Thursday, March 9, 2017

Freedom To Collect the Press

We're living in a time of great cultural and social revolution.  The internet is mankind's greatest modern accomplishment, bringing the world to our fingertips.  But the web's integration into our everyday life has also brought about some negative consequences, with longtime trades and professions facing probable extinction.  Publishing has been the most affected by these technological changes, with newspaper publishing in particular looking to remain relevant in today's changing society.  History hobbyists and collectors have been keen to take note of this evolution.

I love newspapers.  I love the ability to physically hold the news.  I love the ability to read, analyze, dissect and focus on a news story.  Unfortunately, news of today requires nimbly maneuvering around unwanted pop-up ads, videos, and quickie two paragraph summations as opposed to in-depth news coverage.  As a result, I have recently found the collecting of antique newspapers to be a particularly satisfying pastime.

The collecting of newspapers is not an expensive hobby.  A mid-1800's newspaper can cost as little as $10 - quite a bargain for the novice collector.  Another factor that makes newspaper collecting a freewheeling fun experience is that there is no correct way to collect.  You can tailor your collection to suit your taste.  Some people collect headlines, while others collect for the advertisements.  Some collect for specific writers (Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle or Ambrose Bierce) while others may simply enjoy reading small town snippets of the 19th century (DUI arrest of a horse & buggy).  But as with all other collecting disciplines, there are some basic guidelines to follow if you wish to build a compelling collection of value. 

Condition is an important factor.  Early American newspapers prior to the 1870's were printed on rag paper - i.e. paper with high cotton fiber content - whereas latter newspapers were printed on inexpensive pulp paper.  As a result, nearly all early newspapers look and feel relatively new, while the pulp papers will discolor and deteriorate over time. 

To most collectors, content and historical significance are important factors.   Coverage of a major U.S. Civil War battle will command a higher price than one of lesser engagements of the same period.  And although content is an important aspect, demographics can also have impact on value.  A 1941 Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper with early coverage of the Pearl Harbor attack is significantly more collectible than a New York Times newspaper of the same date and content.  In the context of historical significance, visual impact can also drive up the value of a newspaper.  Since many collectors like to frame and display their collection, a newspaper featuring a compelling headline, or map or picture is highly desirable.   

Finally, there is condition.  This aspect to newspaper collecting should be treated with thoughtful consideration in relation to content.  For instance, collectors will overlook the condition of a tattered 1850's San Francisco newspaper with California Gold Rush content due to the paper's rarity, whereas a serious collector will generally ignore a pristine 1790's New England newspaper with no particular newsworthy story. 

I am often asked about fakes and forgeries.  With regard to newspaper collecting, fakes and forgeries have not been a serious problem in the marketplace.  Even an amateur collector with basic familiarity of appropriate typeset and paper content can readily spot a fake.  And with few exceptions, fake newspapers intended to deceive a collector are generally too cost prohibitive for forgers to reproduce.   Those exceptions include the first reporting of General Washington's death (Ulster County Gazette, Jan 4, 1800) and the New York Times' report of Lincoln's assassination (Apr. 15, 1865).  If you have either of those newspapers, chances are you have authentic FAKES.

In today's collecting market, Colonial and Revolutionary War newspapers are highly desirable (values are higher for American newspapers as opposed to British newspapers' perspective),  the Civil War, the American West (including the plains Indian Wars), the California Gold Rush and the Mexican-American War.   Sought-after newspapers of more focused content include the Titanic sinking, the Lizzie Borden murder, Battle of Little Big Horn, Jesse James, Battle of Gettysburg, and the Alamo (and Texas independence).

In this era of shrinking news and claims of "fake" journalism, it's both fascinating and profitable to look back on an institution that has shaped the consciousness, the history and the make-up of America's character.