The Newsroom blog

News about yesterday's news, and where news may be going


Whether you are studying history, politics, society, international relations, economics, media history, sports history or family history, our collections will have something for you Read more

07 September 2020

The news from Leeds

Announced as it was in the middle of March of this year, it is possible that not all may have read of the British Library's ambitions to extend its operations in some form through a new public space in Leeds. The government has made a £25 million commitment, as part of the West Yorkshire Devolution deal, to establish a British Library North in Leeds City Centre. Exploratory discussions are underway between Leeds City Council and the British Library and property developer CEG about the Grade 1 listed Temple Works site over the potential for its occupancy by the British Library. 


From a Tiziana Alocci infographic on the Crimean War

As part of this process, we have been working with various Leeds organisations and group to explore shared interests through a programme of public events. One of these, the Leeds Digital Festival, takes place 21 September-2 October, and features two events (among 294) that feature the British Library news collections. As we digitise more and more of our news collections, and as research applications of a digital news library continue to develop and challenge us, we are pleased to be able to showcase two particularly interesting events that emphasise creativity and new thinking.

AI and the Headline Archive (24 September, 12:00-13:00 - tickets still available)

As part of the Heritage Made Digital newspapers project, where we are digitising poor condition out-of-copyright newspapers, we are keen to share in imaginative ways of extracting and re-using the data. For this events we have been working with artists Tom Schofield, Sam Skinner and Nathan Jones from Torque Editions, who are using artificial intelligence and speed reading technology to explore aspects of our nineteenth-century newspaper collections, focussing on headlines and story titles. This event will discuss how new discoveries can be made about human-computer reading capacity and media flows by applying artistic and ‘hacker’ techniques to historical data.

Creating Captivating Data Visualisations (29 September 13:00-16:00 - sold out)

In May 2021 the British Library will be hosting a small exhibition on infographics on nineteenth-century themes, created out of newspaper data and other datasets. We have worked with three designers on this projectors, one of whom, the award-winning information designer Tiziana Alocci with host this workshops, together with the British Library's Lead Curator, News, Luke McKernan, Alocci will lead attendees through a hands on, practical workshop in the creative process behind effective data visualisation, exploring best practices in the industry and how to make such work stand out. This project reflects our great interest in showing how historical news resources can be illuminated through current  news applications, and in demonstrating creative applications of news data.

The Leeds development is one part of still larger plans to transform the British Library's existing site in the north of England, at Boston Spa in Yorkshire. Thanks to the Chancellor’s commitment, announced in the March budget, to invest up to £95 million, we will be able to renew and develop our Boston Spa site for the 21st century, securing its ability to store and make available our ever-growing national collection for generations to come. It is at Boston Spa that the majority of the nation's newspaper collection is held, in the National Newspaper Building. 

Creating Captivating Data Visualisations has sold out already, but tickets are still available for AI and the Headline Archive, which is a free event. Do join us if you can, as we explore how today's technologies can make yesterday's news speak to us in new and exciting ways.


11 June 2020

Mapping Irish women's football

This is a guest post from Helena Byrne, Web Archivist at the British Library and a member of  The Football Collective,  a dedicated network of people who wish to bring critical debate to football.


The Irish Ladies XI, The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 5 August 1932, via British Newspaper Archive

This is a call for all football historians that may have come across references to Irish women’s football of any code prior to and including 1973. When this project first started in January 2019 it was commonly believed that women’s football governing bodies were established in Ireland from 1973 onwards. However, as there is little known about the history and development of women’s football in Ireland it was only recently established in academic spheres that the first women’s football governing body was the Northern Irish Ladies Football Association (NILFA). The NILFA was recognised by the Women’s Football Association (WFA) in December 1972 just a few months before the Ladies Football Association of Ireland (LFA) in 1973 (possibly February) (WFA Archive, British Library MS 89306/1/3).

