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Text by Eloise Hawser

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I had been collecting newspapers and newspaper printing plates for several years before I began to look into the physical places where newspapers were produced, distributed and disposed of: printing works, libraries, and recycling depots. These sites describe arcs of relation between the ways by which news is created, circulated and consumed – and can themselves be caches of physical media that operate as landmarks in the ever-evolving history of print media.

One of the project’s first discoveries was a growing mountain of discarded lithographic plates at a metal recycling plant in Brentford. These thin aluminium plates are used in the first news print run; each plate carries one shade of the four-colour page process and is marked with a timecode. They show you simultaneously the end of the news cycle and its beginning.

This research and collecting work expanded into a project that attempts to activate the past reality of printing in the present day, through events such as walks guided by a former newspaper distributor. Newsprint (as distinct from digital news) is a physical membrane, formed of tangible materials and localised relationships, and the project traces these physical relationships as they have changed through the years. Through collecting both finished papers and printing waste, I came to understand that there are multiple other ways in which the physical world, and its many relationships, are reflected in – or “interrupt” – the printed news page.

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Underlying my research is an understanding of the diminishing power of the newspaper and its ever-contested front page, which has long acted as a declaration, or protest, within strict typographic and temporal boundaries. My collection includes a number of contemporary and historic front pages (as well as entire editions) that capture major social and political, but also material, shifts. For example, my 2020 collection of front pages shows how the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic played out in the papers, revealing a narrative shaped along very different temporal lines from the digital news. Yet despite the dramatic headlines, 2020 was a bad time for newsprint, with papers going un-bought and unread due to the various lockdowns, and sales suffering from the relative slowness of print, which proved unable to keep up with an intensified 24/7 hunger for news.

Looking further back, I have also assembled a collection of newspaper pages from the 1980s, before the changes in printing processes that led to the mass sacking of 6,000 workers by Rupert Murdoch’s News International. These papers tell the story of the transforming conditions of their own production, through the fraught years of 1986 and 1987 when the industry moved from Fleet Street to Wapping. The papers are here writing a story about themselves and the demise of the “old ways”. In one edition of the Sunday Times – owned by Murdoch – from January 1986, a 10-page special feature lauds the move to Wapping and the promise of the new printing technologies.

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At that time, the news page was not only self-referential but frequently a contested space. Embattled printers and print unions leveraged their highly specialist skills to intervene in the content of the pages they were responsible for setting out. In several acts defying the customary division between print and editorial work, unionised printers in the National Graphical Association (NGA) insisted on inserting a “right to reply” inside papers: a small text plate printed under an article or feature that was undermining or attacking their fight for labour rights. The union supported the miners during their strike, but the Sun regularly produced anti-miner articles, which the printers were required to set. Under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie, the tabloid issued the ballot “Miners: tell us what you really think”. Although the printers were not allowed to alter the copy, the NGA ordered that the “right to reply” plate be added under this ballot to showcase their disapproval. The pages “interfered with” by the printers refer self-reflexively to the conflict concerning their own production. The newspaper is thereby not the sealed space that it purports to be: it can write about itself, and be disrupted and shaped at the point of its own physical creation. 

My studio, close to the historic epicentre of newspapers on Fleet Street, is an ideal location for a project concerned with the status of print news. Recently, I organised an event, Information Is Close at Hand, held at Shoe Lane Library behind Fleet Street, that explored the area’s relatively recently lost industrial histories, which remain now only as vestiges. At the half-day event, newspaper distributors who used to work on the lane recalled when it was the busy base for allied trades involved in printing and distribution. Modern office workers offered a different image of a quiet area now given over to financial services.

Newspaper conflicts from the 1980s still resonate. A 1986 Times article described the “computer revolution” accelerating the news and forecasting today’s “fully electronic newspapers”, many of which, in 2023, are folding. My Fleet Street project is an archive capturing a medium in decline, which also explores the physicality of printed stories. It shows how the newspaper (both contemporary and historical) is not only a vehicle for conveying daily information, but a series of interconnected processes, which, in multiple senses, make the news. That traces of this past still exist in both physical media and local memory reminds us how the material processes and objects involved in printed newspaper production are not a secondary concern, but of defining importance in our understanding of what news is. ◉