on newspapers as sources

The PhD ate me again, but I’m recovering.

I’ve been working with newspapers lately, and have gotten to thinking about them as historical sources. My supervisor warned me early on that newspapers should only be used when you have a very good sense of what you’re looking for, or you’re liable to get lost in them. Having vanished thusly on several occasions in the past month or so, I’ll endorse that view, and supply a few of my own running thoughts on them; as usual, things I wish someone had told me before I started.

Warning: history geeking ahead. The uninitiated may gawk at the bookporn instead.

  • Have a list - a list of articles you want to look at, or failing that, a list of specific themes or questions you want the newspaper reading to address – anything you can use to keep yourself disciplined. Stick it on your laptop screen if nothing else, and every time you read an article, look at your list and think: will this article answer any of my questions? If not, move on; life is too short. PS: This applies to archive work more generally.
  • Even if you’re reading for impressionistic feelings of a period, try and find a thread of some kind. Perhaps you could read fuzzily around a momentous event – read articles leading up to the event, and read articles covering its aftermath. Perhaps you can follow a certain column or feature over time. Newspapers are periodicals, so they are beasts of habit; remember you can exploit their predictability. They often feature similar categories of information in the same place in a newspaper, often even the same page, and they don’t change their formats that often, so you can often jump straight to the information you want.
  • If you’re looking at event-based coverage, don’t just use one newspaper – find the same event in other newspapers, even in other languages if you can. In many cases, I’ve found, the differences in their coverage will probably be revealing and interesting.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have recourse to full search of a digitized newspaper, don’t fall into the trap of only reading articles that your keywords throw up. Let the contents of one article lead you naturally to another; it will yield a fuller, more nuanced picture of things.
  • Use existing secondary literature to point you in the direction of interesting articles, veins of discussion, exchanges or features. Smart fuzzy reading around them can yield a lot of gems and insights.
  • Keep really, really scrupulous notes. Newspaper, date, page and author are the staples, but get the metadata too. Remember that you want to be able to find any given article again in the future. If you’re looking at the newspapers on microfilm, note the archive and the reel call number. If you’re looking at hard copies in a library, make a note of which library. It’s part of a wider principle I’ve found essential in long-term research: always, always cater for your stupid, forgetful, future self.
  • Don’t neglect the letters and the advertisements – the two most human parts of newspapers! Keep an idle eye on them as you browse; they can give you a real feel for the period. If you’re following a run of papers over a time period, be mindful of familiar names popping up in letters columns; after a while you can come to get to know them as people – the way they write, the issues they raise, their idiosyncrasies. And advertisements are particularly prone to remind me, on small, amusing scales, in what radical ways a world can change. Behold, in 1939: men and women, clamouring to gain 5lbs in 7 days; in 2009, men and women, clamouring to lose 10lbs in 5 days.
  • In sum: Be open to serendipity, but not to the point of distraction.

I’m still trying to get better at taking notes on things I find in newspapers. How much should one quote of an article? How much is too much? Perhaps more difficult a question: how does one take good notes of trends over time, which is what newspapers are really about? Sometimes I’ve taken scrupulous and plentiful notes on articles over a period of time, and found at the end of all the reading and note-taking that the general idea behind all of them can be summarized in a few sentences. But I wouldn’t necessarily be able to have grasped that summary from the beginning. Is there a more time-efficient way to do this?

NB: If I get enough cool tips in the comments, I’ll re-write this list as a proper piece of source advice, for the benefit of researchers/historians-to-come.

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13 responses to “on newspapers as sources

  • Cameron Blevins

    Love the post! It’s some great advice, especially to first-time researchers starting to use newspapers as sources.

    Also, I’ve thought for awhile now that digitized newspapers really have the potential to offer a treasure trove for historians who can employ text mining in order to establish patterns over time (using factors such as word frequency, article length, headline size, even placement on the page).

  • Belle

    Another point: where on the page (as well as what page) is very important to note as well. It will drag you (kicking, screaming, crying, wailing) into the abyss, but not paying attention to that is likely to be problematic when trying to determine how or why something is important or overlooked. Editors are sneaky little beasts.

  • alan

    Efficiency…such a seductive notion to the knowledge worker. It can be merciless. Imagine reading, ten years from now, blogs from budding scholars wondering how to skip through Ms Leow’s latest work most efficiently. Just skim the table of contents, introduction, and last two paragraphs? Never mind the hundreds of pages in between or the thousand of hours of thought and effort they represent or the nuanced presentation and analysis they offer.

    If efficiency is what is wanted, why bother writing? Mere bullet points will be sufficient.

    I’m not a journalist, by the way….

  • goosecommerce

    Love this post, Rachel. I’ve been plowing through newspapers and magazines from the 1840s — digital only — for the last month or so, and I think you’ve neatly encapsulated a lot of good practices here: thanks!

    I’ve been struggling with the completeness question, too. Even more than manuscript work, newspapers just seem to stretch on forever, and since they’re always interesting, they always seem relevant. I’m constantly amazed at how much information the editors are able to process, never mind write. I often think (though this is not an original idea) that it puts current whining about our “information overload” into perspective; people could be highly mediated then, too.

    @Cameron: Before getting into my research I had high hopes for that kind of digital scholarship; however, it doesn’t seem feasible quite yet. Most of the issues are technical:I’ve been hugely disappointed in the quality of the OCR in most databases (incl. Google Books), and the coverage limits of the big newspaper databases are pretty severe (whole states fall off the map, as do major newspapers). Also, most databases are *terrible* about telling the difference between an ad, an article, or an editorial — possibly because these categories were blurrier in the past.

    My understanding is that the kind of analysis that spiders and scrapers can help one do need large, if imperfect, data sets, and right now we have small, gap-riven, poor quality data. That’s not to say things won’t get better, though…

  • AGB

    I’d add one other suggestion for beginning researchers, albeit one that may be obvious to many: don’t take *anything* printed in a newspaper at face value. Source-greasing, partisanship, corruption, rumor-mongering, opinion posing as straight news, and the uncritical reprinting of press releases are the norm in newspaper history. You might expect all that in political coverage, but it’s equally true in, say, social reportage and (high) society news. It’s especially true in business coverage, where every piece of information should be regarded as having been planted by an interested party. The first questions to ask of any piece are (1) who wrote this? [meaning which individual, if it’s possible to know, or otherwise which editorial stance the piece reflects]; and (2) who benefits? It pains me to write this, but too many historians treat newspapers as a passive repository of facts rather than as active purveyors of instrumental information. Mining newspapers for evidence of changing “discourse” is a bit less dodgy—as long as you never, ever, treat a newspaper’s editorial line as evidence of “public opinion.”

    Like I say: all very basic.

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  • Anna Battigelli

    Your list provides a very helpful approach to newspapers. I especially like the notions of having a list and following a thread. Thanks, Anna Battigelli

  • milnegavie

    I saw your article, but failed to read it before getting involved with my first newspaper search. Bad move!! Before long I was mesmerized with my findings, even though they may have little relevance to my original intention. At any rate, there are not enough hours in the day, so your words of wisdom are much appreciated. Thanks.

  • Nilotpal

    Dear Rachel

    Thank you for this post. I think I have benefitted from reading it while preparing a checklist for my newspaper research.

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