Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Titanic and the birth of modern newspapers



I must admit I didn't read much more than a few words about about the SS Titanic commemoration until last week when the Daily Mirror cleverly reprinted a facsimile of their brilliant edition of April 16th 1912.

For anyone with an incidental interest in the disaster, or anyone mildly interested in the nature of news reporting, the rush of wire copy in  the century old paper captures the immensity of the story and the journalistic adrenalin of covering a mid-Atlantic catastrophe.

The clipped writing style, the sub-deck headlines, the fierce editorial attacking the Board of Trade - it all does what newspapers ought to do - place their readers in the story. (The West Highland Free Press is the only place you find that kind of haughty, old-fashioned righteousness in leader columns these days.)

Despite what the modern eye would see as as acres of close typeprint it all makes for absorbing reading. But The Mirror also had part of the story wrong. The paper reported the "suicide" of Captain Smith, who history later recorded as a calm hero of the Atlantic who went down with the ship.

Some aspects of the coverage are remarkably modern -  the picture spread particularly. There are photos of the Street of Widows in Southampton, with the names of the bereaved marked against a panorama of the houses - high impact without being intrusive. There are photos from New York of posted lists of survivors, amended to take in the latest information, very reminiscent of the "lost" posts that appeared around Manhattan after 9/11.

All the news was relayed by Twitter of course, or the groundbreaking early 20th century version of it, the wireless telegraph. It cost something like £6 to send ten words across the wire, so you understand where the 140 character limit of our modern telegram system  gets its provenance.

Also, a bit like Microsoft operating system, you couldn't send any telegram without sending it through a Marconi set. There were two Marconi wireless operators, and their equipment, aboard the Titanic and all other ships. The two operators on The Carpathia, which picked up survivors, were exhausted by days of continuously wiring details from ship to shore.

As the story developed the world was following. Having done the personal survivor stories, and the arrivals in New York, the Mirror faced the challenge of how to keep refreshing their coverage of the event with a picture splash as the days wore on.

Their edition from the Saturday after the disaster is a piece of newspaper design genius. Everyone knew by then that the band in the First Class saloon had reassembled on the deck and played  "Nearer My God To Thee" as the ship slipped below the waves. The survivors' accounts told of hearing the music drifting across the calm, ice cold ocean.

But no pictures, of the band, the ship, or the damned iceberg. So what did The Mirror do to evoke the image of the musicians playing on the doomed ship? It simply printed the sheet music for the hymn, words, scales and all, across its front page on its Saturday 20th April edition.

The Daily Mail famously got the story wrong in - crowbarring a reference into its Monday edition : "Titanic in collision with iceberg - no loss of life." To be fair that was true for the first few hours after the collison.

The Belfast  Evening Telegraph reported the news the same way on Monday and has been making up for the error with Titanic stories ever since.

The Press and Journal did not report the disaster as "Aberdeen man lost at sea" - that is a myth. The paper gave the disaster extensive coverage over several days but a random newsbill outside a shop declaring "Titanic latest: NE man dead" may have been the source of one the oldest newspaper jokes in the world.  There endeth the Titanic commemorations - not another word for 100 years please.

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