Although some involved in organising women’s football were aware that the NILFA, which a short time later switched out ladies for women, were established in 1972 the Irish Football Association (IFA) have their founding date as 26 November 1976. This is not surprising as the voluntary nature of women’s football would have meant that many of the original founding members may have only been around for a few years. In addition, there could have been a break in play due to The Troubles as 1972 was one of the bloodiest years on record. 

This project is calling on the crowd to share any newspaper references they may have come across prior to and including 1973.


France v Irish eleven at Grosvenor Park, Belfast, Belfast News-Letter, 12 August 1936, via British Newspaper Archive

How to get involved

You can nominate the newspaper references you have here:

Originally the nomination form was due to run for six months, then this was extended for a further six months.  However, the project has gathered over two hundred nominations so far and there are many more independent researchers and academics uncovering news clippings about Irish women’s football, that it was felt that the collection period should stay open until further notice.

How the data will be shared

Each newspaper reference will be marked on the map with the details supplied by the nominator and will include the name of the person(s) who nominated that reference. The raw data of nominations up until June 2019 can be viewed here.

After online form closes the data will be cleaned up and deposited with News collections at the British Library. The data will be published as an open source data set that can be accessed by anyone interested in women’s football history.

What to nominate

We are interested in any references to women’s football or female involvement in men’s football on the island of Ireland from any newspaper even if it was published outside Ireland. This includes women attending football matches, being involved in the running of a team as well as playing any code of football such as soccer or Gaelic etc.


It is hoped that this project will start a conversation amongst researchers interested in Irish sports to do more to document the history and development of women’s football. Women’s football of any code only started to become popular in Ireland from the mid 1960’s onwards, but very little is known of what went before. By collaborating through this public form, we can start to piece together the knowledge that exists within the research community and identify where the gaps in our knowledge lie.

Helena Byrne

A version of this post was first published on the Football Collective website

20 May 2020

Three favourite newspaper books - chosen by Steve Tate

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 Stephen Tate, Blackburn College University Centre.

Catling200My Life’s Pilgrimage, Thomas Catling. London. John Murray, 1911.

The recollections of Thomas Catling provide a welcome insight regarding the practicalities of nineteenth-century newspaper journalism. Catling spent most of his working life on Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in London, rising from compositor to editor. He joined the Sunday newspaper in 1854 and retired in 1906. It is a book with a rich seam of enlightening anecdote and opinion.

All three books in my selection are memoirs of newspaper journalists. They would not have been published had the authors not tasted success. But all three experienced work at the humdrum level of journalism before talent and luck saw their careers advance. In my endeavour to rescue the world of the workaday reporter from a surprising neglect in contemporary press historiography, books like Catling’s have opened up avenues of research and moments of understanding.

The author touches upon the pounds, shillings and pence of his trade; the career path from composing case to the editorial room; the role of the sub-editor; the interaction of the press with the worlds of theatre, fiction-writing, the law and politics; the mechanics of production; the practicalities of reporting crime; edition structures. The narrative is piecemeal, discursive, meandering . . . but there are dates, names, events and situations. What a feast!

Watson200Memoirs of Robert Patrick Watson: A Journalist’s Experience of Mixed Society, Robert P Watson. London. Smith, Ainslie and Co, 1899.

For a historian researching the trade of the sporting journalist, the above title offers few clues as to its worth. But its 500 pages are packed with detail outlining the at times rambunctious, disorderly world of sport in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Watson was born in 1848 and the book covers his reporting assignments for Sporting Life, Bell’s Life in London, Sportsman and Sunday Referee, covering pugilism, pedestrianism, water sports, wrestling, cycling, billiards, endurance feats and much else besides. His dalliance with sports periodical proprietorship is also covered.

Watson worked at a time when the reporter was often called upon to act as referee and stake-money holder in prize contests and he foregrounds his role as event judge and occasional organiser, nowhere hinting at any pride in writing style or journalistic prestige. For the author and his paymasters the role of reporter is subsidiary. It is an unwitting testimony to the uncertain status of the sports reporter before the adoption by the cheap popular press of codified team games as part of its editorial agenda.

