When I was a child growing up during the 1950s and 60s, a stamp, a phone call, and a newspaper all cost about the same. A local letter was four pence for so many years that the stamp is very common, and despised by collectors accordingly.
A local newspaper was about 6d, and a phone call much the same – though long distance calls cost much more. Then, during the inflation of the 1970s, these prices started to diverge. Phone calls got cheaper, thanks to new technology which cut out the cost of labour, while postage kept pace with inflation, thanks to innovations like post codes that made postal workers more efficient.
But the price of newspapers went through the roof. Newspapers depend on labour at every stage of production, and the arrival of a new, quality newspaper, The Australian, [ha!] in 1964, raised the bar for good, and therefore well-paid, journalists. Besides, newspapers rely on a non-renewable resource – wood pulp – which until appallingly recently was sourced from old growth forests.
Since then, of course, the internet has come along to change our ways of communicating, but the relative prices of phone calls, postage and newspapers were already diverging long before. I first used email in 1988, and surfed my first web in 1993 – but only because I had access to these systems through the university. It took another decade before these activities were commonplace in the wider community.
A hundred years of habit meant that most middle class suburban households still had a paper delivered until relatively recently, but not now, and people seem to have stopped writing letters altogether. Meanwhile the mobile phone is ubiquitous – and cheaper still, there’s Skype. What will we historians be doing in a hundred years?
Letters and newspapers were never cheap. We rarely think about the cost or means of distribution of private letters, concentrating on their content instead, but of course posting a letter always involved a cost, both in time and money. Jane Austen’s heroines are always absenting themselves from the action because they ‘have some letters to write’, and the physical effort of writing long, newsy letters must have consumed a good deal of time. Writing paper was expensive, quill pens needed constant mending, and then there was the cost of postage. Before the penny post (1840) postage was calculated on distance, so Emma Woodhouse’s letters from Highbury to London cost much less than my Walter Davidson’s letters from London to his brother-in-law William Leslie outside Aberdeen. That, in turn, was a trivial cost compared with the letters his nephew Patrick Leslie sent them from New South Wales.
Newspapers were expensive too. The first Australian newspaper, the Sydney Gazette, began in 1803 on a hand press brought out from England. It came out once a week, occasionally vanishing for months at a time when the supply of newsprint ran out. When the editor, ex-convict George Howe, was supplied with poor quality paper, the ink ran, and for weeks or months the print would be blurred.
By the 1830s, newspapers were proliferating. They seem to have reached a peak about 1843, around the time of the first election for the Legislative Council, when I once counted about a dozen papers in Sydney. Each of these papers had private backers and a political agenda – narrowcasting is not new – and most were ephemeral.
It’s often hard to work out how much these newspapers cost, because they were sold on subscription, usually 3 months ahead, rather than over the counter. It’s hard to know how widely they were read, because then as now, newspapers had a vested interest in exaggerating their circulation figures so they could charge more for advertising. On the other hand, many readers often seized a chance to read them for free in pubs and clubs, just as today we check out the papers at a coffee shop. They weren’t cheap, and only rarely made a profit. Shadowy proprietors lurked in the background, propping them up for political purposes, while the editor made his money from advertising and other printing jobs.
As a historian, the public newspaper and the private letter are my bread and butter. Which brings me to Trove Newspapers, the jewel in the crown – jam in the sandwich? – for all Australian researchers.
Trove runs out of the National Library of Australia. For years now, it has been digitizing Australian newspapers and making them freely available in searchable form online. Many countries are similarly digitizing newspapers, but not many are free. Trove has also introduced a unique feature that makes researching with Trove a cooperative effort. Anyone can register with Trove, and once registered we can contribute by correcting text, and leaving searchable hashtags – for personal use, or for others who come along later. It is a system based on trust and cooperation, and the sense of shared community, and it has worked very well. (For those who haven’t tried it, correcting text is also a strangely soothing addiction.)
Newspapers today may be entering a death spiral of rising prices and falling circulation, but we rely on newspapers from the past all the time. Now Trove is under threat, because the Federal Government has cut the National Library’s funding. In response a Twitter campaign began last week, under the hashtag #fundTrove, and directed at the Minister responsible, Senator Mitch Fifield. In 140 words or less, people told their stories about the ways in which they use Trove, and the stories they have found. The campaign has flushed out so many researchers, from family historians to PhD students to best selling writers. Some of my favourite stories come from people who are using Trove in innovative ways, such as Jodi Frawley’s investigation of Aboriginal fish traps, and the former range of endangered animals like the Murray perch.
Then there is the story of how a boy in South Africa received a 3D-printed prosthetic hand based on a design mentioned in an Adelaide newspaper in 1844. My own example was a tiny advertisement I found in the pages of the Sydney Gazette from 1808, from the important early colonial artist John Lewin, seeking carmine paint.
Digital projects are taking place all over the world, transforming the way we do history – but only a few of them are free. Trove and New Zealand’s Papers Past are amongst those that are – for now. Yes, there is a cost in making this material available, but the benefits are huge, not just for Australians, but for our place in the world. Whatever happened to soft diplomacy?
Update: In the comments, someone asked the following:
‘In the novels I read rich men are always offering to ‘frank’ the letters of their impoverished wards. Do you think the frank-er was running an account with the mail service, or he’d prepaid?’
There may be examples of pre-paid postage (there are a couple of philatelists who follow this blog who will know much more than I do), but before the penny post, it was one of the perks of being in Parliament. Members of both House of Lords and House of Commons had the privilege of free postage – and it had become a convention that they would also frank the letters of their friends and relatives (as well as impoverished wards).
It seems to have been an absolute rort. WSD used to get his cousin, an MP, to frank blank sheets of paper to lay in a supply of free letters for future use, and MPs made useful company directors because they cut down the cost of postage.