Will we lose the first rough draft of history if newspapers die?

Most of the undergraduate journalism students I taught earlier this year were baffled by my references to recent history, such as events in the 1960s and 70s.

It’s also fair to say that most of them were amused, and possibly irritated, by the fact that I spent so much time talking about printed newspapers.

They were far too polite to call me a dinosaur, at least to my face, but I recognised the distance between us.

I do not blame them for failing to share my enthusiasm for newsprint. Of the 69 students in that cohort not one had bought a newspaper that day and it is fair to say they were totally unembarrassed by it.

Why should they be? As digital natives, they get the news they want through social media. That is their reality. For them, newspapers are so 20th century.

Nor should I have been unduly surprised that they had little, if any, knowledge about the politics and culture of the era that I have lived through. Who the hell was Profumo and why was his affair so important? What was the white heat of Britain’s technological revolution all about?

How bad was the weather during the Winter of Discontent? The IRA? Michael Foot? Neil Kinnock? Edward Heath? And please, please don’t go on and on about the Beatles.

I was reminded of this absence of a shared awareness between the generations when watching a television vox pop after the general election. A trio of students were being interviewed in Canterbury, the “true blue” city that elected a Labour candidate for the first time in its history.

One of them explained her support for Jeremy Corbyn by saying, in effect, that what he did in the 1970s – such as supporting anti-establishment causes – was irrelevant. It was history. And, by implication, what happened before she and her peers came to maturity was of no consequence to them, living in the present.

As worrying as I find this, I am aware that people tend to show a greater interest in history as they grow older. And, as of now, they will be able to inform themselves about subjects they currently regard as irrelevant.

Through books, TV and radio documentaries and old newspapers, they will one day be able to grasp the significance of Jack Profumo’s love life, Harold Wilson’s “white heat” speech and the industrial power once exercised by trades unions.

Note my reference to old newspapers. Since their first appearance in Britain in the early 17th century they have been an invaluable source for historians. We know so much about our past because of what was published in those papers.

Journalists do not generally write with posterity in mind. They report and commentate on contemporaneous events that amount to being – in the phrase made famous by the Washington Post’s late publisher and co-owner, Phil Graham – the first rough draft of history.

What concerns me, should newspapers go to the wall (as digital missionaries believe likely), is that the rough draft will also disappear.

Yes, a vast digital archive is in the process of being created in place of newsprint. This is, after all, supposed to be the information age.

But, as anyone searching for articles online quickly discovers, lots of material simply isn’t there any longer. I have saved hyperlinks only to discover that they have gone dead. The story I wanted to re-read has been deleted. It has vanished into cyberspace.

Information can die because digital storage is far from perfect. In addition, when publishers close down, their online output is not magically saved for all time. Preservation on storage sites costs money. Anyway, without active curation, matter soon becomes unobtainable.

Although people worry about the potential retrieval of so much personal material, too few show concern about the effects of lost data. They do not realise the cost to future generations.

By its nature, the digital era fetishizes the instantaneous. The news is here in a minute. Thoughts are tweeted in a second. Our Facebook friends know what we do almost as soon as we’ve done it.

Material on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp is hardly recoverable within a week (and not at all in WhatsApp’s case) let alone a year or a decade later.

With the exception of Twitter, these are largely private platforms. But they document the kind of social history that was once only available in newspapers and magazines, which are now spurned by the younger generation.

As they surf the waves of the digital revolution my students may not, as yet, see a virtue in saving newspapers from extinction. There is little they can do to prevent them dying except, of course, by ensuring their survival by reading them and subscribing to them.

Meanwhile, all of us who understand the value of newspaper content should begin thinking about how to preserve it for all time in its non-inky form. History, I am sure, will thank us.

 *The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*