The Public Humanist

The Checkered Past of Newspapers

When people ask me what the death of the newspaper means to historians, I respond, what do you mean by death? or newspaper? I’d say, first, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated because (unlike Mark Twain) it can exist simultaneously in multiple forms and locations. The decline of the traditional newspaper is largely a phenomenon of western consumer society. Between 1970 and 1997, circulation of dailies fell by 13% in the more developed countries but rose by 262% in the developing world. And both the combined number and circulation of European paid-for and free dailies actually increased by 14% in 2001-5. Second, the digital newspaper is flourishing: the share of Americans reading online newspapers rose from under a quarter in 2006 to over a third in 2008. Indeed, if the hallmarks of the newspaper are public accessibility, periodicity, timeliness, and universal scope, then the internet seems to promise the resurrection rather than death of the genre.

Ultimately, I want to know what the questioners think is at stake for historians. The implication is that the newspaper represents some credentialed standard of accuracy. To the extent that the genre possesses these traits, however, it acquired them recently rather than inherited them from its distant ancestors. The stereotype of the newspaper was first a random compilation of trivia and tall tales, and then, with the growth of literacy and popular political movements, a vehicle for blatant partisanship. Only after the mid-19th century did a combination of factors—including naked commercial interests as much as nascent professionalism—give rise to the now-familiar ideal of fact-centered objective reporting.

Does the internet put this achievement at risk? To be sure, a world in which every reader is a potential journalist and publisher can be as frightening as it is exhilarating. We are seeing it materialize in the blogosphere already, which should remind us that the newspaper has continuously evolved since its birth in 1605. There has never been a guarantee that any text is inherently trustworthy. The proliferation of voices, fragmentation of the public, and dissipation of authority online are in principle counterbalanced by a rise in scrutiny, dialogue, and feedback. Wikipedia has proven to be more comprehensive, more current, and in some regards more accurate than Britannica. And it was bloggers who revealed the faking of photojournalistic images in the “Fauxtography” scandals of the 2006 Lebanon war and beyond. In a world of expanding and unstable information, students and citizens need judgment even more than facts: the ability to assess the intrinsic credibility of a source. These are precisely the skills that historians already practice and teach. The great medievalist Marc Bloch called “cross-examination” of sources “the prime necessity of well-conducted historical research.” In fact, it is often in the subjectivity and limits of a source that we find our most intriguing evidence.

By and large, then, I would wager, historians are less worried about the future of the newspaper than the future of its past: i.e. how we will preserve it. Nearly a decade ago, novelist Nicholson Baker raised a cry of alarm about the newspaper: not current ones, but old ones. He denounced the practice of libraries to microfilm and then discard whole runs of periodicals. Although his attack was somewhat overheated and off-target, it did spark a beneficial debate about both the virtues of paper and the standards employed in transferring its content to other media.

Newspapers are sources of civic memory as well as scholarly research, about the quotidian as well as the world-historical, from mores to material culture. Ideally, of course, we should study newspapers as both a force and a source: an institution that shapes as well as reflects the values of civil society. For both purposes, there is no substitute for the original object, so migration to other media must retain the greatest possible amount and variety of evidence: not just the words, but typography and layout, illustrations, covers, advertising. It is revealing in several ways to learn that an ad for bear grease as a cure for baldness appeared on the other side of an ad for the Enlightenment Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert in 1782—or that in 1942, the Seattle Times announced news of the Holocaust in a headline of three-quarter-inch caps, whereas the New York Times buried such stories in its back pages. At the low end of the preservation scale are the old text-only databases such as Lexis-Nexis, and at the high end are digitization projects that include high-resolution images of the publications, sophisticated textual encoding and search mechanisms, and critical apparatus.

Of course, all this raises larger questions about the fate of the historical record: preserving documents on paper initially meant just not throwing them away. Today, however, we are producing unprecedented amounts of personal and public digital information, without a system for preserving it or the certainty that the required technologies will survive (how many floppy disks do you have in your closet?). Will we again see the likes of the collected correspondence of a Voltaire, Jefferson, or Goethe?

But I’ll have to save that for another time. My daughter is texting me on my cell phone, and I still have to check my e-mail before I can “tweet” about this new blog posting.

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