Further Musings on a Multimodal Analysis of Scissors-and-Paste Journalism (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a 4-part series. The full series can be seen here.

Uncovering how pre-telegraphic newspapers obtained and distributed news must be a collaborative effort. However diligent they may be, and from whatever backgrounds they may hail, individual researchers suffer from the same restraints that have plagued the acquisition of human knowledge for millennia: a lack of time, money and resource. Moreover, these three factors are particularly harmful to the mapping of reprint networks because of the interdisciplinary nature of such a pursuit.

Before the 1840s, and indeed long afterwards, the transmission of news relied upon its physical movement across oceans and along roads, rails and rivers. The distribution of information, held statically in written material as well as mutably in rumour and conversation, relied upon physical social interaction. Whether employed as a courier or undertaking a personal transfer, information could not move without two persons physically meeting—save semaphore or a message in a bottle. Thus, to map the dissemination pathways is to map a social network.

This is not a new concept, of course. The mapping of communication networks is at the core of social network theory. What makes the mapping of 18th and 19th century newspapers particularly problematic is the fact that, unlike modern sociologists or computer scientists, historians have little hope of obtaining a statistically significant sample of network interactions, or, tragically, even determining what a statistical significant sample would comprise.

Leaving aside for the moment the ever-daunting reality of forever-lost material, let us concentrate, for example, on the existing corpus of nineteenth-century British periodicals. What comprises a statistically significant sample? The British Library’s Nineteenth-Century Newspaper Collection could, perhaps, be considered one. Careful consideration of regional, temporal and thematic breadth was undertaken when titles and date-ranges were selected for digitisation. Would mapping the dissemination pathways within this single corpus provide a representative sample?

That, of course, is not the right question. The correct question is ‘how do we map the dissemination pathways of this corpus in the first place?’

Discovering the secret history of a piece of text relies upon corroboration. No one method will suffice because we have no way of determining the repeatable accuracy of any particular methodology. Instead, we have to build up confidences; how likely is it that this scrap of text was obtained in this particular way at this particular time? Which clues have been left behind?

The Dateline – This tiny strip of text, a date and location indented at the start of an article, is our first clue. This snippet does not detail the time and location of the event described, as we would assume from modern journalistic practice. Instead, the dateline provides the writer’s source. A piece on the French capital might have the dateline “Paris”, but was just as likely to say Le Havre, Amsterdam or London, as it indicated the location of the newspaper’s informant, a source who may have only obtained the news second or third-hand themselves. Thus, you might be tempted to draw a connection, and edge, between a newspaper from Leeds or Edinburgh to one of these mighty ports and onward to the city of interest—but you would be treading on dangerous ground.  Like any other word or phrase of a reprint, the dateline could be nothing more than a copy. Although a London daily might have a direct connection to Vienna, from whom it received Austrian updates, nothing demanded a Glaswegian editor change “Vienna” to “London” when the news was reprinted. Indeed, this would have been seen as lessening the authority of the information.  So, while the dateline indicates a node on the map, the connection remains obscure.

The Section – As with the dateline, the source of the information can be gleaned from the heading above it. Those labelled London or France usually indicated that the material had arrived via post or courier from that location; yet others, such as New South Wales or West Indies might indicate origin, but might also only indicate the topic. Nonetheless, mapping the frequency of these sections across an entire run does add a layer of confidence that a particular newspaper did have some connection with these locations.

The Attribution – This beautiful rarity, laying majestically at the top or bottom of a text, declares boldly the source of the content.  Despite the frustrating prevalence of A London Paper—or worse, An Evening Paper—these direct attributions offer the clearest and most unequivocal evidence of the path the news took. Yet, like the dateline, it at best proves only a node, not the previous node. At worst, it is a misattribution, leading the poor researcher down a blind alley.

The Reference – A bit more subtle than the attribution, the reference is a meandering nod to the source (at least, to the source of the writer of a particular text). ‘We find in the Examiner’ perhaps, or ‘An examination of the London dailies shows’. Provisos and prejudices still apply.

The Chronological Consistency – Explicit identifiers are helpful, but are fraught with dangers. Perhaps the most reliable way to track the spread of news is to seek out consistent copies and order them chronologically.  If an identical piece appears first in the Morning Chronicle, and then the Scotsman and then the Berwick Advertiser, with sufficient time separating them to account for movement, it is perfectly logically to assume it took just that path. The chronological consistency model, however, does not account for splits and splinters. How are we to know, for example, that the Advertiser copied from the Scotsman and not the Chronicle directly?

The Change – Splits and splinters are better accounted for by changes and, in particular, errors: An omission or addition of an adjective; The misspelling of a key name; The reordering of the text. Any change, great or small, lends a clue to the evolutionary branching of a given news item.

The Exchange But perhaps the best clues are not in the text at all. Business records and personal correspondence between newspapers can provide crucial information. Many newspapers maintained subscriptions, formal or informal, to other newspapers. These were sometimes even declared in the first issue of a new regional title. Victorian newspapers, especially, maintained independent exchange editors, who duty it was to scour incoming publications for the best and most tantalising snippets. If a formal exchange between papers existed, it adds another layer of confidence that a particular pathway is correct.

The Family – Newspapers (and their editors) bred. Regional and colonial printers were often the former journeyman of older, more established papers, and children and siblings often joined in the family business. These young men or women often maintained friendly if not symbiotic relationships with their former employers and guardians. The uncreatively named Sydney Herald, for one, was very helpful in supplying Antipodean news to its Glaswegian namesake. With a bit of genealogical elbow-grease, we add another layer.

And finally…

The Well-Worn Path – Once these layers are built up, once we know the postal roads and sea-routes best travelled, or the pages to which the editor’s shears most naturally move, we can see the paths of least resistance. An 1810 snippet on the Swan River settlement with no date, no location, no section, no attribution, not even a passing mention of its meandering path, might still find a place in network. If, before 1815, every identifiable bit of Australian news that appeared in Caledonian Mercury came from the Morning Chronicle. Why not this one too?

With these manifold layers in mind, how best do we approach our statistically significant sample? That, dear reader, is a tale for another day.

Image Courtesy of Marcin Wichary

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