Ninety done...

Papers Past is not just a large, searchable collection of research catnip. It also has some large numbers associated with it. How do those numbers stack up alongside all of the newspapers that haven’t yet made it on to Papers Past? The breakdown of the Papers Past dataset in relation to the bigger pool of New Zealand newspapers is a revealing look into historic trends. This comparison also highlights some of the factors that have influenced newspaper digitisation.

The following analysis is a guest piece written by NLNZ alumni Gordon Paynter, who’s quietly keeping his eye in on newspapers despite having moved on from his work as Developer and Digitisation Manager at the National Library.

What are we even counting?

New Zealand has been described as a "rag planter’s paradise" because, historically, it boasts a very large number newspapers for a small and sparsely-populated country. Hundreds of papers of every stripe have been published in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and even a ghost-town like Lyell, which doesn’t exist any more, once boasted two competing titles. But how many newspapers were there?

The short answer is about 1,500. You can find a list of them on the Newspapers in New Zealand website, sorted by title, date, or place. The website is based on data from Publications NZ (New Zealand’s national bibliography) and though it has been updated many times it’s still a work in progress.

The long answer is that it depends what you mean by a newspaper. The more you think about this question, the harder it is to answer, but as a working definition you might say that a publication is a newspaper if it’s

  • published at least fortnightly
  • on newsprint
  • with typeset text arranged in columns and a masthead on the front page,
  • and if it focuses on reporting current events of general interest to a community of readers.

There are some newspapers in the list of 1,500 that don’t meet all these definitions (for example, monthly newspapers) but it is a good start.

What’s even online?

So how many newspapers are being published at any given time? The graph below shows that the number of newspapers increased steadily from about 1850 onwards, but plateaued in the early 20th century, and dipped sharply in World War 2.

After the war the number of titles increased again, though data about the most recent papers (from the 1980s on) is often less consistent and reliable than for earlier times.

Newspapers published in New Zealand by year, rising from around 10,000 in 1850 to 250,000 today, with a dip during World War Two.Newspapers published (thousands) in New Zealand by year. Orange means the publication start and end dates are known, green means at least one of these dates is unknown and estimated.

The graph below looks at the data another way: where were all these newspapers published? As you’d expect, the main centres have the largest shares. Some regions, particularly Southland, Otago and the West Coast, support fewer newspapers now than they did 100 years ago.

Newspapers published (thousands) in New Zealand by year and region, showing growth in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch papers, and drops in West Coast, Otago, and Southland papers.Newspapers published in New Zealand by year and region.

Papers Past currently houses more than 3 million pages of digitised newspapers. While that’s a substantial resource, it’s hard to know if the digitised material in Papers Past (and other collections) represents a substantial portion of the nation’s papers, or only a tiny fraction.

The graph below attempts to shed some light on the subject by combining our newspaper data with the list of newspaper issues in Papers Past.

Newspapers published in New Zealand by year showing what appears to be a relatively small chunk that have been digitised, with a massive drop in the 1920s, and a total drop in the 1940s.Newspapers published (thousands) in New Zealand by year. Orange shows newspapers that are digitised, and blue those that are not digitised.

At first glance, this is not a pretty picture, as the digitised portion is quite small. Digitised coverage drops off sharply at 1920 because of copyright considerations: issues published earlier are very likely to be free of copyright material, but issues published later may contain articles that are still in copyright.

Recently, the Library has added a lot of material from the First World War, which is almost certain to be out of copyright (though this is a strangely complex and imprecise assessment). The later Papers Past content, originally published between 1920 and 1945, has mostly been digitised with the blessing of the main copyright holder (the present-day newspaper publishers). Newspapers published after 1945 haven’t been digitised yet because their copyright situations can be even more complex.

While the overall proportion of digitised titles is modest, the Library has tried to include the most substantial newspapers from each region in Papers Past. In many cases, the substantial papers are published daily in the larger towns and cities, and we can see this effect in the graph below, which shows digitised titles based on (modified) frequency data from Publications NZ.

A series of charts showing digitisation by publication frequency. Daily papers have a high digitisation rate, and less frequent papers are less likely to be digitised.Newspapers published (thousands) in New Zealand before 1950 by year and publication frequency. Orange shows newspapers that are digitised, and blue those that are not digitised.

This view tells a happier story. For the period up to about 1920, Papers Past has solid coverage of the daily papers (those published five or more days per week). This makes sense, as high-frequency titles bring good coverage of news events to their circulation areas, and provide obvious go-to choices in populating Papers Past with content.

And what do we do next?

What does this tell us overall? It’s probably suggestive of the value that daily papers have always provided. They have been popular and well-used by readers and researchers worldwide ever since the daily format became feasible, and their digitised versions in New Zealand have inherited a degree of that visibility.

It also tells us that a greater relative portion of the remaining work will be improving coverage of less-frequent titles, which were often more community-specific, and hence can tell a different tale to researchers interested in those communities.

Ninety down, roughly fourteen hundred to go.

Gordon is not an employee of the National Library, and as such his ideas and opinions are his own.

By Gordon Paynter

Gordon likes libraries.

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