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Analysing Newspapers
HE critical reading of
newspapers is by no
means a new or radical
teaching strategy.' Whan
using newspapers as a
source, it is vital for a
media scholar to recognize that the news
must be understood within its context
and for a historian to question the
authority of a particular paper. A critical
analysis of both the context and the
content is necessary to make the most of
the printed news media. Moreover, a
consideration of the technological
limitations that have shaped and contin-
ue to shape how newspapers are
constructed is necessary to make sense
of how 'events' become 'news'.
Many commentators have noted the
seemingly inevitable decline of the
newspaper in the twenty-first century,
arguing that the pressures of radio,
television and the Internet are simply too
great for the 'dinosaurs' of the news
media industry.^ Yet the newspaper
remains a powerful force for the gather-
Ing and consumption of news, political
analysis and public opinion, despite
reduced circulations, increased concen-
trations of ownership, the move online
and decreasing advertising revenue.^
As a source for teaching about the past,
and understanding and interpreting the
present, the newspaper remains invalua-
ble, allowing the history and media
student access to the world of public
opinion in an immediate and explicit
manner. However, like all texts, newspa-
pers require interpretation and critical
examination. By combining the skill set
of both the historian and madia scholar,
we gain a deeper understanding of both
the printed press and the societies in
which it functions. So how then do we
equip our students to besf understand
nawspapars? It seems to me that there is
a series of issues that require examina-
tion and attention when attempting to
use newspapers as a source.
Firstly, we must understand the society
that is producing the newspaper. Most
papers exist within the context of a town
or city, state or province, and the
nation-state. Political questions of local
media and libel laws, censorship and
economic stability, as well as the context
How does the time lag between
the occurrence of events and
the printing of the newspaper
affect reportage? Has the nature
of journalism changed as a
of national and international politics, play
a large role in what, how and when news
is published.
Secondly, we must know about the
newspaper in question:
Who owns it (public trust, an individu-
al 'press baron', a company, family or
political party}?
What format is it in (broadsheet or
tabloid, daily or weekly)?
Where is it based (the capital city,
regional metropolis, town or village)?
Who is its target audience (the
bourgeois elite, women, workers,
business people, the nation, the state,
the city, the town)?
How large is its circulation (both in
hard copy and online)?
Who advertises in it (radical organiza-
tions, multinational corporations,
government agencies)?
What is its political and ideological
bias (right wing, left wing, conserva-
tive, religious, socialist, liberal, radical,
pro status quo, anti status quo or
some combination)?
Then, when examining a particular news
event, we must ask further questions
about the relevant articles:
Who reported it? Look both in terms
of which publications (the national
daily, the political weekly, the religious
monthly) and which journalists (the
wire agencies like Associated Press
and Reuters, the staff journalist or
guest writer - always read the
Where is it reported (front page, inside
news, editorial, sports pages, letters
to the editor, features, foreign news)?
How is it reported (splash headlines,
pictures, commentary, feature,
Finally, questions must be posed about
how the limitations of technology have
influenced reportage. The printing and
delivery of newspapers is a mechanical
process which takes time (even with
improved automated design and produc-
tion tools), unlike the immediacy of digital
eCtitions. So how does the time lag
between the occurrence of events and
the printing of the newspaper affect
reportage? Has the nature of journalism
changed as a consequence? Can the
newspaper still 'break' news?
The political context
National contexts are of obvious impor-
tance in the publication of news in the
printed press. The familiarity of national
politics, particular local concerns and
challenges, shapes how news is present-
ed and what is considered news in the
first place. Both the transmission and
reception of news stories depend, to
some extent, on the environment in
which they are produced.
The landscape of Australian politics
means that certain fissures, concerns
and issues are emphasized while others
are ignored; the tone, emphasis and bias
reflects the national context. The recent
concentration on indigenous affairs is
particular to Australia's colonial past and
comes after a long period of denial,
exclusion and racism. The release of tha
Little Children are Sacred report, which
resulted in the Coalition federal govern-
ment's intervention in the Northern
Territory,^ and the current Labor federal
government's apology to the Stolen
Generation have attracted a great deal of
media attention.
