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The Death (and Life) of the Newspaper

Historians/History




Tom Robinson is Professor of History at the University of Lethbridge in Lethbridge, Alberta. His latest book is "Everything Old is News Again (Robin Book Press, 2010).

“The year the newspaper died.”  That is how some have described 2009.  There may be some debate over whether such a bleak view is justified, but few would argue that the long-term prospects for the newspaper are promising.

Is the death of the centuries-old newspaper, parented by the printing press and the developing western democracies, to be mourned, like a man or woman cut down in their prime, or is it simply the predictable end of one form of communication, king in its own time but now replaced by a more adequate substitute for a world constantly changing?  Certainly new media are providing many channels of communication, most of which are more attention-grabbing -- and some even more effective -- than the newspaper.  With the instant world of the internet and the eyewitness reports from TV camera crews, do we need the newspaper?  Is there anything the newspaper provides that other media can’t do at all or can’t do as well?

There is.  Newspapers offer a slice of life that portrays a living society in all its dimensions—both the ordinary and the exceptional—on a day-by-day basis.  Without glitter or gloss, the newspaper binds together for us day in and day out, by smudgy ink and cheap paper, a most exceptional window onto the real world experienced by the ordinary person.  This is true of the newspaper record in all its variations, from the small local weeklies to the multi-sectioned national stalwarts.  No other technology seems to do this, and this represents a considerable loss. 

The portrait of everyday life provided by newspapers is far from one-dimensional.  Newspapers provide, of course, basic news coverage (everything from an earthquake in distant China to the pothole situation on Main Street).  But newspapers contain much more:  editorial reflection (from learned commentary to the agitated and sometimes incredibly witty letter to the editor), sports of every kind (from professional cup play to a kindergarten 10-yard dash), the latest fashions and fads for the style-conscious, humor of the cartoonist, advertisements (from the newest high-priced automobile to kittens—free to a good home), real estate listing (from huge estates to basement apartments), ads for movies and plays, television schedule, church and community service announcements, advice about love and etiquette, and the price—and sale price—of everything, from a quart of milk and a loaf of bread to the most extravagant showpiece.  All are relevant to each other as a reflection of life as widely lived on that particular day.

We sometimes forget how clear and comprehensive the portrayal of everyday life the newspaper provides, and how unlikely it is that any other media will capture so accurately the experience of the average person on an ordinary day.  But anyone who has picked up a newspaper from years past will recall the sense they had of having entered, almost in some concrete way, into a real world of the past as they read that newspaper.  I suspect that the death of the newspaper will close that unique window.

But the situation is not all bad.  New technologies—which may well bring about the demise of newspapers as we now know them—have turned the newspaper record of the past into an exceptional tool for research.  This has come about by providing a considerably more efficient access to newspaper content.  Traditionally, the use of newspapers in research involved days, if not weeks or months, straining over a microfiche reader, scanning column after column, page after page, issue after issue, always hopeful that some tidbit relevant to one’s project would be found.  But now, millions of pages of the newspaper record are available in searchable pdfs.  With a few search terms, the researcher has almost instantly hundreds or even thousands of hits on the topic under investigation from whatever locale or period one has specified.  

The two realizations—the value of newspapers in capturing an authentic slice of everyday life and the amazing research tool the newspaper has become as a result of modern technologies—came to me as I worked with my wife on a book project, titled Everything Old Is News Again.  For that book, we compiled and annotated some 250 articles from old newspapers—most from the first ten years of the 1900s and all at least a hundred years old.  Our quest was to find old newspaper reports that had a surprisingly contemporary ring to them, and we found many:  low-carb diets, artificial sweeteners, tamper-proof food packaging, dangers of fast food, concerns about smoking and second-hand smoke, inflation, unstable Wall Street banks, low foreign wages hurting domestic manufacturers, illegal Mexican workers, free trade, equal pay for equal work, lotteries, American over-consumption, endangered species, saving old-growth forests, recycling garbage into fuel, solar power, over-fishing, end of the world predictions, mechanical voting machines, declining church attendance, closing rural schools, athletes on probation in university, gambling in baseball, Washington lobbyists, police speed traps, cancer treatments, tattoos, zirconia diamonds, clothes for dogs, pet cemeteries, and much, much more—even a governor appointing a person to a vacant U.S. Senate seat and having the Senate refuse to seat his appointee.  We would never have been able to do our work without the old newspaper record and without the modern technologies that provide convenient and powerful access to such archives.

On several of my current projects, the old and the new come together:  newspapers from the past brought to life and usefulness by modern technology.  Almost daily I use this research tool, searching such databases as newspaperarchive.com and the “News Archives Search” of Google news, along with archives of some of the individual collections of leading newspapers, such as the New York Times.

If the beginning of the twenty-first century marks the demise of the newspaper, will researchers of the future have as comprehensive a slice of real life of the average person on an ordinary day as now provided to us by the newspaper?  Probably not, and that makes the demise of the newspaper a considerable loss, and for that a loud lament and a long obituary are appropriate.


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