BBC TwoNewsnight
Page last updated at 17:29 GMT, Monday, 8 May 2006 18:29 UK

Front page evolution

British Library gates
The British Library is staging a show celebrating British newspapers
"HOLD THE FRONT PAGE!" It's a tired old cliché, perhaps, but the phrase still has the power to stir a journalist's blood.

In the hundred or so years since the birth of the modern newspaper, front pages have made for some iconic snap-shots of a century.

That made the task of drawing up a short list of front pages for Newsnight's Big Read-All-About-It a daunting one. With hundreds if not thousands to choose from, what to leave out?

Newsnight viewers are bound to have their own view, just as they vote on the most memorable, as argued for by our panel of expert advocates.


This month, a major exhibition opens at the British Library in London. Front Page: Celebrating 100 Years of the British Newspaper, marks the centenary of the Newspaper Publishers Association. But as the subtitle suggests, it also traces the evolution of the modern newspaper.

Historians argue - naturally enough - about it, but you can certainly trace newspapers in Britain back to the mid-17th century, and the various propaganda tracts of the Civil War.

Newspapers developed slowly, with small circulations and relatively high cover prices
By the early 18th century, new commercial prosperity saw the emergence of more familiar news sheets, published both in London and other towns and cities.

The Norwich Post of 1701, the Daily Courant of 1702 and the Bristol Post-Boy of 1704, were among the early examples. More familiar perhaps was the Daily Universal Register, founded in 1783 - well, familiar to us by the name it adopted just two years later: The Times.


Newspapers developed slowly, with small circulations and relatively high cover prices - though in the 1830s, a campaign by radical publishers against the Stamp Acts (a tax on newspapers they opposed as "taxes on knowledge"), effectively led to the creation of many of our modern papers - The Daily Telegraph was founded in 1855.

Meanwhile, the growth of new technology - the steam-driven press - and the development of a rail network that could take papers overnight around the country, led to the development of Fleet Street as the centre of publication.

Newspaper montage
Some of the front pages that made the Newsnight short list
Even so, most such newspapers would be unrecognisable today, given that their front pages were mostly given over to classified advertising. And there were no large headlines to attract the casual browser, nor - till late in the 19th century - regular use of photography.

The modern newspaper in that sense was the Daily Mail, founded by Alfred Harmsworth in 1896, designed to attract a newly prosperous lower middle-class and "respectable" working-class reader. It was soon followed by the Daily Express in 1900 and the Daily Mirror in 1903.

Newspapers were becoming big business, with commercial proprietors replacing local political worthies. The Newspaper Publishers Association was founded in 1906, and the National Union of Journalists the next year.


Between the First and Second World Wars, newspapers such as the Mail, Express, Daily Herald and the Daily Mirror engaged in energetic circulation wars, with the front page becoming an important selling point for editors. That competition increased after the Second World War. By now, newspapers were facing new competition: BBC radio and television news (with, from the mid-1950s, Independent Television News joining the fray).

Front pages no longer merely reflected the news - they also sought to advertise the paper's other wares: features, star writers, competitions. And with the revitalisation under Rupert Murdoch of The Sun in the early 1970s, and the launch of other new titles, such as the Daily Star, the Independent and Today, that competition intensified.

Printing press
Technology revolutionised Newspaper production
Even the sober broadsheets were obliged to make their front pages livelier - The Times finally succumbed and put news on the front page in the mid 1960s.

Today, front pages reflect the amalgam of various skills - designers, photographers, sub-editors as well as the reporters. And the struggle to attract the reader is even more intense, now that news can be had online, or via a mobile phone.

But over the last 100 years, some memorable stories - from the early days of powered flight, via the horrors of two world wars and the Cold War - to such achievements as Man on the Moon or the terror attacks of 9/11 - have made for some memorable front pages.

Other stories have proved equally significant - social trends that changed Britain, such as the struggle for women's rights, or the impact of modern immigration. And then there are the inspired tabloid confections that serve equally to entertain and engage.

How do you chose a shortlist of a hundred - let alone a shortlist of ten (or, as it became, 11) for Newsnight's Big Read-All-About-It?

Long list

Drawing up an initial long list, we looked at such episodes as the First and Second World Wars, together with the other major conflicts of the century.

Domestic political developments included the campaign for votes for women; the rise of the Labour Party and the decline of the Liberals. Abroad, the Russian Revolution of 1917 would reshape the history of Europe, just as the collapse of Eastern-Bloc communism in 1989 signalled the end of that era.

The first four-minute mile, or England's 1966 World Cup triumph made for memorable front pages
The British Empire came to an end; the Cold War came and went. Social changes included post-war immigration; the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s, and an end to deference.

Scientific and economic developments reshaped the world - from the early days of powered flight to Man on the Moon, from the introduction of radio, television and the internet to new discoveries in genetics and medicine.

Social change

Newspaper montage
More of the front pages that made the Newsnight short list
Sport and crime have long been a staple of newspapers - the first four-minute mile, or England's 1966 World Cup triumph made for memorable front pages.

And of course, there have been the shocking, sudden events that remain in the memory - the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, air disasters from the Hindenburg to Concorde, or the natural disasters that have claimed so many other lives. We also noted how newspapers changed in the face of new technology and competition from other media.

It was a fascinating process, and one that we hope will stimulate discussion - after all, how do you compare the relative significance of social change with scientific discovery, international conflict with domestic politics?

Our advocates will now try to make their case - and we will then await our viewers' decision.

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