Laura Slattery: Ladybird’s The Story of Newspapers has dated surprisingly well

Newsroom pipe-smoking and the ubiquity of print aside, there is plenty to recognise in this 1969 children’s guide to the industry

Minutes into a recent, captivating flick through an exhibition copy of Ladybird’s The Story of Newspapers (1969), I laughed out loud.

Was it the embedded sexism and classism that was more recognisable than it should have been? No. Was it the men smoking pipes as they ogled the one woman in the room? Not quite. Was it the copy of Playboy nestling in the news-stand pictured on the cover of this children’s book? I didn’t even spot that at first.

It wasn’t the charmingly appreciative introduction either. This contended that the daily newspaper “is so much of a part of our lives that we seldom stop to consider how many people and how much co-operation and technical skill are necessary to bring us the latest news and comment so promptly”. Who could find that funny?

It was this bit, on a page captioned “failures and new ventures”, about just how hard it is for newspapers to make money: “Papers now have to compete for advertisements with commercial television and they have lost a considerable amount of advertising revenue as a result.”

Oh, 1969. If only the news industry of today could have your financial woes back.

“Since the cost of producing newspapers is continually rising, the task of operating them profitably becomes harder. In some cases it has proved impossible,” Ladybird continues, citing the 1960 failure of the News Chronicle, the British title that was formed by the merger of the Daily News and the Daily Chronicle 30 years earlier, and the 1964 demise of “another great paper of the pre-war era”, the Daily Herald.

The section ends on an upbeat note: “Although it is difficult to operate newspapers profitably, new ventures are still undertaken. Among them are The Sun and The Sunday Telegraph, the first new Sunday paper for 40 years.”

Not only did the line “it is difficult to operate newspapers profitably” strike me as hilarious, I stared at this warning from history for longer than was polite while other visitors to the Wonderful World of the Ladybird Artists exhibition milled around and enjoyed frankly less frightening masterpieces such as Little Red Riding Hood and The Story of the Spider.

The lovely woman checking my ticket at the Bath art gallery — unaware of my knack for turning pleasurable holiday activities into work-related research — had assured me I would find joy inside. And I did. Not only is the background to Ladybird’s mid-century publishing success fascinating in itself, but a quick re-read of We Have Fun, aka Ladybird Key Words 2a, reveals that this Peter and Jane classic contains the makings of an art-house psychological thriller.

Next to an illustration of Chapelizod-born Lord Northcliffe, Ladybird tells its young readers that these press barons ‘advanced the history of papers considerably’, but that ‘not everyone’ agreed that they should be able to ‘wield such influence’

Meanwhile, The Story of Newspapers, part of a 1960s educational series called Ladybird Achievements, offered proof of two things at once: that industry “challenges” have always been with us, but also that they were once much more straightforward, and ultimately much less existential for the market as a whole, than they are today.

There is just a lot of nonsense that they didn’t have to worry about in 1969, from the tedium of flailing about for attention on social media platforms to the annoyance of overcrowded inboxes stuffed with spam emails about water wipes and Princess Anne’s risk of burnout.

The concept of a deadline is explained with no reference to how this heralds an immediate worsening of journalists’ already terrible diets. Insatiable demand for free content is represented with the line that “sometimes a person who has no paper tries to read over the shoulder of someone else”.

Some things haven’t changed over the decades, of course. A paragraph on the morning editorial conferences held each day concludes with the confident assertion that after they take place “everyone knows what is required during the day”. I don’t go to editorial conferences, but I am told this is still 100 per cent true.

What really turns The Story of Newspapers, illustrated by Ron Embleton, into an antiquated curiosity is the sheer number of scenes it features that have now all but disappeared from daily life. A picture of a commuter-stuffed train carriage is a sea of broadsheets. A dusky cityscape shows street furniture advertising evening newspaper headlines. Even the husband and wife in their back garden, the Sunday supplements divvied up between them, seem out of time.

Intriguingly, the book — published the same year that Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun, then a struggling broadsheet — appears to suggest that one facet of the news industry can be consigned to the past tense: interfering proprietors.

“Today, the owner, or board of directors, usually decides what the broad policy of the paper is to be, and leaves it to the editor to see that the details of the policy are carried out,” it explains, contrasting this with pre-1939 press barons who “dictated the policy, controlled the finances to a very great extent, and took a great personal interest in the actual contents”.

Next to an illustration of Chapelizod-born Lord Northcliffe, Ladybird tells its young readers that these press barons “advanced the history of papers considerably”, but that “not everyone” agreed that they should be able to “wield such influence”.

As indicated by Westminster’s move earlier this month to block a joint venture between US private equity investors and an Abu Dhabi-based firm backed by the UAE’s deputy prime minister, Manchester City FC owner Sheikh Mansour, from buying the Telegraph and the Spectator, concerns about newspaper ownership and the power it confers haven’t gone away.

Unlike the computer-less, smoke-filled newsrooms of The Story of Newspapers, those sensitivities remain with us, alongside the perennial Murdoch, the perils of intense competition and the truth that news(paper) profits are now even harder to come by than they were 55 years ago.

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