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Newspapers first appeared in Europe in the mid-17th century. They evolved gradually from a similar type of publication called a broadsheet—a single sheet of paper that responded to unusual events. Although newspapers today and those in the past resemble one another in many ways, newspapers and their content have changed dramatically over time.
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Newspapers

A newspaper is a publication intended for a broad
audience that appears regularly, often daily, and
claims to contain factual accounts of recent events.
Getting Started
Usually newspapers are published with the intention
Introduction
of making a profit. Frequently, their factual content
The Development of the
is accompanied by advertisements and non-factual
Modern Newspaper
material intended as entertainment.
How do Historians Use
Newspapers?
Questions to Ask
1. Who published this
newspaper and why?

2. Who read this newspaper
Journalists often boast that they write “the rough draft of history.” The key point
and why?
here is rough draft. Newspapers are written in haste and often contain inadvertent
factual errors, large and small. Moreover, a newspaper’s “factual” content is
3. What is the competitive
determined by its point of view or bias. This point of view is shaped by the political
environment?
positions taken by editors and publishers, and sometimes shaped by the
4. How does the particular
newspaper’s commercial relationship with advertisers. It is also shaped by a
story compare and relate to
newspaper’s location. For example, the St. Petersburg Times might call a hurricane
others in the same newspaper?
in Florida a terrible catastrophe, while a newspaper in Idaho might ignore it entirely.
5. What was left out of the

story? How can I find out
Newspapers from the past contain several kinds of information for historians. They
more?
offer factual accounts of events such as earthquakes, battles, and elections.
Resources

Historians often mine newspapers for basic information about who did what, when,
how, and where. Newspapers are also filled with contextual information, such as
Sample Analysis
advertisements and features, from which historians can build a more complete
Annotated Bibliography
picture of the world in which a particular event took place.
Newspapers Online

About the Author
Credits
Download Essay
finding world history | unpacking evidence | analyzing documents | teaching sources | about
A project of the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University,
with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation
http://chnm.gmu.edu/whm/unpacking/newsmain.html1/14/2005 6:37:16 AM

Newspapers

Newspapers first appeared in Europe in the mid-17th
century. They evolved gradually from a similar type of
publication called a broadsheet—a single sheet of paper
Getting Started
that responded to unusual events. Although newspapers
Introduction
today and those in the past resemble one another in many
ways, newspapers and their content have changed
The Development of the
Modern Newspaper
dramatically over time. Newspapers in different societies
are often quite different from those you may be familiar
How do Historians Use
with. Thus, it is important to read newspapers from
Newspapers?
different times (and places) carefully.
Questions to Ask
1. Who published this
newspaper and why?

2. Who read this newspaper
For example, this is the front
and why?
page of the Times of London,
3. What is the competitive
one of the most complete
environment?
and accurate newspapers in
4. How does the particular
the world in the mid-1800s,
story compare and relate to
on the morning after the
others in the same newspaper?
Battle of Gettysburg, a major
historical event. Someone
5. What was left out of the
reading this paper in the
story? How can I find out
more?
21st century might be
surprised to find nothing
Resources

about the battle, but the
Sample Analysis
timely and broad coverage
Annotated Bibliography
we now expect was not
always available.
Newspapers Online
About the Author

Credits
Technological innovation made the modern newspaper possible. Before the late-
Download Essay
19th century, paper was often made from textile fibers like cotton and linen,
frequently taken from recycled rags. Only after the invention of paper made from
wood pulp did low-cost, low-quality paper become readily available. The rise of the
paper industry made paper cheap, which meant that newspapers could be printed
for reasonable prices. Industrialization and new global markets, especially in raw
materials, helped to increase production leading to inexpensive, mass-produced
paper.



http://chnm.gmu.edu/whm/unpacking/newsmod.html (1 of 2)1/14/2005 6:37:58 AM

Newspapers
Changes in print technology influenced
newspaper production as well. Print began with
individual metal letters placed by hand in
special grids. The letters were inked and then
paper was pressed on one sheet at a time.
Technological innovations steadily decreased
the amount of effort and increased the speed
at which words could be printed onto paper.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, it also became
easier and cheaper to move information across
long distances, which had a huge impact on
the newspaper business. Railroads and
steamships made long-distance travel easier
and faster beginning in the early 19th century,
so reporters could travel to interesting events.
With the invention of the telegraph in the mid-
19th century, traveling correspondents could
report back to newspapers regularly and
rapidly. Images, too, could be sent over the
wires, and as photographic technology
improved in the second half of the 19th
century, news photos became a reality.


As words and pictures moved ever more quickly around the world in the 20th
century, newspapers began to rely on wire services like Reuters and Agence-France
Presse
. These services had reporters and photographers based all over the world,
and they enabled newspapers that could not hire foreign correspondents to cover
distant events quickly and in detail.

