Hay: A brief history of newspapers

Here’s to the next 100 years of the Advocate

As they say, change is inevitable. Except from a vending machine. But one thing is definitely for sure, the only thing that changes is change. I’m referring, of course, to that which you now hold in your hands, unless you are peering over somebody’s shoulder or have your newspaper propped up on the table, leaning against your Better Half’s coffee cup.

Big changes far and wide and right here at home. Back before the invention of the printing press, when local archivist and former Citizen of the Year Michael Dawe was just a pup, word of mouth was the primary source of news. If you’ve ever played that campfire game where you whisper a message to the person next to you and it goes around the circle until the last person says out loud something completely different than what you started with, you can imagine how reliable the news was up to the 1500s. No wonder people were drawn and quartered on a regular basis.

So when the printing press was invented by Steve Jobs by the year 1700 or so, people were able to get their beloved papers of news out of those little metal boxes on street corners. But early newspapers were pricey. A paper in those days cost either one chicken, or a bushel of potatoes, and it was nearly impossible to jam either of those into that small slot on the newspaper box. So the paperboy profession began shortly after.

About the same time, the “broadsheet” evolved. Thusly named on account of the broadsheets were all typed up by “broads” in a large room. This was also known as the “industrial revolution.” Long before it was politically incorrect to call women “broads.”

The broadsheet was popular for many years because people like to fold them in very specific ways when they read them. I can see my Dad right now in my mind’s eye, his Advocate spread out in front of him, folding the sports section backwards this way, and then in half length-wise. He used to read the paper sitting on the stairs by the front door entrance, the pages fanned just so all around him on the carpet.

“I don’t know when it started,” he said to me once. “But now I always turn to the obituaries first.” Like some wag once said, “Every day I check out the obits in the paper. If I’m not there, I have a good day.”

And now we have a tab. Not “Tab” the diet soft drink, tab as in “tabloid.” A different size and shape for our newspaper, after all these years. True, the tabloid style of paper used to be dominated by front page news of Elvis sightings, alien abductions and rumors of Brad and Angelina breaking up, giving rise to the term: “tabloid journalism” or, if you prefer: “unmitigated bulltweet.”

But not anymore. Tabloids are popular now because they are easy to hold and read, and you don’t have to have a degree in mechanical engineering to figure out how to fold a broadsheet for readability. (My Dad was one of the many untrained expert newspaper folders.) And most of the Pulitzer Prize winning newspapers are now tabloids. (Except in England.)

So welcome, Tab Advocate. It’s nice to nestle here in your smaller pages. Change always takes a bit of getting used to, but I figured out just this morning, you can still prop up the Advocate Tab onto your Better Half’s coffee cup. So we should be good for the next 100 years or so.

Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.

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