The demise of the newspaper

A couple of friends and I have recently written a book about the history of a football club in the 19th century.

What made it interesting (to us at least) is that the club has had lots of histories written about it, but by and large they all seemed to be copies of stories taken from each other.

Some of these stories came from elderly gentlemen “remembering” playing in games 50 years or more earlier and, despite the amount of time that had passed, recalling in great detail individual goals and heroic saves.  Maybe they could – but somehow I think the mists of time have clouded their recollections.

Others came from a single autobiography by a manager of the club who was sacked.  Naturally he had a lot of good stuff to say about himself and some harsh words for his chairman whom he blamed for the failure of the team under his stewardship.

But since his was the only source that people quoted, his version of reality became the truth, and so one after another people printed and re-printed the best comments from his work.

Interestingly, this autobiography itself was written some 30 years after the events it recorded, and there are numerous tell tale signs of the publisher saying “can’t we spice that up a bit” at various points where the story lags a bit.

So, long story cut short, we decided to do a real history – and go back to the original source material.

Unfortunately the club had not kept many of its earliest records.  A split within the committee which ran the club, the formation of a rival outfit, and two moves of the ground all conspired to create a history with enormous holes in it.

Thus we turned to the only source available: the local daily press.

It is something that we tend to forget these days, but in addition to the national daily press, in the 19th century every town had at least one local paper which appeared in the afternoon.  In the case in point Plumstead the town (then in Kent, now in south east London) and nearby Woolwich had a population of around 20,000 in the late 19th century, and yet managed to support three local papers – one covering the local area only and the other two covering the towns and surrounding parts of Kent.

Copies of the daily outpourings of these newspapers are still for the most part intact, held in the newspaper library of Collindale – which is threatened with closure after the summer of 2013.

Collindale is a remarkable storage facility in that you can go in and demand any copy of any newspaper – and you will be able to get it – or a copy of it on microfiche or a digital copy.

Of course, for many years it looked as if newspaper sales would expand indefinitely. The number of avid readers in the country was growing all the time and the amount of news seemed to be growing too.  However the Sun and the Mirror have each lost 1 million readers in the past 10 years in their average daily circulations. The Times and the Guardian have seen their circulation cut in half.

In 1947 the top selling daily paper was the Express with a daily circulation of 3.8 million. Today it just about creeps over half a million while the top seller is the Sun with a readership of 2.5 million.

I for one am delighted that these old papers are being stored properly – and if and when Collindale does close copies will still be available through the British Library at St Pancras. 

But what we should never forget is that many people do keep their own copies of past newspapers, especially where they have articles about themselves therein or about events of importance to them.

My hope is that these small private collections will survive, and indeed I know that we have quite a few of these in our repository at Admiral. Such volumes don’t need to be inspected every day, but they need to be kept as miniature archives in safe and secure surroundings.

Based in the West Midlands, we offer a secure document storage service. 

There’s more information on our website or give us a call on 0800 783 9516.

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