The rise of the wire services also caused increasing similarities in the content of
newspapers from different places. Beginning with World War II, reports of non-local
events were similar in newspapers from the Philippines to Nova Scotia. Newspaper
readers sometimes recognize this phenomenon immediately from the bylines—the
line at the beginning of the story bearing the author’s name—of newspaper stories.
If a story is attributed to UPI (United Press International) or a similar organization,
rather than an individual reporter, it comes from a wire service and is often
reprinted in hundreds of different newspapers. Syndication through wire services
also led to the advent of features—comic strips, advice columns, editorial cartoons,
opinion columns, and even weather reports and movie reviews—shared among
many newspapers.

As the price of paper and printing dropped, and as access to information from
faraway places became faster and easier, newspapers grew larger and appeared
more frequently. They changed from occasional broadsheets to regularly issued
almanacs to daily papers to papers with several editions per day. In the past
decade, the advent of the Internet as a mass communications medium also has
helped speed up the news cycle: Some stories now appear on newspaper websites
in multiple editions, written and rewritten over the course of the day. This can
create confusion when archiving or citing newspaper stories for those researching
recent history.

finding world history | unpacking evidence | analyzing documents | teaching sources | about
A project of the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University,
with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation
http://chnm.gmu.edu/whm/unpacking/newsmod.html (2 of 2)1/14/2005 6:37:58 AM

Newspapers

Historians generally use newspapers for three purposes: learning facts about
specific events; looking for long-term trends; and searching for details or the
“texture” surrounding an event—a fact or story that illuminates or complicates a
Getting Started
larger pattern. Newspapers are often the first kind of source historians of the past
Introduction
two centuries will turn to for gathering evidence, but historians rarely rely on
newspaper evidence alone.
The Development of the
Modern Newspaper

Learning Facts
How do Historians Use
Newspapers can be used to locate facts related to a specific event. Historians
Newspapers?
investigating a specific event sometimes use newspapers from the place and time in
Questions to Ask
which the event occurred to uncover details and perhaps find first-hand
1. Who published this
descriptions. But when historians use newspapers in this way, they proceed with
newspaper and why?
caution, as newspapers often include factual errors and always reflect a point of
2. Who read this newspaper
view. Newspaper reports are frequently incomplete, biased, and/or inaccurate.
and why?

For example, Argentinean
3. What is the competitive
newspapers covering the
environment?
death of Eva Peron in 1952
4. How does the particular
explained it in many ways,
story compare and relate to
none of them truthful,
others in the same newspaper?
because the Peronist
5. What was left out of the
government and newspaper
story? How can I find out
editors agreed that the
more?
phrase “ovarian cancer” was
Resources

too sexual to be printed.
Sample Analysis
Annotated Bibliography
Newspapers Online
About the Author
Credits
Download Essay

Furthermore, newspaper coverage assumes that readers share knowledge about the
circumstances of the event that historians decades later may or may not know. In
the case of Eva Peron’s death, for example, reporters and editors at the time did
not have to explain who Evita was, give the location of the cemetery, or provide
details about local funeral practices. Anyone who bought a Buenos Aires newspaper
at the time already knew that.

These problems do not mean that historians should avoid using details from
newspapers. Rather, historians researching a particular event usually examine
newspaper coverage from several different papers, and look most carefully at
coverage by newspapers closest to where the event took place. They also check the
details they take from newspaper stories against other types of documents. In the
case of Evita’s demise, they might examine maps of Buenos Aires, the coroner’s
report, and her husband’s memoirs.
http://chnm.gmu.edu/whm/unpacking/newshow.html (1 of 2)1/14/2005 6:38:23 AM

Newspapers

Looking for Long-Term Trends
Another strategy is mining newspapers for evidence of long-term trends. Here we
often look at more than just the newspaper stories. Classified advertisements, for
example, can tell us about changes in prices of apartment rentals over time, or
about the titles or salary ranges for various kinds of jobs. Display advertising can
tell us how many new movie theaters are opening in a town or what kinds of food
people are looking for in the supermarkets. Even long-running advice columns can
give us this kind of evidence, showing changes over time in what people considered
to be problems and what newspaper writers considered to be solutions for those
problems.

This strategy can include skimming through a large group of newspapers looking for
something on a particular topic—political demonstrations, floods, or outbreaks of
measles, for instance—over a period of months, years, or decades. A historian
taking this approach may decide not to read every page of every newspaper in the
period that interests her, but to look at a random selection, like the second day of
every month for 30 years or only the months of August and November for a decade.

Using newspapers in this way requires some previous sense of historical context
since historians are reading in hopes of having “something jump out” at them. They
must be able to quickly and efficiently recognize items that fit or contradict the
pattern that concerns them. One good way for beginners to acquire such a
background is to review a few textbooks dealing with the time and place they hope
to study.

