Where would historians be if they didn’t have archives of newspapers at their disposal?
A lot of them would be out of work. Newspapers are a vital part of the research many historians do, especially those who work in the field of modern history. (By which I mean the history of the last 300 years or so. Let us go with that definition for the purposes of this letter.)
There are some obvious ways in which newspapers are helpful. Ways that even the least historically-minded reader will appreciate. Newspapers help us to date events. Read them in series and they give us a timeline with which to reconstruct the unfolding of complex events. Archives of newspapers can also give us some insight into the popular sentiments surrounding events. Did something outrage the public? Or was it merely a minor curiosity?
You can also read different newspapers next to each other to build a three-dimensional, if you will, sense of what a complex society thought of complex events. For instance, you could read pro-British newspapers next to pro-Independence newspapers to get a sense of what various sections of political society in India in the 1920s or 1930s thought of fascism or communism.
But there are other, less obvious ways in which you can read newspapers—not just along but also across the grain. For instance, comparing what a prominent personality such as Nehru or Vallabhbhai Patel or Gandhi wrote in their personal correspondence vis-a-vis in their newspaper columns can throw much-needed penetrating light on their intimate political beliefs. Indeed, you could even compare Gandhi’s writing in Gujurati newspapers to that in English to see if Gandhi tailored his rhetoric according to his audience.
There is more. Newspapers can tell us a lot about language, advertising, social and cultural relations and so on. Most historians will tell you that nothing gives them greater pleasure than ploughing through a stack of old newspapers, trying to construct and reconstruct their understanding of historical events.
Of course, all of this much easier these days, thanks to digitization. You no longer have to wade through bundles of brittle newsprint to find a tiny cutting about a sports event or a meeting of Chartists or some such. You can easily let a computer browser do the hard work for you. Indeed, digital tools are being used in ever more intelligent ways. You can now supply a computer programme with thousands of scans of archived newspapers. And the programme can then extract all kinds of wondrous details from the pages, detect patterns, geolocate events, map trends and so on. Really, the potential for this kind of thing is quite limitless, given the competence of modern computing.
And things can only get better now, right? After all, has it ever been easier to archive, store, access and process news? Everything is digital! The historians of the future are going to have a blast, right?
Or maybe not.
Some months ago, as part of some academic work, I was discussing the historiographical value of newspapers with a small group of historians-in-training. We began to wonder how the current nature of news production and propagation all over the world could impact the way in which historians two or five hundred years from now will understand our world. Because I was the only journalist in attendance, all eyes turned on me.
I began to think. And then something struck me. I doubt if this is an original realization. But I think it is worth talking about, regardless. What struck me was this: how will the historians of the future know the relative importance of news?
Think about it. One of the most important things archival newspapers tell you about a story is how notable it was at the time. The location of a story within a newspaper, the size of the headline, the length of the story, and accompanying stories, graphics, photos… all these things gave you valuable information about the significance of an event. But the only way to really get a sense of these things is to hold the newspaper in your hand or see a facsimile of the pages on a screen.
The moment these stories are converted into the standard digital format and layout of most news website archives, you immediately lose a sense of context, differentiation and significance.
Even archiving screenshots of the home page of a news website isn’t going to be too helpful for much longer. This is because, increasingly, news websites no longer have standard home pages. Instead, your experience of a news website is the outcome of a complex interaction of algorithms that process your browsing history, your news preferences, the website’s own traffic patterns, advertising imperatives, reader retention strategies and so on. Indeed, we are living in an age where no two readers of a website are experiencing it in the same way.
But then, consider how readers are consuming news via social media channels. Is there any chance that historians of the future will be able to capture that dynamic experience of news production and consumption in any plausible static way?
I doubt it.
Take this little test. Search for the earliest headlines of, say the 9/11 attacks, on the website of a newspaper. Now compare the output to the front page of that newspaper the day after the attacks. Consider the differences. Chances are that one story looks like EVERY OTHER story in the archives. The other one marks an epochal change.
With news increasingly being archived without differentiation, like buckets of data, historians of the future will have their work cut out to make any sense of it all.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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