I have often commented in this column about how many people believed that the advent of digital technology would ensure that paper consumption would decline.
In fact, it hasn’t. Our love affair with paper continues – and hence Admiral Document Storage is still here, storing paper for anyone who wants it stored.
Quite simply, paper is useful. Indeed one of my friends who is a writer told me recently that of course he writes his books on the computer, as does every author these days. But then, as he gets further into the work, he prints the whole book out so that he can appreciate what he has got and indeed read it in the form in which those who buy the book will read it.
He usually ends up printing out five versions of the book over time as he makes his final revisions – which probably means that he uses up more paper than if he worked on an old electric typewriter and used paper from the off.
Thinking on this topic, and reflecting on the ITV detective series “Foyles War” of which I have been watching re-runs on ITV, I was reminded that it was not always thus. The rationing of paper was one of the major restrictions placed on the population of the UK during the Second World War and had a major impact.
Rationing started not long after the start of the war, but even before then problems with supply meant that most newspapers cut their size from 1939. By 1940 newspapers were limited to 60% of their pre-war use of newsprint. By 1945 papers were down to 25% of their pre-war consumption.
All sorts of things happened as a result. Lacking space, newspapers cut down on their classified ads sections. As a result later in the war Exchange and Mart was formed, a magazine which offered nothing but classified adverts.
George Orwell in a famous pamphlet pointed out that by 1942 the War Office got more paper to print on than the whole of the book trade put together. As a result, he argued, “even the most hackneyed “classic” is liable to be out of print, many schools are short of textbooks, new writers get no chance to start, and even established writers have to expect a gap of a year or two years between finishing a book and seeing it published.”
Yet what is particularly interesting is that by 1941 the circulation of virtually every newspaper was up, despite the decline in their size and the virtual abolition of different editions throughout the day and across the country. The Guardian, for example, reported a 20% increase in sales during the first two years of the war.
It even had a waiting list of subscribers, and virtually all shops sold out of the paper in advance to subscribers. Despite the cut in size the price remained 2d per copy (under 1p).
We can see the effect of rationing by looking at the paper across different moments in the war. The 1939 Guardian newspaper was 16 pages. By 1941 it was six.
Pages 1, 2 and 3 in the 1939 edition of the Guardian, as war was announced, contained classified adverts, radio listings and sports news. (Presumably the editor didn’t want the audience getting too excited too quickly – or maybe didn’t want people reading the paper in the newsagents shop.)
Page 4 covered the war, page 5 covered books and features, while page 6 was fashion and the crossword.
Moving further into the paper, page 7 is a picture page of war preparations, while page 8 covers the invasion of Poland. Local news and business news dominates the rest of the paper up to the back page made up of letters to the editor, the weather, and births, deaths and marriage announcements.
The 8 December 1941 edition is utterly different, covering the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the rest of the war on the front page. The radio programmes, business news, sport and the crossword are now all pushed into page 2.
Home news is on page three but is pushed back by coverage of the war in North Africa.
Letters and the editorial are reduced to a part of page four, but again are squeezed by more on the war in Europe. Page five is back to Pearl Harbour as is page six, the back page.
So although we might say that newspapers are in retreat under the inexorable march of digitisation, the retreat is nothing like that which was forced upon newspapers during the war years. Publishers of books printed on paper might be looking over their shoulders at Kindle and the like, but again there is nothing like the cut back that was suffered during the war.
Paper, it seems, can take on new technology. War causes limitations, but everything else it can take in its stride.
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