Macadam200The Macadam Road, John Macadam. London. Sportsmans Book Club, 1957 (originally published London. Jarrolds, 1955.)

This is a fragmented, anecdotal stroll through the author’s career as Greenock shipyard apprentice, provincial newspaper telephone boy, drama critic, sub-editor and, eventually, leading Fleet Street sports reporter. Its leitmotif is perhaps best summed up in a sense of drift through the 1920s to the 1950s and that drift captures, I think, the essence of the stories of many journalists’ working lives.

Macadam suggests his book, and thereby his career, ‘. . . goes nowhere in particular from nowhere very important’, with ‘. . . accidents and divergencies along that road’. But (despite a concluding element of whimsy) it provides a valuable understanding of how some careers take shape, together with the pinched circumstances of weekly paper existence, the happenstance of job moves and the excitement and pressure associated with the quest for sports story exclusives to fuel the national newspaper juggernaut. He describes the ‘harrowing experience’ of being among the press pack on an England football international tour, the newsmen ‘. . . watching each other like cats for fear of the unconsidered trifles of news that might have escaped their own eyes’.

Steve Tate

17 May 2020

Three favourite newspaper books - chosen by Paul Gooding

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. Paul Gooding, Lecturer in Information Studies, University of Glasgow.


Curranseaton200Power Without Responsibility: Press, Broadcasting and the Internet in Britain, James Curran and Jean Seaton, London: Routledge 2018 (8th edition)

This book borrows its title from a scathing attack on the press barons Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere, by then leader of the opposition Stanley Baldwin in 1931. I think it’s fair to say that these polemical undertones permeate a book that serves two valuable purposes. First, it provides a wide-ranging history of the press and broadcasting in Britain from around 1800 to the present day. Second, it provides a series of proposals for the reform of the contemporary institutions of the press. The value of these complementary parts is underlined by the fact that the book is now in its eighth edition and translated into several languages.

That said, the part that still chimes with me is the way that Curran and Seaton force us to reconsider not just the institutions of the press since the digital turn, but our own thinking around the underlying technologies. Vincent Mosco described technologies as entering a state of “powerful banality” – here, the authors describe the awe-struck state that is expressed by our continuing capitalisation of the Internet, and the impact that this wonderment has upon our ability to effectively critique its related institutions and technologies.


DeeganTransferred Illusions: Digital Technology and the Forms of Print, Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland, Farnham: Ashgate 2009.

Deegan and Sutherland write at length about the pasts, present and future of historical newspapers, but in reality the scope of the book is much broader. It explores the forms and institutions of print, and it spans newspapers, books, publishers and libraries. Each of these is considered through the lens of large-scale digitisation of library collections, allowing the authors to explore how digital remediation redefines our interaction with the diverse forms of print.

What really stood out for me is that this is a book written by, and for, scholars and practitioners of information, and the links it draws between the material history of forms such as historical newspapers and the curatorial decision involved in contemporary digitisation practice. It recognises the way that digitisation recovers the textual legacy of materials such as historical newspapers, while also providing an account of the ways in which the resultant digital facsimiles reformulate those texts. In short; come for the chapters on the nineteenth century press, stay for the interventions into digitisation theory and practice.


Truth200The Truth, Terry Pratchett, London: Doubleday, 2000

I’m generally of the view that most lists of book recommendations can be improved with a liberal dose of Terry Pratchett, and the world of newspapers is no different. The Truth tells the story of William de Worde, a professional scribe and exiled son of nobility, who inadvertently creates and becomes the editor of the Ankh Morpork Times, the first newspaper in the Discworld’s history. It’s a tale of investigative journalism in the highest echelons of society, of the challenges of speaking truth to power, and of a vampire photographer who turns to dust whenever he uses the flash.

Pratchett’s books became increasingly satirical throughout his career, using fantasy to shine a light on the social and political hierarchies of our world. The Truth explores the challenges posed by those who try to hold the powerful to account, in the face of a printing press characterised as a beast that is constantly, terrifyingly hungry for words. Pratchett’s understanding of the human condition means that so much of his writing remains relevant: right now, as we process the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our lives, the misspelt motto of the Ankh Morpork Times is particularly pertinent: “The Truth Shall Make Ye Fret.”

