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This simple question implies many others: When and where was the newspaper published? What kind of reader was it intended to reach? Did it have local competitors? What were its political affiliations?

 

Answers to some of these questions come from examining the newspaper carefully. Every front page is likely to tell us the location and date on which the paper was published, and sometimes the masthead on the front page also announces how long the newspaper has been in business.

 

 

In most present-day newspapers a small box called the indica can be found in the editorial page, which, in turn, is sometimes in the middle of the paper’s first section, sometimes the paper’s second page, and sometimes its last or second-to-last page. The indica lists the owners and managers of a newspaper. This information sometimes gives clues to its political stance, but it can be confusing or complicated. Newspapers’ owners, editors, and sometimes other writers today express their views openly on an editorial page without any claim of objectivity or neutrality. But before 1900, newspapers did not often distinguish between editorial and news stories, and separate editorial pages were rare.

 

In the 1980s, for example, Nicaragua’s most important newspaper, La Prensa, belonged to Violeta Chamorro, the head of a powerful Nicaraguan clan. One of her sons participated in the cabinet of Nicaragua’s government; another led an armed rebellion against that government. So the publisher’s last name did not provide a clue to which side of the Nicaraguan conflict the newspaper took, although it did suggest that the publisher, herself, might have political ambitions (she was elected president in 1990). Determining the paper’s political stance required looking beyond the indica to the content of the newspaper’s editorials.

 

Newspapers also distinguish themselves in political terms. Regular readers expect their newspaper to take consistent political positions (sometimes associated with particular political parties) while reporting on the events of the day. Although “journalistic objectivity” has been a shared goal of 20th- and 21st-century journalists, its meaning has shifted across space and over time. In many cases it has meant “not making up facts” or “making the newspaper’s political position very clear” rather than trying to avoid bias. Today, in places where there is still more than one daily paper, like Mexico City, Buenos Aires, London, or New York City, readers usually understand where each paper sits on the local political spectrum.

 

While ordinary readers at the time a newspaper is being published usually have a clear sense of the paper’s politics, historians looking at old newspapers need to exercise caution when trying to decipher a newspaper’s political position. Sometimes the syndicated features express very different views than the rest of the paper. For instance, the U.S. comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” took an obvious and consistent right-wing position beginning in the 1930s with opposition to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal and continuing for decades thereafter. But the cartoon was so popular that newspapers whose politics were generally centrist or even leftist sometimes carried it. Furthermore, a newspaper’s political position often changes over time. The New York Post, for example, shifted from the most liberal newspaper in New York in the 1950s to the most conservative newspaper in New York in the 1980s.

 

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