Haven’t We Met Before: Slow News Days and Forgetful Printers

Forgetful Editors

Discourse analysis is not always the most glamorous of employments. Although I occasionally stumble up fantastic tales of awe and wonder, the majority of articles that cross my desk are concerned with the fine details of emigration and settlement. This is, of course, precisely the material I am searching for; however, after several dozen lengthy pieces on prevailing market trends or population growth, I do sometimes fear for my sanity.

Case in point is my friend (as I have come to consider him) at the Caledonian Mercury. Thomas Allen was a giant among Scottish newsmen, at least as far as Australian news was concerned. He almost always had the first and most comprehensive coverage of Antipodean reportage before 1837. As a result, I have become well acquainted with his editorial style and can usually spot a Mercury reprint at ten paces. Unfortunately, this familiarity has had a significant and rather upsetting side effect.

A few days ago, I began the long and arduous process of re-cataloguing miscellaneous clippings (digital and photocopied) from my postgraduate studies. While my postgraduate system had worked well for my previous project, it was woefully inadequate for my latest foray into digital history.

As I sorted various journalistic sequences (series of articles that had been reprinted or paraphrased in various publications) I came across an ‘interesting communication is from a Missionary, resident at Paramatta’, printed the Mercury. The title seemed vaguely familiar, but, after several years, most titles have a ring of familiarity to them. Before placing it aside, however, I had a quite scan to make sure it was a single sequence (rather than a compilation) and came across the phrase ‘I have never experienced the slightest molestation from them’. Somewhere, in the recesses of my mind, a neuron fired. I knew I had seen that somewhere else before; its not a phrase you are likely to forget.

After a bit of digging I found the piece, only half transcribed but well paraphrased, and clearly part of the same sequence. Satisfied, I put the pieces aside and continued onward.

Several days later, beginning another round of transcription and tagging, I came upon another digital transcription about the missionary (whom I believe now to be Rev. Samuel Marsden)  from the Mercury. At first I thought it was merely a duplicate, something easily done in digital note taking. Yet, the date was clearly two months later.

A simple mistake? Something to discount? Perhaps, but how could I know for sure? The image of the article (cropped to exclude the newspaper’s title banner) was a different typesetting than the first article, despite have identical (character-for-character) content. Perhaps it was not the Mercury at all, but rather a reprint from another publication.

Returning to the British Library Newspapers digital archive, I searched for “Paramatta” (and its correctly spelled variant ‘”Parramatta”) within about 10 years of the supposed date. Not a single hit. By this point I had 4 copies of the sequence, at least three of which had come from the British Library, so the stubborn refusal to return a single hit was more than a little frustrating. I tried various other phrases at various other ‘fuzzy’ levels, but with no success. In the end, I navigated through the Mercury to the two dates to see if, just possibly, Allen had published the piece twice.

He had. Character for character, though with slightly different column widths and layout.

At twelve-hundred words, setting the piece twice could not have been a fun task. In truth, finding that I had made four separate transcriptions of piece was more than a bit irksome. So what did the Mercury publish the same piece twice?

The answer remains elusive, but some patterns are beginning to emerge. From the evidence collated so far, Allen seems to have kept a supply of Sydney Gazettes to hand and siphoned off content from a single issue over the course of weeks or months. This suggests that he was keeping a stash of ‘human interest’ or ‘adventure and captivity’ stories in reserve for slow news days. With months, and sometimes years, in between the pieces, the occasional lapse is understandable. Indeed, at least once he printed a piece only to reprint a portion of it again a year later when he was reprinting a digest that  had included his original piece!

So, the next time you watch one of those comedy programmes where they comment upon the weird and wonderful in world events, and they present you with a clip that you saw on YouTube two years ago, don’t be too hard on them. They are only following tradition.

*Image of editor cutting papers courtesy of  Bill on Capitol Hill at Flickr

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