Paul Gooding

11 May 2020

Three favourite newspaper books - chosen by Ed King

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 Ed King, former Head of Newspapers at the British Library.

Hamilton200Editor-in-Chief. The Fleet Street Memoirs of Sir Denis Hamilton. Denis Hamilton. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1989.

Denis Hamilton trained as a journalist before war broke out in 1939. It was his war service that gave him a lifetime’s experience in six years. Demobbing as a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1946, he had the good fortune to be recruited as a personal assistant to Lord Kemsley, the owner of the largest group of newspapers in the UK at that time, including The Sunday Times. He made himself indispensable, re-vitalising The Sunday Times in the process. He showed formidable courage and negotiating skills when Kemsley sold the newspaper group in 1959 to Roy Thomson, securing contracts for himself and key colleagues. When the sale of The Times and The Sunday Times to Rupert Murdoch was forced by disputes with print unions, Hamilton knew he could not work for Robert Murdoch, and resigned in 1981.

In this memoir, I was struck time and again by Hamilton’s great capacities: for dealing with people successfully, for being able to take criticism, for delegating work and responsibilities, for learning, for sustained hard work, for seizing the moment, for his incorruptibility. Above all, he had the (constantly exercised) ability to reflect on gaps in the newspaper market, to think ahead, to plan a campaign of action for the future. For many years, Fleet Street was a sufficiently large canvas for his abilities to show at their best.


Griffiths200Fleet Street. Five Hundred Years of the Press. Dennis Griffiths. London: British Library, 2006.

Dennis Griffiths was well qualified to undertake this subject, having himself spent a lifetime in printing and newspaper publishing, achieving the status of production director for the Express Newspapers group. We are swept along across the centuries. The profit motive has always been present: without it, newspapers will fail. Publishers/ owners never had time for those who failed to last. So, perhaps inevitably, it is the proprietors/ owners, or publishers, or editors who capture the most attention, for their outstanding qualities were often the difference between success and failure. Thirteen chapters out of the twenty-one in all are devoted to events of the twentieth century. However, the main features of the London newspaper scene were laid out by the 1780s, with London being served by nine daily newspapers, with ten more appearing twice or three times a week, and one evening newspaper being started in 1788 – The Star and Evening Advertiser.

Griffiths enumerates many new titles established, from 1800, onwards, and whilst London titles predominate in the Index, he mentions successful provincial newspapers as well. He charts the move towards greater, more rapid penetration of sales throughout the UK, which gathered pace from the 1890s. Chapter 21, ‘The Electronic Future’, is devoted to new Technology. It offers plenty of examples of change driven by the development of the world wide web. Griffiths believes that the value of quality journalism will remain, but may be diluted by the myriad of outlets that can create news. The internet has much greater potential to enable a small number of businesses to dominate the provision of any information, including ‘the news’. Whatever happens, the phenomenon that was Fleet Street has passed into history.


Cranfield200The Development of the Provincial Newspaper 1700-1760. G.A. Cranfield Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

For anyone interested in eighteenth century studies, this book, published in 1962, remains an absorbing one. The justification for the work was simple: ‘there was no country newspaper in existence in the year 1700; but by the end of 1760, no less than one hundred and thirty different newspapers had been started…’ Cranfield covers the growth, the development of provincial newspapers, together with analysis on their content, the nature of their circulation, and of their distribution. At the end of chapter 8, ‘Circulation’, Cranfield summarises the influence of provincial newspapers: ‘ All too often, it was the only printed matter that was available to its readers, and was something to be read, and re-read, discussed and argued over, passed from hand to hand, and finally carefully preserved and bound into annual volumes. In the process many people who could not afford a paper and who perhaps could not read, would become acquainted with its contents.’ Chapter 10 on Advertisements takes us into the lives of the advertisers: tradesmen, quack doctors, sales by auction, property and many more. Although not much local news was reported in newspapers, the advertisements offer us real insights as to what sellers locally thought buyers wanted, by way of material comforts. Chapter 12 ‘Maturity’ discusses the role of provincial newspapers in forming opinion about national events, bringing as they did information from London on a regular basis, they assisted people to think in a similar way.