Equally, reactions to the revelation of
Kevin Rudd's 2003 visit to Manhattan
strip club Scores reveal something about
Australlan.society. The vast amount cf
media coverage led to a predictable bout
of confessions from other politicians,^
followed by an increase in Rudd's
popularity^ and then tha naming of the
now Prime Minister as 'Un-Australian of
the Year' 2008 for 'acting as a perfect
gentleman' without staying long enough
to 'get his round [of drinks] in'.' The
denigration of Rudd's 'gentlemanly'
behaviour, even with tongue firmly in
cheek, exposes the 'blokey' aspects of
Australian culture, where Rudd's esca-
pades led to him being seen as more
'human', although not 'btokey' enough
for Zoo Weekly.
Ownership and editorial policy
At this point we should turn to questions
of ownership and editorial policies. Over
the course of the nineteenth and twenti-
eth centuries, historians have traced
broad movements in the perceived
purpose of the press, beginning with tha
radical, educational and liberating
motives of the early popular press, to the
reflective 'voice of the people' mode of
the mid twentieth century," to the advent
of 'new long journalism' in more recent
A number of individuals and companies
seem to command the current media
landscape. Media moguls like Rupert
Murdoch, of News Corporation, have far
greater power than even the 'press
barons' of the early twentieth century.
The control of the proprietor over the
policy cf the newspaper is often less
straightforward than it may seem. There
are a number of factors that shape tha
policy of a newspaper. The bottom line is
often a more pressing concern for
newspaper owners than the ideological
and political line, and these two factors
are, of course, interrelated.
A more popular paper can make greater
claims of "representation", as well as
having a bigger budget, which allows for
a greater number cf staff (for example,
foreign correspondents, rather than
relying on the press agencies for foreign
news) and, arguably, better quality
journalists, editors and printers. Alterna-
tively, a small paper can claim the title of
adversary to the line-toeing editors of the
larger papers, and its staff can be more
committed to the purpose of the paper.
Readers of newspapers often don't
actually 'read' the p a p e r . . . in
a methodical and close manner.
Rather, they scan the page, starting
from the top left-hand corner,
across the page to the bottom right,
with least attention paid to the
bottom left-hand corner.
resulting in national or international
significance which far exceeds the
paper's relative capacity. In the UK,
across much of the twentieth century
the Manchester Guardian operated with
tewer staff and resources than its main
competition, The Times or the Daily
The circulation of a paper can be
ignored if the readers are part of a
particular elite which allows for greater
importance to be placed on the news-
paper's policies than the numbers
would suggest. The Australian, despite
its relatively small circulation numbers,"
has greater prestige in terms of its
editorial policy than a popular paper
like the Herald Sun.'^ Equally, the
demographic on which the particular
newspaper wishes to focus influences
the policies and concerns presented
within the pages of the paper. The
Herald Sun aims at reaching the vast
breadth of the Victorian audience,
rather than the poiiticai or intellectual
elite, with the claim that on 'any given
day, forty-five per cent of the adult
population of Victoria reads the news-
paper and, in the course of a week,
seventy-five per cent of Victorians will
read at least one issue'.'^*
T echnology
Achieving the best understanding of
newspapers requires more than a simple
round-up of the historical, political and
social context of the newspaper, or even
of its individual circulation, readership
and demographic. The tools of visual
communication and journalism studies
are also necessary. The layout and
design of a newspaper reflect not only
the social and political assumptions that
accompany page size, for example, or
the use of splash headlines across the
front page, but also of technological
Readers of newspapers often don't
actually 'read' the paper, at ieast in the
first instance, in a methodical and close
manner. Rather, they scan the page,
starting from the top left-hand corner,
across the page to the bottom right, with
least attention paid to the bottom
left-hand corner.'*' Editors consequently
position material in order that it reflect
the reading habits of their audiences.
Importance is largely measured by word
limit, although headline size, placement
and supplementary materials (images,
infographics. maps, etc.) also play a role
in highlighting the importance of an
Moreover, many broadsheet newspapers
(with the larger page size) also distin-
guish between important political stories
'above the fold line', the section of the
front page that would appear to the
buyer at a news vendor when it is folded
in half, and less important human interest
or other stories positioned below the fold
line. A hierarchy exists within the
newspaper itself as weli. A small piece at
the bottom of the page in the left-hand
corner on page one may be important in
terms of 'spot' news value but matters
less than a detailed analysis of far
greater length on the news pages or the
editorial page.''^ Each page of a newspa-
per has a purpose, with the front page
operating as more of an enticement to
look inside than a significant representa-
tion of the paper itself.
