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Analyzing the way the newspaper looks and the rhetoric of the newspaper’s stories—not what they say, but how they say it—will sometimes provide clues to the paper’s intended audience. Is the paper sensationalistic, dryly factual, or somewhere in between? Do the vocabulary, typography, and layout of the paper require strong reading skills or could someone who was just learning to read extract facts and ideas from the newspaper, too? Are there many ads, few, or none? Do they advertise luxury goods or offer discounts on daily necessities? The answers to all these questions will hint at who is likely to be reading the paper.


But here, too, it pays to be careful. What counts as “sensationalistic” or “dryly factual” changes over time. Prose changes too, so a passage that readers today might have trouble with could have been very simple for someone to decipher when it was first published a century ago. The look of newspapers also evolved, so that a page from the 1920s might seem jumbled and difficult to read now, but would have made perfect sense to a reader at the time.


Prices inflate surprisingly quickly, so something that looks like a bargain might have been expensive at the time. Furthermore, goods and services can change from being daily necessities to expensive rarities. Theater tickets, for instance, were ordinary purchases for most Parisians in the 1880s, but became luxuries for middle-class people by the 1930s. This change can happen in reverse: for instance, cars were once a rich man’s toy in Canada, whereas now nearly every Canadian family owns at least one.


The best way to avoid these misunderstandings is to compare different newspapers from the same place and time. Historians look for differences in advertisements, headlines, choice of stories, placement of stories within the paper, different positions expressed in editorials, and disagreements about what issues merit an editorial. They also look at changes in layout and typography. Identifying these trends and changes help clarify what each paper’s politics were and who might have been reading which paper.


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