Ed King

07 May 2020

Three favourite newspaper books - chosen by Nick Foggo

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 Nick Foggo of the University of Liverpool.

FrostReminiscences of a Country Journalist, Thomas Frost, London: Ward and Downey, 1886

I’ve chosen to begin with what was probably the first book I read about the newspaper world. Serendipitously, it was both informative and, unlike so many Victorian memoirs, a good read. What makes this book (and my other choices) stand out is the humanity of the author, Thomas Frost (1821-1908). Dry and self-aggrandising works by distinguished proprietors and editors abound, but here we have the voice of a middling journalist, who spent =iomost of his working life trying to make ends meet. He achieved little, if anything, of lasting impact in the news business and was never a household name but it would be unfair to characterise him as a hack or penny-a-liner. He occupied the middle ground, populated by large numbers  of fallible journalists, who fed the newspapers with their staple commodity – reports of events and speeches, sometimes  filled out with leaders and commentaries. Frost worked up and down the country as employment opportunities permitted. His unwavering commitment to Chartism will not have helped his prospects for advancement when the press was dominated by Liberal and Conservative proprietors.


SessionHistory of the Session 1852-3, Edward Michael Whitty, London: Chapman, 1854 [Google Books].

The author of this anthology of innovative parliamentary journalism, Edward Whitty (1827-1860),  was an enfant terrible of the mid-19th century, whose fervour and family misfortunes led him to an early, alcohol-fuelled death abroad. His Irish-born father, Michael James Whitty, proprietor of the Liverpool Journal, sent him to London in 1846 to learn parliamentary reporting with The Times and also write for the Journal. The young Whitty was both an Irish nationalist and a follower of his father’s patron, the parliamentary reformer Sir Joshua Walmsley. It was always likely that he would see the Imperial  Parliament through jaundiced eyes but not that he, more than anyone, would transform the traditional weekly summary into a genre of its own, which we recognise today as the parliamentary sketch. In this collection of articles from 1852-3, first published in The Leader and the Journal, Parliament, warts and all, is portrayed in graphic language, well-laced with incisive comments. ‘Nobody supposes, when Mr Disraeli suggests an argument, that he is hinting at his own convictions.’ This work made Whitty’s name and was soon followed by another anthology, The Governing Classes of Great Britain: Political Portraits (1854), which popularised the term ‘Governing Classes’, and a bitter, satirical novel Friends of Bohemia (1857), which laid into London society and his own stamping-ground.    


ClarkeFrom Grub Street to Fleet Street
, Bob Clarke, Brighton: Revel Barker, 2010.

This revised paperback edition is everything public history should be: affordable, knowledgeable, informative, lavishly illustrated and inspirational. The exuberance that you only really get from a lifelong collector like Bob Clarke is readily evident. What makes this broad survey of newspapers over three centuries so appealing is that it does not take the ‘Kings and Queens’ approach to history and major on the achievements of proprietors but instead serves up a wonderful diet of newspaper content. The reader soon gets a good feel for what historic newspapers looked like and what sort of news and journalism might be found in a very broad range of titles. It is gratifying to people such as myself that provincial newspapers get a lengthy chapter of their own. The book is greatly enhanced by over 50 illustrations (most, I suspect from the author’s collection) and countless meaty quotes from papers. The central portion is a particularly enjoyable examination (with appropriate comment) of perhaps the most tasty aspects of a newspaper: the advertisements, crime reporting and wars. It’s a good way to read all about it!    

