to avoid jumping to false conclusions.  

When newspapers were first published, they opened up a wider world to the literate people of the day. Reproduced digitally, they are now allowing twenty-first century researchers to immerse themselves in the past in a way that no other resource can and make new discoveries.

Denise Bates (www.denisebates.co.uk)

07 April 2016

St. Pancras Intelligencer no. 38

It has been a while since we produced an edition of the St Pancras Intelligencer, our round-up of news about news. Producing a regular series proved to be rather too much of a challenge, but not wanting to see a good title go down, we are recasting the Intelligencer as an occasional series. Much like the first newspapers in the 17th century, we will publish a new edition when we have gathered enough stories to fill the space available. So here is some of what has been happening recently in the world of news about news.

Panama

http://panamapapers.sueddeutsche.de

The Panama Papers. The leak of millions of papers from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca has sent shockwaves across the world. The story behind the leak is as fascinating as the outcome. Wired gives the background story. The now famous International Consortium of Investigative Journalists collates the information on a smartly designed special website. And the newspaper that first received the documents, Süddeutsche Zeitung, has its own stylish website dedicated to the story, in German and English, which dramatises the material with fine use of illustrations and charts.

The art of being in the wrong place at the right time: behind the scenes of social media newsgathering. A powerful piece by David Crunelle, eyewitness to the Brussels airport bombings who was then bombarded with requests from the news media.

Editor hits out at "supine journalism" in regional press. Mike Gibson, editor of the Brighton Argus, criticises the "poor state" of much of the English regional press, as reported by Hold the Front Page.

Can newspapers do anything to stop the advertising exodus? Roy Greenslade worries about the future viability of newspapers, assailed by falling advertising revenues on one hand and the use of ad-blocking software on the other.

The life and times of a newspaper baron. Interesting piece by Peter Day on BBC News on Lord Thomson of Fleet, owner of The Times before Rupert Murdoch.

Action Research in Audience Analytics. A report from Nesta on how hyperlocals can learn from their audiences to build up their audiences.

Do newspaper archives need a “dead man’s switch”? Thought-provoking piece from Tara Calishain at ResearchBuzz on the perils of disappearing digital newspaper archives.

Newspapers

http://www.thecinetourist.net/news.html

The Cine-Tourist is a film history site with a psychogeographical bent, managed by Roland-François Lack of University College London. His speciality is gathering thematic screengrabs from historic films, and he has produced a terrific gallery of scenes from films in which real and imaginary newspapers appear. See which films you recognise.

Investigative brand journalism. Nieman Lab looks at the Guardian's true crime reporting series, How to Solve a Murder, with its sponsorship from Amazon.

Newspapers gobble each other up to survive digital apocalypse. Great title for a Bloomberg piece on American newspaper business strategies.

"The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality". Journalist-turned-historian Dean Kirby (guest writing for the Newsroom blog) looks at the worst parts of 19th century Manchester and what newspaper archives reveal about them.

Independent launches paid-for digital edition. As we said goodbye to the print editions of The Independent and the Independent on Sunday, a new paid-for digital daily edition appeared, looking much like the print version (doubtless to reassure traditional subscribers). On the same subject, the Indy gave us a gallery of the best of its front covers (note how raggedy the pre-digital-era copies now look), and wrote boldly about the opportunities offered by new technologies. At Medital, Torin Douglas looked back to 1986 and the founding of the The Independent. And at this blog, we attended a debate on print newspapers post-Independent and what the digital future might be, and concluded that nobody knows anything.

El Pais, Spain's best-selling newspaper may end print edition. If you thought The Independent going digital only was big news, consider that Spain's leading newspaper may go the same way.

Scale of Hearst plot to discredit Orson Welles and Citizen Kane revealed. Dalya Alberge at The Guardian on a new book by Harlan Lebo that shows how hard William Randolph Hearst tried to attack Citizen Kane, the greatest of all newspaper movies.

The New Day is selling just 40,000 copies a day but Trinity Mirror stands by its launch despite the slow start. And finally, we have a new national newspaper in The New Day (boldly refusing to have a website), but as The Drum reports, the take-up figures aren't encouraging so far for a newspaper aimed at those who don't read newspapers.

