The Newsroom blog

6 posts from April 2020

29 April 2020

In search of the sports reporter

This is a guest post by Dr Stephen Tate, who teaches at Blackburn College University Centre. A former journalist, he worked on the provincial daily press across the north of England for 30 years. He introduces us to James Catton, the lead character in his newly-published book on the sports journalist 1850s-1930s, rescuing a little-known figure from the shadows of newspaper history.

Catton portrait 1908

James Catton in 1908

The sporting past and the newspaper fit hand in glove. There can be few other areas of research relying as heavily on the news columns of the press for information as sports history.

For the Victorian and Edwardian periods, in particular, when much of our modern sporting panorama began to take shape, the tightly-packed columns of print offer up material rarely found elsewhere. They provide insight and comment regarding the formation of clubs, the development of rules, the slow progress towards a rational sporting calendar. The first stirrings of sporting celebrity can be traced alongside the advent of the administrator and the birth of fan culture.

The whole panoply of the Victorian sporting revolution in action is laid bare.

But who wrote the word deluge that constitutes the hallmark of the newspaper sports pages of the day?

For the most part, the industry-standard expectation of unsigned reports and the use of the nom de plume risk leaving generations of sports reporters unknown to the historical record. In the train of that anonymity comes uncertainty over their working environment, career paths, status and aspirations.

Career longevity, talent and exceptional circumstances can save some from undeserved obscurity. So, too, can chance. For James Catton all four factors serve to rescue him from the shadows.

Catton’s career began as an apprentice reporter on the bi-weekly Preston Herald in 1870s Lancashire. It was there that he became aware of the growing popularity of association football and where he took his first, tentative steps in part-time sports journalism. “The county went frantic on football,” was his considered opinion. He was then off to the East Midlands in the 1880s as a fully-fledged sports reporter on the Nottingham Daily Guardian. Both areas were hotbeds in the recasting of late-century sport as games became codified and commercialised as a fit for the industrial age.

Catton later joined the Hulton group of newspapers in Manchester where his passion for the games of the day was given free rein on the Sunday Chronicle, Sporting Chronicle and Athletic News, all papers with claimed national circulations. For 25 years from 1900 Catton worked as editor and chief reporter of the weekly Athletic News, a significant position on a widely influential title. He spent the last 10 years of his career on Fleet Street, capitalising on his reputation as the doyen of sporting journalism.

There was a particular irony attached to his role as chronicler and arbiter of Britain’s diverse sporting constituency. It was an irony Catton was acutely aware of. He was less than 5ft tall and worked in an age that was only slowly accepting the idea that in order to write with authority and insight on sport one did not necessarily need to have been a master of games-playing, to have excelled physically in the sports arena. His two predecessors as Athletic News editor had been noted sportsmen, as had a high proportion of journalists on the specialist sporting press in the closing decades of the 1800s. Catton’s small stature denied him that opportunity. His predecessors had been prominent in sports administration, too. Again, Catton had not.

But he represented something different. A new sense of professionalism within the press. A new treatment of sport. A new sense of order and regimen. Just as sport was adapted to fit within the confines of urban society so too was the reporting of sport adapted to fit within the needs of the new, cheap daily penny press of the turn of the century.

Catton was well versed in the lengthy and, to modern tastes, rather dull timetable-style reporting of sporting fixtures, with formatted and clichéd writing styles. Wasn’t it Catton who first sent “the crimson rambler” to the “confines” of the cricket field? But he had the opportunity and talent to develop his reporting repertoire on the Hulton newspapers, to embrace a lighter, chattier and more inclusive approach. His status as Athletic News editor allowed easy access to sports legislators and decision-makers. His early days in Lancashire and Notts amid the pioneers of professional football, and his subsequent career longevity – 60 years a reporter – provided him with a ready store of anecdote and insight, grist to the journalistic mill. He witnessed the elevation of the reporter from a roving brief on the touchlines to purpose-built grandstand press seats. He saw the eclipse of the homing pigeon as report carrier and the adoption of telegraph and telephone. He felt the full brunt of the increasing demand for speed of composition and action associated with the industry’s remarkable Saturday evening football results specials. He adored cricket and respected football and appreciated all manner of other games.

Catton’s career began in an age when the sports reporter might well act as match promoter, ready-money stakeholder and judge in the harum-scarum world of pugilism, blood sports and pedestrianism, and it would end with the advent of the professional controversialist embodied by the Fleet Street sports columnist. Catton’s story opens a window with a panoramic view of the world of the sports reporter.