Now that graphic artists v^^ith computers
are used to design and format newspa-
pers, much of the mechanical nature of
production has been sped up and
streamlined. Even with these efficiencies,
other news media have simply moved
faster - the increasing popularity of
online news sites and 24-hour cable
television news channels has meant that
newspapers have lost much of their
ability to 'break' news. Rather, the role of
the newspaper seems to be moving from
the ' scoop' to providing in-depth analysis
and background information.
The layout of many newspapers now
reflects this tendency to provide longer,
in-depth articles rather than acting as the
'paper of record'. The front page of even
the most traditional 'quality' broadsheet,
like The Times in Britain, regularly
features only a single story and a series
of news briefs, designed to be absorbed
in a single glance. The design may have
more in common with the supermarket
tabloids than its own traditions.'^ The
Australian broadsheet press retains a
layout that allows for multiple front page
stories, although the eventual transition
of The Age and The Sydney Morning
Herald from broadsheet to 'narrow
broadsheet' suggests that other trends
seen across Britain and the United States
may well eventually be adopted here."
The aim of this article has been to point
to some of the ways in which the
newspaper as a medium can be critiqued
and analysed. There are, of course, many
other questions that could be asked
about how 'events' become 'news' and
what meaning we take away from the
reading of the printed press. Newspapers
remain an accessible, engaging and
reliable form of news media. Although
the newspaper may no longer be able to
claim the mantle of the 'fourth estate',
teaching our students the critical skills
required to pull apart a newspaper
creates a student body, and hopefully a
society, that is more engaged civically,
politically, socially and culturally in the
world around us.
Dr Marianne Hicks is a lecturer at Monash
University and is currently teaching a
course on the history of twentieth-century
nev/s media.
' A cursory search uncovered an article
by William W. Wattenberg published in
1937. However, a more exhaustive
review of the literature may discover
other earlier proponents for the critical
examination of the printed press.
William W. Wattenberg, 'Getting Truth
from Your Newspaper', The English
Journal 2&. no. 5. 1937. pp.363-368.
^ Neal Boortz, 'Newspaper Circulation in
the Toilet', 3 May 2005, boortz.com,
05032005.html#newspaper>, ac-
cessed 11 February 2008.
" James Curran, 'The Press in the Age of
Globalization' in James Curran and
Jean Seaton (eds), Power Without
Responsibility: The Press, Broadcast-
ing, and New Media in Britain.
Routledge, London, 2003, p.92.
' There was a great deai of debate
conducted in the pages of the Austral-
ian press (and some attention in
overseas publications). Some exam-
ples from the first days of the debate
include 'PM Acts on Abuse Crisis -
Children "Exposed to the Most Terrible
Abuse from the Time of Their Birth'",
The Canben-a Times. 22 June 2007;
'Sex Abuse Report Only the First Step',
The Canberra Times, 20 June 2007;
Malcolm Farr, 'Radical Plan to Protect
Children - Howard's Bid to Halt
Aboriginal Abuse', Daily Telegraph. 22
June 2007, p.2; Malcolm Farr, 'War on
Child Abuse - Howard Intervenes to
End a National Disgrace', Daily
Telegraph. 22 June 2007, p.5; Cath
Hart, 'Doctor Crisis to Hit NT Health
Plan - Tackling Abuse', The Australian.
22 June 2007. p.5; Peter Hartcher, 'The
Guts to Confront a Brutal Truth', The
Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 2007,
p.15; Mark Kenny, 'Save the Children',
The Advertiser. 22 June 2007, p.1;
Gerard McManus & Ben Packham,
'Grog Ban Aboriginal Child Abuse is a
National Emergency, Says PM', Herald
Sun, 22 June 2007, p.1; Clinton
Porteous, 'Abuse Response Reeks of
Polities', The Courier Mail, 22 June
2007, p.5; Nicolas Rothwell, 'Nation's
Child Abuse Shame', Weekend
Australian, 16 June 2007, p.i ; Misha
Schubert, Katharine Murphy, Lindsay
Murdoch, Sarah Smiles & David Rood,
'National Emergency: PM Acts', The
/Age, 22 June 2007, p,1.
