The Newsroom blog

2 posts from March 2016

31 March 2016

Nobody knows anything

The screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, The Princess Bride) wrote one of the essential books on Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade. Among its many words of wisdom about how movies actually work, the most celebrated are those that express what he calls "the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry" -


Attending a debate on the future of newspapers at City University yesterday, Goldman's words came to me. In the world of digital news that now faces us, nobody knows anything.


Independent Digital front pages, from

Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Hollywood may lurch from triumph to disaster to further disaster with little idea of what is going to succeed, yet it continues to produce the occasional great or commercially successful film, and it has not collapsed as a business. But it lives in a constant state of anxiety, because its hopes are all based around the whims of a mercurial audience. After centuries of producing news in a form that people would regularly buy into, the news industry is now facing a world in which it cannot say from one year to the next what model is going to work, or whether there ever will be the same stability on which the newspaper business subsisted for so long.

The debate was entitled "Newsprint - it ain't over yet!" (originally it was billed as the less confident "Is print dead?")  and was organised by City University and the Media Society. Chaired by Professor Roy Greenslade of City University and Guardian Media, the guest speakers were Sarah Baxter, Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times, Christian Broughton, Editor of the Independent Digital and Jane Singer, Professor of Journalism Innovation at City University. Sadly, Alison Phillips, editor of the UK's latest national newspaper, The New Day, was advertised but not available on the day.

It was an interesting debate, if somewhat skewed towards the view of journalists rather than readers, inevitably given the speakers and the audience of journalism students and media professionals. The current crises were all addressed - the challenges of making digital pay, the supposed threat of the BBC towards regional newspapers, the challenge of ad-blocking software to business models, what jobs are there for today's journalism students? - and the generally expressed fears of who will hold governments to account in a world without newspapers and traditional investigative journalism.

The two speakers from news organisations spoke confidently about their latest business models. The Independent closed its print edition on 26 March, but has strongly asserted the power of its digital, with a website that is profitable, and the newly-launched daily digital edition with front-page layout looking for all the world like the print edition still existed (no doubt to comfort former subscribers to the print version who they hope will move over to the digital). The Times and Sunday Times have announced that they are moving away from a rolling digital news model (the "flim-flam of passing news" in Baxter's words) to offer a joint digital news package in timed editions (9am, midday and 5pm), just like a print newspaper.


The debate at City University, with (L-R) Christian Broughton, Jane Singer, Roy Greenslade and Sarah Baxter

So the latest digital news models are looking towards mimicking the solidity of print. This may comfort the traditionalist buyers, and is an acknowledgment of the power of brand and the strength of print in making a news story part of the public agenda. But that's just today's strategy. Who can say if they will still be operational five years from now, or even a year from now? Other great ideas for ensuring long-term stability will follow soon enough, while others will pursue their own plans. Perhaps the Blendle model of pay-per-article, as developed in the Netherlands, will prove successful. Perhaps philanthropic funding models that work in the USA can be transported here. Perhaps the paid-for model adopted by The Times offers the only security. Perhaps going free but reaching out to as many millions as possible is what will work. Perhaps print will endure far longer than we expect, valued by an 'elite' audience if not the majority.

The truth is, nobody knows. This is a huge challenge for the British Library, which has a mission to preserve the UK's news. Such archiving thrives on consistency of output, something which print newspapers have long provided, with their uniformity of format and regularity of publication. The days of certainty are over for news archiving as they are for news publication. We will have to keep reinventing policies and procedures, just to keep up. It certainly seems unlikely that we will ever return to the reliability of the past. Sarah Baxter said that we are in a transitional phase of news production, but perhaps it is always going to be a transitional phase.

News publication in the future looks to be condemned to uncertainty, flitting from one platform to another, from one business model to the next - because that is how the digital world works, with its continual need to keep re-inventing itself. News publication will nevertheless thrive, however, in one form or another, because we will always thirst for news. It will continue to hit the occasional heights, keeping us informed and creating essential talking points. But, like the movies, it is doomed to a constant state of anxiety, for as long into the future as anyone can see.



23 March 2016

"The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality"

Dean Kirby is a journalist who has been covering the news in and around Manchester, his home city, for nearly 20 years. His debut book, Angel Meadow: Victorian Britain's Most Savage Slum, published by Pen & Sword, is the first history of Angel Meadow, the 19th century Manchester slum so vile and dangerous that it was described by Friedrich Engels as "hell upon earth". To find out more about the book, visit Here, Dean tells how he used British Library newspapers at the British Newspaper Archive to uncover the horrors of Angel Meadow.