Stephen Tate

A History of the British Sporting Journalist c1850-1939. James Catton, Sports Reporter (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020), by Dr Stephen Tate, is a history of the trade of the sporting journalist and the career of James Catton. Much of The Athletic News (1875-1931) has been digitised and its available on the British Newspaper Archive

27 April 2020

Three favourite newspaper books - chosen by Andrew Hobbs

We are publishing a series of posts on favourite books about newspapers. We have asked members of the British Library's news collection team and some outside experts each to name three books about newspapers that they treasure and would recommend to others. The books can be wholly or partly about newspapers, they can be fact or fiction, they can be familiar or unfamiliar. No book can be picked twice, and no one taking part can choose one of their own books.

We hope readers will enjoy the series and seek out some of the recommendations.  The choices below have been made by Dr Andrew Hobbs, University of Central Lancashire, author of A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855-1900.

CommunitiesCommunities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers, David Paul Nord. Champaign. University of Illinois Press, 2001.

This collection of 12 scholarly articles on the production and consumption of newspapers ranges from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries, and contains the wisdom that comes from long and deep acquaintance with historical newspapers. The chapters that interested me as a PhD student were those looking at the readers. Nord uses traditional shoe-leather historical methods to tease out meaning from obscure sources, such as family cost-of-living budgets in US Commissioner of Labor reports of the 1890s (recording family spending on reading); a lists of subscribers to the New-York Magazine of 1790, what readers said about other readers in their letters to Philadelphia newspapers in 1793, or letters sent, not for publication, to the Chicago Herald editor in the early 20th century.

Nord repeatedly shows how historical readers are much more interesting than theoretical readers inferred from the text. Readers -- not journalists, editors or publishers -- decided the meaning of the papers. And his findings often lead to larger meditations on the changing place of newspapers in society.

This book gave me the confidence to search, and search widely, for evidence left behind by newspaper readers from long ago.


SerializingSerializing Fiction in the Victorian Press, Graham Law. London. Palgrave, 2000.

Law is interested in how, for a brief period in the 1870s and 1880s, British novels came to be published first as serials in local newspapers, rather than as books. Why was Tess of the d’Urbervilles commissioned by the owner of the Bolton Weekly Journal, rather than a London book publisher or magazine editor?

To answer this question, he carefully documents -- and connects – the plots of the novels, the authors (often obscure local hacks), fees, the geography of ad hoc newspaper fiction syndicates, circulation figures and more.

On the way, he provides many insights – that newspapers are cultural, not just political; that provincial British papers influenced American publishing; the popularity of a genre now extinct, news miscellanies such as the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph and Liverpool Weekly Post, and that the ‘New Journalism’ of the 1890s didn’t have to be like that – other options were available, as seen in Liberal provincial weekly newspapers. And many small local papers together made a national publishing platform – an idea I have milked in my own research.


PunterStick It up Your Punter! The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper, Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie. London. Faber, 2013 [orig.  piub. 1990].

This is the most unputdownable newspaper book I’ve read, invoking laughter and disgust by turns. It examines the modern newspaper phenomenon that was the Sun, the pre-eminent British tabloid, in its golden age, from Rupert Murdoch buying and relaunching it as a tabloid in 1969, through to 1990. It is full of atmosphere and insider anecdotes, many of them very funny.

When a complaining reader got through to editor Kelvin Mackenzie he demanded her name and address and told her she was now banned from reading the Sun.

The title is a play on ‘Stick it up your junta’, an infamous headline crowing over the sinking of the Argentine warship the General Belgrano, with the loss of 323 lives, during the 1982 Falklands War. The headline displays the schoolboy humour and political nous which was part of the paper’s phenomenally successful formula.

A similarly dark moment was the decision to support a cover-up of police responsibility for the deaths of 96 football fans in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, blaming the victims. The Sun’s headline was ‘The Truth’. The atmosphere inside the Sun office, and Mackenzie’s decision-making behind the front-page story, make horrifying reading, like the rest of this book.


Dr Andrew Hobbs, University of Central Lancashire, author of A Fleet Street in Every Town: The provincial press in England, 1855-1900

23 April 2020

Three favourite newspaper books - chosen by Luke McKernan

We are publishing a series of posts on favourite books about newspapers. We have asked members of the British Library's news collection team and some outside experts each to name three books about newspapers that they treasure and would recommend to others. The books can be wholly or partly about newspapers, they can be fact or fiction, they can be familiar or unfamiliar. No book can be picked twice, and no one taking part can choose one of their own books.

We hope readers will enjoy the series and seek out some of the recommendations.  The choices below have been made by Luke McKernan, Lead Curator News and Moving Image at the British Library. 


CitizenhearstCitizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst. W.A. Swanberg. London: Longmans, 1962 [orig. pub. 1961]

This was the first book about newspapers that I read. It is still one of the best. William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was the terrifying titan of American newspapers, whose eye for sensationalism and lurid headlines, concocted with a sometimes cavalier sense of ethical responsibility, had a profound effect on the modern era of news. He was among the most powerful men of his age, stood for President (unsuccessfully) and built up a vast, multi-media news empire that continues to this day as Hearst Communications. For many he lives on as the model for Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles' 1941 classic film Citizen Kane.

American biographer W.A. Swanberg's life of Hearst matches up to the man. Scrupulously researched but dramatically expressed, it reads like the Great American Novel. The man, his times, and the media he controlled interweave in a compelling narrative. He is able to view Hearst sympathetically while at the same type making us shudder at his vanity, his greed and his cruelty. As Swanberg astutely concludes, "He was ... a Prospero and a Caliban, and the lucky ones were those who saw only his angelic side".

Notoriously, Swanberg's book was denied a Pulitzer prize, despite the recommendation of the advisory panel, supposedly because the trustees of the award did not consider Hearst a worthy subject for such a prize.  To read just one page of Citizen Hearst would prove how very wrong that judgement was.


PressanditsreadersThe Press and Its Readers: A Report Prepared by Mass-Observation for The Advertising Service Guild. London: Art & Technics Ltd, 1949

"There's something I dislike about newspapers, and that is that they don't tell the truth ... There's so much stuff not worth looking at, adverts, scandal, and all that stuff that isn't news"."

"Reading passes the morning, to tell the truth."

It is extraordinary how little attention most books on newspapers give to their readers. We learn about how the news has been written, financed, its personalities, its political influence and its ideology, but we seldom see newspaper history from the point of view of those at whom all this effort was directed. The Press and Its Readers is a marvellous corrective to such an attitude. Produced by the social research organisation Mass-Observation, it asks some basic, sensible questions: What kind of newspapers do people want to read? Do they believe what they read? Do they remember what they read?

The result is a bracing challenge to any belief that what is published is the same as what is read. Evidence is provided of indifference, scepticism, ignorance and sharp understanding, ranging from readers who cannot be bothered with the news to those who find their lives governed by it. It covers popular and 'quality' newspapers, dailies and weeklies, national and regional press, combining snippets from frank reader interviews with useful statistics and some striking statements that make it clear just how pervasive the newspaper was in the 1940s ("The Daily Express is read by one adult in every four ... The News of the World ... is read by every second adult").

The report is filled with entertaining nuggets alongside much practical information. It is of as much value to the researcher today as it was to the advertisers, politicians and publishers at whom it was originally aimed. It tells us that without an understanding of readers, we cannot understand the news at all.


PicturesonapagePictures on a Page: Photo-Journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing.  Harold Evans, in association with Edwin Taylor. London: Pimlico, 1997 [orig. pub.  1978]

Pictures on a Page was one of a series of books written in the 1970s by Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times, on the practical business of producing newspapers. Titles such as Editing and Design, Handling Newspaper Text and News Headlines were to be found (and can still be found) on many a newsroom desk, but Pictures on a Page broke through to popular acclaim. It is simply the best-looking book on newspapers yet published. Evans's theme is the practices and principles of photo-journalism. He shows how news photographs are made, what makes a news photograph, and how presentation and context are everything. Over 500 classic photographs and newspaper pages make the book compellingly browsable.

What is particularly thrilling about Pictures on a Page is its demonstration of the expert editorial eye. Evans illustrates through a series of marvellous examples how selection, enlargement, cropping, arrangement alongside text and layout have bought out the drama in a news story, to the extent that the news history of our times is one that might be told more readily through images that text, because it is pictures that have captured the moment and the meaning.

Evans steers us wisely through the ethical issues and the troubled relationship between the photograph and reality. It is a book to make us realise just how selective and manufactured this thing called news really is. Yet at the same time we see how compelling the news image can be, what deep feelings it stirs within us. To make us both question and yet cherish photo-journalism is the book's great achievement.

20 April 2020

Three favourite newspaper books - chosen by Beth Gaskell

We're starting up a series of posts on favourite books about newspapers. We have asked members of the British Library's news collection team and some outside experts each to name three books about newspapers that they treasure and would recommend to others. The books can be wholly or partly about newspapers, they can be fact or fiction, they can be familiar or unfamiliar. No book can be picked twice, and no one taking part can choose one of their own books.

We hope readers will enjoy the series and seek out some of the recommendations. We start with the choices of Beth Gaskell, Curator Newspaper Digitisation for the British Library's Heritage Made Digital programme.