'Casting the First (Election) Stone', The
Canberra Times, 21 August 2007;
Larissa Dubecki, Liz Minchin & Barney
Zwartz, 'Dirty Polities', The Age. 21
August 2007, p.11; Michelle Grattan &
Peter Ker, 'Strip Club Visits: Rudd
Regrets, Whitlam Regales', The Age,
21 August 2007, p.1; 'I'm Not Perfect:
Rudd Sorry for Blokey Strip Trip', The
Cairns Post. 21 August 2007, p.2;
Maria Hawthorne, 'MPs Stripped Bare
a Seamy Side to Leaders', The
Courier Mail, 21 August 2007, p.4;
Clinton Porteous & Sam Strutt, 'MPs
Stripped Bare - Downer Quiet on Story
Leak', The Courier Mail. 21 August
2007, p.4; Sue Dunlevy & Alison Rehn,
'MPs Coy When the Question is
Asked', Daily Telegraph. 21 August
2007, p.5; Suzanne Lappeman, Geoff
Chambers & Peter Gleeson, 'Strips:
Some Lapped 'Em Up', The Gold
Coast Bulletin. 21 August 2007, p.9.
Clinton Porteous, 'Poll Blow for
Howard - Unfazed by Strip Club and
Cynical About Budget Surplus', The
Courier Mail, 27 August 2007, p.4: Joe
Hildebrand, 'Rudd Strip Club Visit No
Turn-Qff', Daily Telegraph, 22 August
2007, p,2; Gerard McManus, 'Rudd
Heading for a Landslide'. Herald Sun.
27 August 2007, p.3; Gerard Mc-
Manus, 'Just Bend It Like Kevin',
Herald Sun. 27 August 2007, p.16.
'PM named "Un-Australian of the
Year"', The Age, 21 Januat7 2008.
20080121-1n2r.html>, accessed 11
February 2008; 'PM Rudd Is Un-Aus-
tralian', Townsvilte Bulletin. 21 January
2008, p,3,
Mark Hampton, Visions of the Press In
Britain. 1850-1950, University of Illinois
Press, Urbana & Chicago, 2004,
Kevin G. Barnhurst, Seeing the
Newspaper, St. Martin's Press, New
York, 1994, pp.14-17.
'History of the Guardian', <http://www.
728443,00.html>, accessed 11
February 2008,
Roy Morgan & ABC, 'Demographics:
Newsmedia net', December 2006,
jsp>, accessed 8 February 2008. News
Limited claims that The Australian has
a circulation of 129,000 and a reader-
ship of 437,000.
ibid. The Herald Sun has a circulation of
535,000 on weekdays and 509,000 on
Saturdays and a readership of
1,469,000 on weekdays and 1,396,000
on Saturdays, according to Roy Morgan
and ABC, December 2006. The Herald
Sun has four times the circulation of The
Australian, and yet The Australian is by
far the more important paper in matters
of politics or national significance,
'About Us', Herald Sun, <http;//www.
accessed 11 February 2008,
Eye scanning tests have shown that
readers are often attracted first to a
large photograph on the front page,
rather than the headlines. Given that a
large photo is often not connected to
the major headline, editors make their
own work of creating a cohesive front
page for the reader more difficult. See
Ken Smith, 'Perception and the
Newspaper Page: A Critical Analysis'
in Ken Smith, Sandra Moriarty,
Gretchen Barbatsis & Keith Kenney
(eds). Handbook of Visual Communica-
tion: Theory. Methods, and Media,
Lawrence Eribaum Associates,
Mahwah, 2005,
'Spot' news is that which is significant
in the moment, but of less importance
over a longer period. A fire or robbery
is good spot news, but unless a royal
commission into building standards or
into organized crime is undertaken, the
event is only significant in the short
British newspapers in particular have
adopted the tabloid-style front page,
where a single story dominates the
front page. See, for example. The
Times. The Independent and to a
lesser extent. The Guardian, 29
January 2008.
Jesse Hogan, 'Narrow Broadsheet Size
on Hold for Fairfax Papers', The Age,
21 September 2007, p.3.