Dr Nick Foggo, University of Liverpool

06 May 2020

Ten years of Broadcast News

Ten years ago, at 22:00 on 6 May 2010, the polls closed. Five minutes earlier, because that is when the all-night news programmes began, we officially threw open the switches on the British Library’s Broadcast News service. The UK General Election felt like an appropriate start for what was an exciting new venture for the Library. We were going to create an archive of UK television and radio news broadcasts, recorded live.


ITV's election night coverage, 6-7 May 2010

The reasons for setting up Broadcast News (for that was what we ended up calling the service) were two-fold. Firstly, the British Library wanted to establish a distinctive moving image archive that would fill a gap in existing provision for researchers. News was an ideal choice. Although there were television news collections available to academic researchers, they were limited to selected programmes from the main terrestrial channels, and our goal was to preserve and provide access to a far wider range of news broadcasts.

Secondly, the Library needed to respond to a changing news world. Its vast newspaper collection was a bedrock of British research, but in a digital age the form of news was changing. A more inclusive approach was required, once which encompassed print and web, TV and radio.

We started cautiously. On that first day we recorded four programmes: the BBC One and ITV all-night-election broadcasts, Channel 4’s Alternative Election, and BBC Radio 4’s all-night coverage (radio being part of the Broadcast News plans as well). The following day we recorded 15 programmes, widening coverage to include CNN, Al Jazeera English and BBC World Service.


The Green Party's 'boy band' party election broadcast from 2015

Ten years on, and we now record from twenty-two channels, taking in around 30 hours of TV and 50 hours of radio each day. The total collection is just over 160,000 recordings, of which 102,000 are TV. We are recording television on a daily basis from Al Jazeera English, BBC One, BBC Scotland, BBC Two, BBC Four, BBC News, BBC Parliament, Channel 4, Channels 24 (Nigeria), CGTN (China), CNN (USA), Euronews (European Union), France 24, ITV1, NHK World (Japan), RT (Russia), Sky News, and our most recent addition, TRT World (Turkey). We record news programmes, documentaries, party political broadcasts, satirical news programmes, interviews, debates, news specials – anything that reflects the news in its broadest sense.


NHK World coverage of the Japanese tsunami, 11 March 2011

With programmes recorded from channels in America, China, France Japan, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia and Turkey, we have good international coverage, but strictly speaking they are all British news, which is why we record from them. Al-Jazeera English, CGTN, CNN, NHK World and the others each have offices in the UK, and are all licensed with Ofcom. That broader sense of what comprises British news is an important part of the Broadcast News mission.


Donald Trump is elected President of the United States, Sky News, 9 November 2016

Over those ten years we have built up an archive of extraordinary news events. The UK has had four general elections and three referendums (on changing the voting system, Scottish independence and Brexit). We have seen the ‘Arab Spring’, the UK riots of 2011, the Olympic and Paralympic Games of 2012 and 2016, the Japanese tsunami, the death of Nelson Mandela, the Euro crisis, the rise and fall of Isis, the Syrian conflict, the era of Donald Trump, and now the coronavirus pandemic.

The latter story, ongoing of course, has demonstrated how television still governs our world of news. Newspapers (increasingly in digital form) and social media play their part, of course, but in a crisis we turn to television. It speaks to us individually yet seemingly connects us with everyone else. It is both public and private, live and yet composed. The social experience of television news, as well as its content, is why we archive it.


The first daily government update on Coronavirus, BBC One, 16 March 2020

However, these are also remarkable times for radio. Radio, particularly community radio, has come into its own during the coronavirus pandemic, bringing together information, entertainment and a reassuring, local voice. As part of the British Library’s Save our Sounds programme we have established a pilot off-air radio archiving pilot, which greatly extends the number of radio programmes we are able to capture. There will be more news on that particular venture in due course.

Broadcast News is normally available in the British Library’s St Pancras and Boston Spa reading rooms. These are closed for the time being. There is no online access to Broadcast News, for reasons of copyright, but records of the programmes we have recorded up to the middle of 2019 can be found on the Explore catalogue. But the archive continues, hour by hour, day by day, turning live news into permanent record of our extraordinary times.

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.