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Reading Newspapers: Cultural Histories of the Popular Press in Modern Britain

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Abstract

Popular newspapers have not, in general, featured prominently in histories of modern Britain. In recent years, however, a number of scholars, many inspired by the ‘cultural turn’ and the increased scholarly focus on language, meaning and identity, have reassessed the value of the popular press as a historical source. Newspapers provide one of the most effective ways of exploring the representations and narratives that circulated throughout British society. The ‘spectacular heterogeneity’ of their contents, moreover, ensures that newspapers are a potentially rich source of information on a wide range of subjects. This growing interest in the popular press as a historical source has been dramatically reinforced in the last decade by the digitisation of a vast number of newspapers and periodicals from the seventeenth to the 21st centuries. Millions of pages of content, rapidly searchable by keyword, are now available, at least for those fortunate enough to have individual or institutional subscriptions. The revolution in the accessibility and usability of newspaper archives has transformed scholars’ enthusiasm for them. This article assesses how these developments have affected the writing of modern British history, and suggests likely future directions for the field.

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