31 March 2016

Nobody knows anything

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The screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, The Princess Bride) wrote one of the essential books on Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade. Among its many words of wisdom about how movies actually work, the most celebrated are those that express what he calls "the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry" -

NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING

Attending a debate on the future of newspapers at City University yesterday, Goldman's words came to me. In the world of digital news that now faces us, nobody knows anything.

Newindy

Independent Digital front pages, from http://edition.independent.co.uk

Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Hollywood may lurch from triumph to disaster to further disaster with little idea of what is going to succeed, yet it continues to produce the occasional great or commercially successful film, and it has not collapsed as a business. But it lives in a constant state of anxiety, because its hopes are all based around the whims of a mercurial audience. After centuries of producing news in a form that people would regularly buy into, the news industry is now facing a world in which it cannot say from one year to the next what model is going to work, or whether there ever will be the same stability on which the newspaper business subsisted for so long.

The debate was entitled "Newsprint - it ain't over yet!" (originally it was billed as the less confident "Is print dead?")  and was organised by City University and the Media Society. Chaired by Professor Roy Greenslade of City University and Guardian Media, the guest speakers were Sarah Baxter, Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times, Christian Broughton, Editor of the Independent Digital and Jane Singer, Professor of Journalism Innovation at City University. Sadly, Alison Phillips, editor of the UK's latest national newspaper, The New Day, was advertised but not available on the day.

It was an interesting debate, if somewhat skewed towards the view of journalists rather than readers, inevitably given the speakers and the audience of journalism students and media professionals. The current crises were all addressed - the challenges of making digital pay, the supposed threat of the BBC towards regional newspapers, the challenge of ad-blocking software to business models, what jobs are there for today's journalism students? - and the generally expressed fears of who will hold governments to account in a world without newspapers and traditional investigative journalism.

The two speakers from news organisations spoke confidently about their latest business models. The Independent closed its print edition on 26 March, but has strongly asserted the power of its digital, with a website that is profitable, and the newly-launched daily digital edition with front-page layout looking for all the world like the print edition still existed (no doubt to comfort former subscribers to the print version who they hope will move over to the digital). The Times and Sunday Times have announced that they are moving away from a rolling digital news model (the "flim-flam of passing news" in Baxter's words) to offer a joint digital news package in timed editions (9am, midday and 5pm), just like a print newspaper.

Newsprint

The debate at City University, with (L-R) Christian Broughton, Jane Singer, Roy Greenslade and Sarah Baxter

So the latest digital news models are looking towards mimicking the solidity of print. This may comfort the traditionalist buyers, and is an acknowledgment of the power of brand and the strength of print in making a news story part of the public agenda. But that's just today's strategy. Who can say if they will still be operational five years from now, or even a year from now? Other great ideas for ensuring long-term stability will follow soon enough, while others will pursue their own plans. Perhaps the Blendle model of pay-per-article, as developed in the Netherlands, will prove successful. Perhaps philanthropic funding models that work in the USA can be transported here. Perhaps the paid-for model adopted by The Times offers the only security. Perhaps going free but reaching out to as many millions as possible is what will work. Perhaps print will endure far longer than we expect, valued by an 'elite' audience if not the majority.

The truth is, nobody knows. This is a huge challenge for the British Library, which has a mission to preserve the UK's news. Such archiving thrives on consistency of output, something which print newspapers have long provided, with their uniformity of format and regularity of publication. The days of certainty are over for news archiving as they are for news publication. We will have to keep reinventing policies and procedures, just to keep up. It certainly seems unlikely that we will ever return to the reliability of the past. Sarah Baxter said that we are in a transitional phase of news production, but perhaps it is always going to be a transitional phase.

News publication in the future looks to be condemned to uncertainty, flitting from one platform to another, from one business model to the next - because that is how the digital world works, with its continual need to keep re-inventing itself. News publication will nevertheless thrive, however, in one form or another, because we will always thirst for news. It will continue to hit the occasional heights, keeping us informed and creating essential talking points. But, like the movies, it is doomed to a constant state of anxiety, for as long into the future as anyone can see.