‘The Only Way is Essex’ – Newspaper Conventions from the Early 18th Century to the Mid-20th Century | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


‘The Only Way is Essex’ – Newspaper Conventions from the Early 18th Century to the Mid-20th Century

The Scanning Team at Colindale often have to conjure up quick and imaginative workarounds when they encounter problems while scanning the papers in the British Library’s Newspaper Collection.

Just recently, they’ve been grappling with the problems caused by the protean design of ‘The Essex Newsman’. It seems that, in 1917, the publishers of the ‘Newsman’ decided to start experimenting with the layout of the paper – a decision that, almost 100 years later, has challenged the collective expertise (and patience!) of the Scanning Team.

Sotirios Alpanis of the Scanning Team has been closely following the changing formats of newspapers that the Team has been working on, and has written a terrific article about the changing layouts of these historical newspapers, and how they finally solved the problem of ‘The Essex Newsman’.

Sotirios takes up the story…


Having scanned historical newspapers from the early 18th century right up to the middle of the 20th, it is interesting to see how quickly basic newspaper conventions were established and how the small changes to the content and layout tell their own historical stories. These conventions are very useful for the organisation of the BNA project because they give the newspaper structure, which can be used to organise the millions of pages involved in the BNA project.

A really useful example is the page numbers; a lot of early newspapers do not include them, but they soon became commonplace. They are used during the quality control phases of the digitisation process because they enable us to check if the pages are in order, whether any have been missed or simply omitted from the newspaper. The page numbers also play a vital part in the final product that you see on the BNA website and allow the final user to search for a specific page.

A brief history of newspaper conventions
The very earliest newspapers were often a bit odd; their layout consisted of few columns, mastheads were pretty basic and pictures were all but unheard of. However, quite quickly, the newspapers settle into a pretty consistent format with pages numbers, proud mastheads proclaiming the newspaper’s title, five to six columns with headlines and subtitles. Pictures, however, remained relatively rare throughout the 19th century.

At the beginning of the 19th century newspapers had a stamp duty on them, ensuring the price remained relatively high and thusly only bought by ‘gentlemen’. This coupled with the high cost of paper and printing meant that the pages were packed with text and the Victorian sensibility that pictures were frivolous and wasteful persisted long after the abolition of stamp duty. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that newspapers started to use cheaper paper, print more pictures and engage in price wars to increase their circulation. The newspaper went from luxury item to disposable mass consumer product in the space of 15 years.

Figure 1: Comparison of Newcastle Courant Mastheads, 1711, 1770 and 1780 (from top down).

After these years of conservative newspaper design, the newspaper conventions became fairly well established and are ones that we still see in today’s editions. It was during this period of change that The Essex Newsman decided to experiment with its own format. After years of newspaper conventions being established the changes to format were quite striking. They have also caused the scanning operation several headaches.

In 1917 the experimentation began with the paper being printed in a much smaller format, probably an economic decision informed by the end of the war. The four page issue was also printed asymmetrically with five columns on the front page and six columns on the back page (see figure 4 below).

The centre pages merged to form one large page, with text running across them; the centre page spread was introduced to Essex. It’s unclear how these were folded and presented when they were sold. This experimentation was fairly short lived in 1918 the asymmetric design was ditched. However, the centre page spread did remain (Figure 2 below shows the front/back page spread, and Figure 3 shows the merged centre pages).

This experimentation is in itself pretty interesting; certainly in modern and historic newspapers we have come to expect each page to be the same size, it makes sense from a manufacturing and formatting point of view, so this deviation really stood out when we scanned it. How to proceed with scanning provided several headaches.

Scanning decision: four pages versus two pages
Two solutions were proposed; scan the issues as either two pages or four. If the issues were scanned as two pages then it would mean that the pages would be scanned out of order, with pages four and one and pages two and three appearing as single pages. This would result in a problem for the team responsible for labelling the page numbers and ultimately for the end user. The other option is to scan it as four separate pages, which would involve scanning the pages out of sequence (which is relatively straightforward) but also deciding upon the correct place to ‘split’ the pages.

Again several solutions sprang to mind; scan the images with absolutely no overlap in order to prevent the same material being scanned twice and displayed to the end user twice, or to include the middle column on both images to try and display how the pieces fit together (a bit like the overlap you get on an AA Road Map. Again it was this second solution that we decided upon, hoping that a bit too much information was better than a bit too little.

Although this episode caused some headaches for the digitisation team, it is these little kinks and idiosyncrasies that make newspapers such interesting and vital historical artefacts. The freedom and desire to experiment with form, coupled with the changing economic climate of a country emerging from the Great War, make the Essex Newsman between 1917 and 1922 wonderful barometers of the social changes that the UK was just beginning to go through.

Written by Sotirios Alpanis of the BNA Scanning Team, Colindale Library.

If you’d like to see the Newspaper Scanning team in action at Colindale, check out the videos on our Youtube page.

Figure 2: The Essex Newsman bound sideways, displaying page 4 and 1 bound next to one another.

Figure 3: Pages 2 and 3 merged into one.

Figure 4: Essex Newsman displaying uneven numbers of columns on each page.


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