Links in the chain

Pathé’s Animated Gazette main title design from 1912

I have a third past paper that I am publishing on this site.

Back in 2011 I was invited to speak at the 8th Seminar on the origins and history of cinema, a series hosted by the Museu del Cinema in Girona, Spain. The title of the seminar (a conference really) was ‘The Construction of News in Early Cinema’. My paper was entitled ‘Links in the Chain: Early Newsreel and Newspapers’. It was based on an essay I had written two year before, ‘Newsreels: Form and Function’, published in Richard Howells and Robert W. Matson (eds.), Using Visual Evidence (Maidenhead/New York: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press, 2009), but I developed it quite a bit to incorporate newspapers.

The paper sought to identify the roots of news as we now have it, though the emergence of different but interrelated news forms at the end of the nineteenth century, as film, then radio, then television and the web broke up the news monopoly previously enjoyed by newspapers. Multiple news formats also changed the understanding of news, because, logically speaking, when you have multiple forms relaying the news to us, that puts the burden of selection and comprehension upon the audience. The modern news world has turned us into editors of a kind, and this started when newsreels appeared alongside newspapers, around 1910.

It was also a plea for newsreels, a specialist topic of mine, not to be excluded from studies of the news media – which all too frequently has been the case – because they are/were an inseparable part of it. As the essay concludes:

The newsreels inform our picture of the past so effectively because they were central to the creation of that visibility in the first place. They reflected the news, but equally they made it, and they cannot be ignored nor can they were viewed in isolation. They were an integral part of the bigger picture – indeed, it could not be otherwise, since the news must always be greater than those individual media that play their part in carrying it. For this reason, and because of the millions who watched them from their earliest years and whose understanding of their world was enlarged and enriched by them, the newsreels are important. The experience of viewing newsreels should be used to gauge other news media, not just looking at the content but at the mode of delivery and the complexity of its meanings. The newsreels are an indivisible part of the visualisation and comprehension of the news agenda of the twentieth-century.

The essay was published the following year in Angel Quintana and Jordi Pons (eds.), La construcció de l’actualitat en el cinema des orígens / The construction of news in early cinema (Girona: Museu del Cinema/Ajuntament de Girona, 2012). It’s not too easy to find the book, though if you go to the Museu del Cinema site you can find it listed, at the bargain price of six euros. It’s a bi-lingual publication, and among the essays in English are notable pieces from Stephen Bottomore (‘Filming and “Faking” a News Event – The Coronation of Edward VII (1902)’), Charles Musser (‘Cinema, Newspapers and the US Presidential Election of 1896’) and the late Paul Spehr (‘The Public Wanted News: Programming the Biograph, 1896-1908’), with many other fine papers on reconstructions, war, politics, news types, and pre-cinema visual news forms. It was a particularly good conference and I strongly recommend the book.

I am grateful to the book’s editors for permission to reproduce my essay on this site:

Luke McKernan, Links in the Chain: Early Newsreel and Newspapers (2011)


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