When Manchester was the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, Angel Meadow was the city’s vilest and most dangerous slum.

A wild and brutal borderland at the northern edge of Cottonopolis, it was home to 30,000 workers who struggled for survival in conditions so appalling that it was described by Friedrich Engels as “hell upon earth” in 1845.

I became fascinated by the story of Angel Meadow when I discovered that my Victorian forefather, an Irish immigrant named William Kirby, had washed up there after surviving the potato famine.

In 2012, archaeologists investigating Victorian Manchester’s horrors made a startling discovery while digging up a car park in Angel Meadow – my  ancestor’s home.

They gave me permission to clamber down a shaky ladder to touch the still-sooty bricks of William’s fireplace and the paper-thin walls that separated his 10ft-square, one-up-one-down from the house next door.

As I searched for clues about my ancestor’s life in Manchester’s archives and began formulating the idea of writing a book, I started to drift off to the slum in my imagination.

I descended into damp cellars, stumbled through backyard pigsties and came face-to-face with scarred and tattooed street fighters or “scuttlers” in the slum’s smoke-filled beer houses.

I crept into dingy lodging houses where new arrivals were forced to sleep naked with strangers because it was the only way to keep their clothes free from lice.

The more I read, the most astonished I became by my ancestor’s survival in this hellish place – leading to my own existence more than a century later in the city that his blood sweat and tears had helped to create.


Morning Chronicle, 12 November 1849

My journey of discovery was led by an army of Victorian journalists who walked those streets for real, and whose words have survived among the millions of pages in the British Newspaper Archive.

They included men such as the Fleet Street journalist Angus Bethune Reach, who told readers of the Morning Chronicle in 1849 of his descent into one of Angel Meadow’s many inhabited cellars, where he found an old man asleep in a shallow cave no bigger than a coffin scooped out of the wall.

“The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester is called, singularly enough, Angel Meadow,” he wrote. “It is full of cellars and inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps and, in the very worst sties of filth and darkness, by those unhappy wretches, the low Irish.”

Another journalist from the Manchester Evening News, my former newspaper, found himself on the run from the police in 1874 after entering a beerhouse disguised as a rogue with a criminal named Mack acting as his guide.

The terrified reporter fled into a lodging house operated by a notorious thief-trainer named Cabbage Ann and found her superintending a wake for an eminent pick-pocket or “gun”.

“The place looked squalid and miserable,” the journalist later wrote, “and the people in it were of poor, miserable appearance, as if they found it hard to live at all.”

Searching the newspaper archive like an investigator hunting for further clues, I slowly managed to piece together the real identity of Cabbage Ann, and other slum dwellers with exotic names such as Jemmy the Crawler, the Badger and Long Dick.

Beautifully-written nineteenth century court reports allowed me to follow every twist and turn of their lengthy criminal careers, while useful snippets such as weather forecasts helped me to say whether it was raining in Manchester when they committed their crimes.


Henry Burgess, from Staffordshire Record Office

I also used census documents and prison archives held by to create pen pictures of the most notorious criminals – right down to their eye colour and tattoos.

One man in particular jumped out from the pages. He was called Henry Burgess (Harry to his relatives) and he was a scuttler who, at just 5ft-tall and with steel-coloured eyes, was the most feared man in Angel Meadow.

Burgess, a neighbour of my ancestor William Kirby, had more than 40 convictions to his name including shop-breaking, rioting and assaults on police. No-one was safe including his partner, Mary Ellen Burns, who lost an eye when he attacked her with an iron poker.

Thanks to the stories in the archive, I eventually managed to track down a prison mugshot of Burgess in which he stares with cold, hard eyes and shaven head towards the camera. 


Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 9 May 1893

In all of the hundreds of pages of newsprint that I read during my research, one story involving Burgess perfectly symbolised the horrors of Angel Meadow.

On Saturday, May 6, 1893, as Britain was sweltering under a drought, Burgess got into a row with a rival named Thomas Matthews in the streets of the slum.

He took a paraffin lantern from his sister’s parlour, marched down the street and, planting his feet on the cobbles, threw it at Matthews and turned him into a human fireball.

Matthews, a father to a young daughter, died from horrific burns at Manchester Royal Infirmary in the early hours after giving a statement to the police identifying Burgess as his killer.

Matthews' final words were immortalised in black newspaper ink in one of the many columns, just a few inches long, that had been carefully preserved in the British Newspaper Archive.

I was perhaps the first person to read those words, spoken by Matthews with badly burned lips and tongue, in more than 120 years.

“I am very ill,” he said, “and I believe I am going to die.”


Dean Kirby