Sources: Understanding the Victorian Newspaper Landscape

Written by Kaspar BeelenOctober 14, 2019Comments: 0

Newspapers play a central role in Living with Machines. As periodicals, they register the big and small. They allow us to peek into the mundane routines that govern daily life, as well as understand the impact of more turbulent events.

The Sources ‘Minimum Research Outcome’ (see this post for more information on the ‘MRO’ acronym) examines how the British newspaper ‘landscape’ has evolved in the 19th century, analysing the various geographical, political and economic transformations that marked the evolution of the Victorian press.

We are particularly interested in understanding how the digital sample–those newspapers available in the electronic format on the British Newspaper Archive–relates to the newspaper ‘population’ (i.e. all newspapers published). Assuming that newspapers articulate distinct perspectives on society, we can then investigate whose voice is amplified – and who is silenced.

To interrogate potential biases in the digital archive, we set out to digitise the Newspaper Press Directories, a collection that provides extensive information on newspaper circulation in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland from 1847 onwards. The Newspaper Press Directories predominantly functioned as an instrument for advertisers to target audiences for their products and services.

The Newspaper Press Directories catalogue the price of each newspaper (who was able to afford it?), the region (or city) in which it circulated, and the frequency of publication (daily, bi-weekly, weekly or monthly). Even more intriguingly, the Newspaper Press Directories frequently provide elaborate descriptions of the readership’s ideological and social composition. Taken together, these indicators allow us to draw a nuanced picture of the production (and presumed consumption) of the Victorian press.

Screenshot of press directory entries
Image from The Newspaper press directory and advertisers’ guide, 1846, via the Internet Archive

In our ‘Minimal Research Outcome’, we digitise the directories in a meaningful way. We aim to richly encode the automatically transcribed texts, computationally extracting relevant information on price, circulation and the political leaning for all publications between 1846 and 1919. This will result in a unique, macroscopic perspective on the evolution of the British press as a whole.

Furthermore, digitisation allows us to compare what we have to what we currently lack. This crucial information will inform the future digitisation strategy of Living with Machines, ensuring that the corpus we eventually use for our historic analyses will be diverse and polyphonic.

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