Search tools such as Lexis-Nexus and the headline index of the New York Times
help a great deal with this second kind of research in newspapers. Unfortunately,
indexing for the great majority of the world’s newspapers started in the 1990s, if
they have any indices at all. Historians hoping to study earlier times and other parts
of the world will still spend many hours looking through actual newspapers or
scanning microfilm copies for some time to come.

Searching for Details
A third strategy is searching for the “texture” of an event. Details from other parts
of the newspaper can help flesh out a newspaper story. Weather reports can tell us
if it was raining on the day of the battle. Department-store advertising can suggest
what people might have worn to vote on the day of the election. Movie reviews and
television listings can tell us what stories people cared about in the month of an
epidemic.

finding world history | unpacking evidence | analyzing documents | teaching sources | about
A project of the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University,
with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation
http://chnm.gmu.edu/whm/unpacking/newshow.html (2 of 2)1/14/2005 6:38:23 AM

Newspapers Question 1

This simple question implies many others: When and where was the newspaper
published? What kind of reader was it intended to reach? Did it have local
competitors? What were its political affiliations?
Getting Started

Introduction
Answers to some of these questions come from examining the newspaper carefully.
Every front page is likely to tell us the location and date on which the paper was
The Development of the
Modern Newspaper
published, and sometimes the masthead on the front page also announces how long
the newspaper has been in business.
How do Historians Use

Newspapers?
Questions to Ask
1. Who published this
newspaper and why?
2. Who read this newspaper
and why?
3. What is the competitive
environment?

4. How does the particular
In most present-day newspapers a small box called the indica can be found in the
story compare and relate to
editorial page, which in turn is sometimes in the middle of the paper’s first section,
others in the same newspaper?
sometimes the paper’s second page, and sometimes its last or second-to-last page.
5. What was left out of the
The indica lists the owners and managers of a newspaper. This information
story? How can I find out
sometimes gives clues to its political stance, but it can be confusing or complicated.
more?
Newspapers’ owners, editors, and
Resources

sometimes other writers today
Sample Analysis
express their views openly on an
editorial page without any claim of
Annotated Bibliography
objectivity or neutrality. But before
Newspapers Online
1900, newspapers did not often
About the Author
distinguish between editorial and
news stories, and separate editorial
Credits
pages were rare.
Download Essay

In the 1980s, for example,
Nicaragua’s most important newspaper, La Prensa, belonged to Violeta Chamorro,
the head of a powerful Nicaraguan clan. One of her sons participated in the cabinet
of Nicaragua’s government; another led an armed rebellion against that
government. So the publisher’s last name did not provide a clue to which side of the
Nicaraguan conflict the newspaper took, although it did suggest that the publisher,
herself, might have political ambitions (she was elected president in 1990).
Determining the paper’s political stance required looking beyond the indica to the
content of the newspaper’s editorials.

Newspapers also distinguish themselves in political terms. Regular readers expect
their newspaper to take consistent political positions (sometimes associated with
particular political parties) while reporting on the events of the day. Although
“journalistic objectivity” has been a shared goal of 20th- and 21st-century
http://chnm.gmu.edu/whm/unpacking/newsq1.html (1 of 2)1/14/2005 6:38:40 AM

Newspapers Question 1
journalists, its meaning has shifted across space and over time. In many cases it
has meant “not making up facts” or “making the newspaper’s political position very
clear” rather than trying to avoid bias. Today, in places where there is still more
than one daily paper, like Mexico City, Buenos Aires, London, or New York City,
readers usually understand where each paper sits on the local political spectrum.

While ordinary readers at the time a newspaper is being published usually have a
clear sense of the paper’s politics, historians looking at old newspapers need to
exercise caution when trying to decipher a newspaper’s political position.
Sometimes the syndicated features express very different views than the rest of the
paper. For instance, the U.S. comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” took an obvious and
consistent right-wing position beginning in the 1930s with opposition to Franklin
Roosevelt and the New Deal and continuing for decades thereafter. But the cartoon
was so popular that newspapers whose politics were generally centrist or even
leftist sometimes carried it. Furthermore, a newspaper’s political position often
changes over time. The New York Post, for example, shifted from the most liberal
newspaper in New York in the 1950s to the most conservative newspaper in New
York in the 1980s.

finding world history | unpacking evidence | analyzing documents | teaching sources | about
A project of the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University,
with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation
http://chnm.gmu.edu/whm/unpacking/newsq1.html (2 of 2)1/14/2005 6:38:40 AM