DNCJThe Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism.
Laurel Brake and Marysa Demoor (General Editors). Ghent: Academia Press and London: British Library, 2009.

For anyone researching the nineteenth-century press, the Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism (DNCJ) is the go-to reference work. It defines key concepts, introduces numerous important people and titles, and uncovers some of the connections that underpinned the media environment of the time.

It describes itself as providing a ‘snapshot of British and Irish journalism in the nineteenth century’, acknowledging that the scale of media production at the time makes it impossible to cover everything in one volume. However, the examples that have been chosen for inclusion cover a huge range of formats, frequencies, readerships, economic and ownership models, and political alignments; important sub-categories of the press such as trade publications, and the religious press; as well as concepts such as distribution, ‘class publications’, and anonymity and signature. The result is that the volume’s sum total paints a fairly comprehensive picture of the nineteenth-century press.

The DNCJ’s dictionary format means that this is not a reference work to be read cover-to-cover, but something to be dipped into frequently. I have a copy of my desk that I refer to almost every day.


FirstcasualtyThe First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to IraqPhillip Knightley. 3rd Edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004 [orig. pub. 1975]

This incredibly readable book by Phillip Knightley charts the history of war correspondents, exploring their origins, investigating their experiences in various nineteenth and twentieth-century conflicts, and analysing the often conflicting roles they play in providing true accounts, boosting morale and negotiating censorship.

The Firsts Casualty has been a particularly significant book for me. Reading it sparked my interest in news and war reporting, inspiring me to undertake a project on the reporting of the Vietnam War during my A levels. Then, when I started my PhD, researching military newspapers and periodicals, it was the first thing I was suggested to read by my supervisors. I felt like I had come full circle.

It is a great resource for anyone interested in the history of war correspondents, war reporting, and the interaction between the media, the military, and civil society during conflicts. It also has useful notes and a great bibliography of further reading.


CheappressThe Dawn of the Cheap Press in Victorian Britain: The End of the ‘Taxes on Knowledge’, 1849-1869.
Martin Hewitt. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

While this book would appear to focus on a very limited twenty-year period in the mid-nineteenth century, its coverage and its implications are actually much wider. It gives a thorough background to the taxes and censorship that were imposed upon newspapers by the government, from the invention of the printing press through to the late nineteenth century. It is an essential read for anyone interested in the financing of newspapers and in the history of press freedom.

It is also a great read for anyone interested in the wider political landscape of the nineteenth century, in industrialisation and trade history, and in shifting historical ideas about reading, education, and the dangers and benefits of cheaply available information.


Beth Gaskell

Curator, Newspaper Digitisation

07 April 2020

Writing a 'mini-history' of a newspaper

While a great deal is known about a few nineteenth-century newspapers, such as the Times (1788-), the Telegraph (1855-) and the (Manchester) Guardian (1821-), there are a large number of newspapers produced during the period about which we know very little. One of the key aims of the Heritage Made Digital Newspapers project is to provide information about many of the neglected and forgotten nineteenth-century newspapers held by the British Library.

The aim is to produce a ‘mini-history’ for each of the titles being digitised as part of the project, providing bibliographic and contextual information, including details of dates, title changes, publishers, printers, proprietors and editors; size and cost; political leaning; information about content; and reference sources. For each title we are collecting the details using a template, which was designed for this project, but is already being used for wider purposes across the News collection, and which we hope may be useful to other newspaper digitisation projects. A blank copy of the template and a nearly complete template here showing details of the Lady’s Newspaper (1847-1863) are given at the end of this post. 

Finding the data to populate the template can be challenging. In some cases some of this information is available in press directories of the period, starting with Mitchell's Newspaper Press Directory in 1846, though there is nothing so useful to researcher before then. Valuable information has been collected in modern  secondary sources, such as the Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism or the Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals:1800-1900, or in books and articles written about specific titles. Useful information has also been found by searching other newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive, by looking at Dictionary of National Biography entries, and by reading the biographies and autobiographies of those involved with specific titles or the nineteenth-century media more generally. However, in quite a few cases, there is little or no information easily available.


Below the masthead on most newspapers you can find details of the issue number, date and price of the newspaper. The Express, no. 9, 10th September 1846, p. 1.

For every title it has also been important to return to the hard-copy originals, to check details, spot-check for consistency over time, and to search for illusive pieces of information. For short runs it can be helpful to check every volume, to see if anything changed over time, while for longer run spot-checking has been used. Volumes have been measured. The front pages of each paper checked for title, price, numbering patterns, and the prevalence of adverts.

