21 May 2014
The concept of news
'The Concept of News' was the title of a symposium organised by The Newsreel Network and held over 20-21 May at the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen. The Newsreel Network is a collection of scholars interested in newsreel research, convened by the University of Lund in Sweden, newsreels being a common feature of cinema programmes in many countries between the 1910s and the 1960s. I was there
- because I have a particular interest in newsreels
- because the theme touched on all news media and I am interested in how newspapers, television news, radio news, newsreels and other media have interoperated
- because it was a gathering of some fine scholars from several countries
- because I was giving a talk on archiving news at the British Library
- because they paid me to go
The purposes of research networks such as these is to bring together scholars with interest in a common theme, to learn from one another’s research through the presentation of short papers, and to discover through discussion practical ways in which to further research in the field. Despite all the social interaction that goes on online, it still helps hugely to meet actual humans face-to-face, and a two-day symposium for fifteen or so people can be more productive in helping to shape an agenda and construct practical plans than a formal conference.
The full title of the symposium was ‘The Concept of News: Scandinavian and Global Perspectives’, and there were several short papers on newsreel research in the Scandanavian countries, as well as Belgium and East and West Germany, focussing on the subjects of the Cold War and the Suez Crisis. The latter was chosen as a useful example for cross-comparing how different national newsreels treated the same topic, often with the same footage – there were few camera teams on the spot during Suez and what was filmed was pooled to other news organisations – but with dramatically different interpretations of that footage in the respective commentaries.
A paper I particularly liked was given by Tore Helseth of Lillehammer University College. He has found paper records of what international newsreels were shown in one small Norwegian town during the 1950s, and contents lists for those newsreels. This is a precious discovery, because for many countries barely any records survive that document what the contents were of the newsreels and when they were issued. In the UK we are fortunate that a huge amount of newsreel documentation survives. In America, by contrast, a vast amount of documentation has been lost, and the survival rate of the films themselves is sadly poor.
Most of the remainder of the symposium was given over to broader issues about news archives and the definition of news itself. These issues matter for us at the British Library, not simple because we what is probably the world’s largest news archive, but because we are looking to move from being a newspaper archive to becoming an archive for news in all its forms. This raises interesting issues of definition. How far does the idea of news stretch? Does it include any kind of information delivered to an audience at a particular time, or does it lie specifically in those media which identify themselves as being carriers of news, such as newspapers?
Professor Brian Winston of the University of Lincoln, talked about news vs information in his paper, which was a response to the recent book by Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News, a history of the production of news 1400-1800 (previously covered by this blog). For Winston, Pettegree has failed to distinguish between a history of the delivery of plain information and a history of news, which is something mediated, always biased in one way or another, propagandist in the broadest sense, and never – in an absolute sense – true. He called on many early examples of news as an emerging form, starting with Galbert of Bruges, a lawyer driven to write a report on the assassination of Charles the Good, Count of Flanders on 2 March 1127, to a 1499 woodcut of Vlad the Impaler to show how news is a political tool, to Ben Jonson’s 1625 play The Staple of News, a satire on the proto-newspapers (corantos) being published in London, which includes these striking words:
We not forbid that any News be made,
But that't be printed; for when News is printed,
It leaves, Sir, to be News...
Act 1 Scene V
Winston concluded with the eternal truth, attributed to New York Sun editor John B. Bogart, “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news”.
I enjoyed Winston’s provocative analysis, but for me the definition of news lies not in its producers but in its consumers. News is something that we seek out when we want to understand what is happening in our world, and plays a vital role in how we understand our place in that world. We seek it out from multiple newsforms, be that newspapers, TV, radio, web, pr mobile apps, and in past times from a medium such as the newsreels. Newsreels are important to this multimedia sense of the news, because they were the first news medium that consciously positioned itself as one link in the chain of news provision. Newsreels were issued once or twice a week, so they were always late with the news, but they understood from when they first emerged in the 1910s that their audience already knew what the news was – be that from newspapers or later radio. They added more to the understanding people had of what was news to them by providing it in motion pictures. They were built on choice. They played a key part in what it is to be modern: we the audience being given the tools with which to pick and choose how we build up the picture of our world. This applies many times over today, with the multifarious news (and information) outlets available that threaten at times to overwhelm us. The news is made by us.
The symposium included some papers on radio news, which provided useful comparisons across the two news media. There was an interesting tension throughout the two days, between viewing the newsreels as a news medium (one which often fell short when it came to reporting ‘hard’ news) and viewing them for their own sake, as a distinctive product of the cinema entertainment industry rather than the news industry, as Sara Levavy of the Cortauld Institute argued. In truth, both definitions apply. Newsreels entertained, and they informed. That they informed best by their dependence on other news media, notably newspapers, to set the agenda, makes them interesting for news history itself, and helps illuminate how newspapers themselves worked for their public throughout much of the twentieth century.