Newspapers Question 2

Analyzing the way the newspaper looks and the rhetoric of the newspaper’s stories—
not what they say, but how they say it—will sometimes provide clues to the paper’s
intended audience. Is the paper sensationalistic, dryly factual, or somewhere in
Getting Started
between? Do the vocabulary, typography, and layout of the paper require strong
Introduction
reading skills or could someone who was just learning to read extract facts and
ideas from the newspaper too? Are there many ads, few, or none? Do they
The Development of the
Modern Newspaper
advertise luxury goods or offer discounts on daily necessities? The answers to all
these questions will hint at who is likely to be reading the paper.
How do Historians Use

Newspapers?
But here, too, it pays to be careful. What counts as “sensationalistic” or “dryly
Questions to Ask
factual” changes over time. Prose changes too, so a passage that readers today
1. Who published this
might have trouble with could have been very simple for someone to decipher when
newspaper and why?
it was first published a century ago. The look of newspapers also evolved, so that a
2. Who read this newspaper
page from the 1920s might seem jumbled and difficult to read now, but would have
and why?
made perfect sense to a reader at the time.

3. What is the competitive
Prices inflate surprisingly quickly, so something
environment?
that looks like a bargain might have been
4. How does the particular
expensive at the time. Furthermore, goods and
story compare and relate to
services can change from being daily
others in the same newspaper?
necessities to expensive rarities. Theater
5. What was left out of the
tickets, for instance, were ordinary purchases
story? How can I find out
for most Parisians in the 1880s, but became
more?
luxuries for middle-class people by the 1930s.
Resources

This change can happen in reverse: for
instance, cars were once a rich man’s toy in
Sample Analysis
Canada, whereas now nearly every Canadian
Annotated Bibliography
family owns at least one.
Newspapers Online
About the Author
Credits
Download Essay

The best way to avoid these misunderstandings is to compare different newspapers
from the same place and time. Historians look for differences in advertisements,
headlines, choice of stories, placement of stories within the paper, different
positions expressed in editorials, and disagreements about what issues merit an
editorial. They also look at changes in layout and typography. Identifying these
trends and changes help clarify what each paper’s politics were and who might have
been reading which paper.

http://chnm.gmu.edu/whm/unpacking/newsq2.html (1 of 2)1/14/2005 6:38:58 AM

Newspapers Question 2
finding world history | unpacking evidence | analyzing documents | teaching sources | about
A project of the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University,
with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation
http://chnm.gmu.edu/whm/unpacking/newsq2.html (2 of 2)1/14/2005 6:38:58 AM

Newspapers Question 3

By about 1920, almost every city and many small towns in the developed world had
their own newspapers—at least in places that had a large enough population of
people who could read and could afford the small daily expense of buying the
Getting Started
paper. Ordinarily, advertisers covered most of the cost of printing and distributing
Introduction
newspapers. Many cities had competing newspapers, some published in the
morning, some in the afternoon.
The Development of the
Modern Newspaper

To attract readers in competitive markets,
How do Historians Use
newspapers publishing in the same places tried
Newspapers?
to appear unique. Some aimed for high literary
Questions to Ask
quality while others tried to catch the reader’s
1. Who published this
eye with the loudest headlines and the most
newspaper and why?
lurid graphics. Some tried to print information
2. Who read this newspaper
that appealed to specific local audiences, such
and why?
as coverage of high-society parties, the
passenger lists of arriving ocean liners, or
3. What is the competitive
especially extensive classified advertising.
environment?
Others emphasized features from wire services
4. How does the particular
including serialized fiction, recipes and other
story compare and relate to
consumer information, and advice on
others in the same newspaper?
relationships as well as the more familiar
5. What was left out of the
opinion pages, theater and movie reviews, and
story? How can I find out
comic strips. A good funny page gave
more?
newspapers great appeal and helped build
Resources

reader loyalty.
Sample Analysis

Annotated Bibliography

Historians examining a
Newspapers Online
newspaper for the first time try to
About the Author
understand the competitive
environment in which the paper
Credits
existed, the paper’s political point
Download Essay
of view, and the choices editors
made about what to include and
omit from their newspapers. As
with understanding the
technological context of a
newspaper, the easiest way to do
this is by making comparisons
among newspapers published in
the same place and at the same
time. In this case, historians will
compare the contents of the
papers rather than their
appearance. They will look for
differences in the length and
placement of articles, in the
http://chnm.gmu.edu/whm/unpacking/newsq3.html (1 of 2)1/14/2005 6:39:22 AM

Document Outline
  • gmu.edu
    • Newspapers
    • Newspapers
    • Newspapers
    • Newspapers Question 1
    • Newspapers Question 2
    • Newspapers Question 3
    • Newspapers Question 4
    • Newspapers Question 5
    • Newspapers Sample Analysis
    • Newspapers Annotated Bibliography
    • Newspapers Author

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