Useful sections to check for information have been the ‘Notices’ that often appear above the editorial on one of the inside pages of the newspaper, as this is usually where any details of changes to the publication appear.


Cobbett’s Evening Post gives notice that it will be ceasing publication. This appears in a notice above the Editorial. Cobbett’s Evening Post, no. 52, 28th March 1820, p. 3

The printing and publishing information that usually appears at the bottom of the final column on the last page has also proved to be a useful place to look, as changes in production often indicated bigger changes behind the scenes.


These two publication notices are from consecutive issues of the Sun from 1826, but illustrate a significant change of publisher and printer. The Sun, nos. 10494 and 10495, 30 April and 1 May 1826, p. 4.

First issues have been checked for any statements of intent, and the last several issues are looked at to see if any indication is given regarding the reason the publication ceased.

In some cases a wealth of information has been uncovered, while other publications remain shrouded in mystery. One key pieces of information that we often struggle to discover are the name(s) of the proprietor(s), which is generally less outwardly linked to a newspaper than that of the editor, the printer, or the publisher, although often only one or two people embodied all of these roles. The reason for a title discontinuing publication is also often opaque, with no mention made of an impending end, and frequently signs that such titles intended to continue, such as requests for future adverts and mentions of up-coming articles.

We hope to use these mini-histories in a variety of ways. A few have already been adapted to appear as short histories of titles on the British Newspaper Archive. We plan to make them all available on the British Library website. And we are using some of the details uncovered to enhance the entries on the British Library catalogue. We are also hoping to use the data collected to do lots of fun things, such as map networks of connected titles and people in the nineteenth-century media landscape, to show patterns of production and distribution, and to enrich our understanding of both the world of the nineteenth-century newspaper, and of the British Library collecting policies through the ages.

Beth Gaskell

Curator, Newspaper Digitsiation

01 April 2020

Accessing News content during the temporary closure

At the present time  the British Library's Reading Rooms and public spaces are closed. This includes the Newsroom, our Reading Room for news, where researchers have been able to gain access not only to the physical news collections but a wide range of electronic resources, as well as reference literature and staff expertise. In keeping with the other Reading Rooms, though we may be closed for the time being  we will continue to offer as many online services as we possibly can, for users anywhere. Stewart Gillies, our News Reference Team Leader, explains what is available.


The Newsroom

Owing to licence restrictions, many of our news-related e-resource subscriptions can only be viewed onsite at our Reading Rooms at St Pancras or Boston Spa. There are several, however, that are available to registered British Library Readers. If you’re a registered Reader you can access a number of Library-subscribed resources on your own device, from any location, by logging in to our Remote E-resources service. These e-resources include the following fully keyword searchable facsimile newspaper archives provided by Readex:

  • African Newspapers Series 1 and 2, 1800-1922
  • African American Newspapers Series 1 and 2, 1827-1998
  • American Broadsides and Ephemera
  • Caribbean Newspapers, 1718-1876
  • Early American Newspapers Series 1
  • Latin American Newspapers Series 1 and 2, 1805-1922
  • Rand Daily Mail 1902 – 1985
  • South Asian Newspapers 1864-1922

In addition, you can also access Readex’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service 1941-60, 1974-1996. This resource provides access to US Government translations of the text of daily broadcasts, government statements, and select news stories from non-English sources. Covers: all regions, 1941-1960; Middle East & [North] Africa, 1974-1987; Near East & South Asia, 1987-1996; South Asia, 1980-1987; Sub-Saharan Africa, 1974-1996; China,1974-1996; Asia & the Pacific, 1974-1987; East Asia, 1987-1996; Eastern Europe, 1974-1996, Soviet Union, 1974-1996.

Another news-related e-resource available to remote Readers is EBSCO’s Regional Business News Plus. This resource provides full text coverage from several hundred U.S. and International newspapers as well as regional business publications, providing more than 60 million full text articles. Major UK titles available include The Times Oct 2000 to date, the Daily / Sunday Telegraph Feb 2010 to date, the Daily Mail / Mail on Sunday Sept 2004 to date and the Daily Mirror 2004 – 2007.

It is possible that we may be able to add further e-resources to our Remote Resources list in the coming weeks, so please check our Accessing British Library Content and Services page occasionally for updates.

Planning for future research

To help you plan future visits to the British Library, our website provides an overview of our News Media Collections, help guides to Researching Newspapers and Researching Television & Radio News , and practical guides to Using our Reading Rooms at both St Pancras and Boston Spa.

We look forward to hearing from you online but most of all, of course, look forward to seeing you in our Reading Rooms in the, hopefully, not too distant future.

Stewart Gillies
News Reference Team Leader