Newspapers are often the richest source of information on life in the nineteenth century. Their principal function was not necessarily to inform, but to make money for the publisher, which they did by selling copies of the paper to readers and selling advertisements to businesses. Because they carried so much information about such a wide range of issues -- local, regional, national and international -- newspapers have been preserved by generations of Canadians in libraries and archives, helping us to understand many aspects of our collective past. However, old newspapers are not always easy to read. Sometimes papers are faded, and other times so brittle that pieces crumble under the touch. To preserve them, many newspapers have been microfilmed, but often the filming is not clear or words are lost in the creases. In these cases we have used the word [illegible] in the transcribed documents on this website.
Newspapers of the past differed from newspapers today in both content and appearance. Unlike the papers of today, in the nineteenth century newspapers normally had few pictures or images, and some ran their advertisements on the front page and most of the actual news inside the paper. Nineteenth century newspapers, unlike urban papers in our own multimedia universe, often carried very detailed coverage of a much broader range of activities – lengthy transcriptions of evidence given in court, for example, or the minute by minute happenings of a municipal council meeting, or information about who was visiting whom from the "old country.”
Newspapers contain an abundance of information that can help us to understand both specific and general aspects of the economic, social and cultural history of Canada. But should we believe it all? There are many reasons why we should not. The hunger for news and the lack of well-researched stories often meant that rumour and hearsay were published as fact. Then, as now, sensational stories helped sell newspapers, and checking the facts did not always take priority. Newspaper content was also biased by cultural assumptions about what was newsworthy; many aspects of nineteenth-century life that we might like to read about -- diet, the experiences of women and children, or "good news" stories generally -- seldom presented themselves for discussion.
Moreover, many newspapers in the nineteenth century were financed and supported by political factions, and 'the news' was presented through partisan eyes for explicitly political purposes. In addition, newspapers both reflected and helped shape religious and ethnic affiliations. For example, in the case of the newspapers on this website, students need to recognize that while the Irish Canadian, a conservative Catholic newspaper, was relatively restrained with respect to reporting the murders of Irish Catholics by Irish Catholics, the Toronto Globe was much more sympathetic to the Donnellys and critical of the township and its inhabitants. Similarly, the two local papers, the London Advertiser and the London Free Press, clearly took sides throughout the conflict, the murder and the trials.
These "problems" are, paradoxically, also the newspaper's greatest strength as an historical source. While the factual accuracy of newspaper coverage always needs to be checked against other sources, newspapers can, if read critically, tell us a great deal about what many people thought was worth discussing in a public forum. They demonstrate the terms upon which ideas were raised and addressed, giving us insight not only into what important social, cultural and political issues were raised, but how people understood them. And, then as now, newspaper advertising and Letters to the Editor can highlight some of the concerns of everyday life in nineteenth-century society.