A world larger or smaller: On the rapidity of news in our modern mass culture

By Maarten van den Bos

As modern press consumers, we are constantly informed as events occurring on every corner of the globe are reported in almost real time. Yet this is a relatively new phenomenon. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, news from beyond one’s own village was scarce and images from the other side of the world needed days to travel in order to reach Europe. This article explores the changing impact of newspapers and media consumption in our daily lives over the past two centuries using the Dutch press landscape as a case study.

The adage that ‘our world becomes smaller’ seems to have become a stock phrase since the 1990s. With the introduction of the smartphone, news reaches consumers faster than ever, all of us having constant access to news outlets and social media. The rapidity of change can be demonstrated easily. On September 11, the first airplane hit the World Trade Centre at 14.46 local Dutch time. Most people were at work or at school. Going home, they could easily be unaware of the events which occurred. Maybe they would find out via the car radio on their commute home, or via the television when they got home.

Figure1: Google Books Ngram Viewer graph for search term ‘world becoming larger’. Source: Google N-Gram Viewer (https://books.google.com/ngrams)
Figure1: Google Books Ngram Viewer graph for search term ‘world becoming larger’. Source: Google N-Gram Viewer

Nowadays, only fourteen years later, this would be impossible. In every classroom in the Netherlands, on every company floor, at every street corner, there is at least someone with a smartphone. News of the attacks on the WTC would have been instant news at schools, in offices, on the streets. But imagine the attacks would have taken place not in 2001, but in 1914, more or less a hundred years ago. How long did it take back then to be informed of a life-changing event that occurred far away? Back in 1914, it took the Dutch newspapers a full day to report the killing of Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive of the Austro-Hungarian throne. He was killed on June 28, 1914 at ten in the morning in Serbian capital Sarajevo, approximately 1700 kilometers from Amsterdam and news of his death was published by the Dutch morning papers the next day.

So our world grows smaller every day. We have access to media all over the world and images pop up on our screen almost in real time. As with all clichés, the one telling us our world grows smaller every day has certainly some truth to it. But what do we mean by ‘smaller’ exactly? Let’s take a step back in time again, and travel to the early decades of the nineteenth century, the period historians nowadays label as the dawning of our modern era. Two Dutch students from Leiden took a long walk true the Dutch countryside in order to investigate the situation in the newfound Kingdom of The Netherlands, which was established in 1813. Being educated men, living in one of the intellectual capitals of their time, they were interested in the living conditions in ‘the far corners of the country’. Reading their report shows the immense differences within the newfound kingdom: different languages, different chronologies, different religious beliefs, local particularities, customs and costumes, different currencies. The differences were immense, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands was no exception. All over Europe, there were national entities, but nowhere there was an overall sense of national belonging.

A key feature of the nineteenth century was the mental enlargement of the world of the common people. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, commoners most of the time would live all their lives within the vicinity of the place they were born. The distance one could travel was equal to the distance one could walk. But in the course of the century, this changed. The world grew mentally, as mass media brought news from the world into the home of more and more people. The world grew physically, with the expansion of travel-opportunities like the construction of railroads. But perhaps most importantly: the world was divided into the recognizable blocks that we know today as national entities. The nineteenth century is known today as ‘the century of nationalism’. Instead of being an inhabitant of a local village or city, everyone – lowborn and highborn – became a citizen of the nation.

To illustrate this, let us return to the students from Leiden: one of the chapters from the diary they kept during their walk was on religion. All over the country, they reported, villages had their local customs, they were worshipping their own saints, and undertook their own pilgrimages. In the second half of the nineteenth century, religious customs became internationalized. Lourdes is a famous example, where in 1858 the Virgin Mary had appeared to 14 years old Bernadette Soubirous. Not long after, the small town was connected to the French railroad system and believers from all over Europe visited the cave where the Virgin had appeared. And when prospective pilgrims were unable to visit themselves, cheap brochures and newspaper articles informed them and Catholics all over Europe of the miraculous healings that took place in Lourdes.

Figure 3: Timeline of all articles published in Dutch newspapers on Lourdes between 1850 and 1950. Source: Texcavator Text Mining Tool (https://texcavator.surfsaralabs.nl)
Figure 3: Timeline of all articles published in Dutch newspapers on Lourdes between 1850 and 1950. Source: Texcavator Text Mining Tool

Seemingly paradoxically then, the world both became smaller and larger at the same time during the nineteenth century. Larger, because more and more people not only became aware of the world beyond their hometown, they also were informed about events that took place elsewhere and had the opportunity to travel. And at the turn of the century, reasons to travel became more and more diverse. As travel costs became lower and wages rose, visiting an international religious shrine became an opportunity for a growing part of the European population, as was visiting the capital of another country to see its cultural landmarks.

But the world also became smaller in other ways. News from the far side of the world was known in The Netherlands within days. The sinking of the Titanic – in the night of April 14 1912 – was reported the morning after, but the true impact was known a few days later when the newspapers reported the number of casualties.

Figure 4: Screenshot of De Telegraaf. Source: National Library of the Netherlands, via www.delpher.nl
Figure 4: Screenshot of De Telegraaf. Source: National Library of the Netherlands

A novelty here was that newspapers first speculated and later reported on the number of Dutch casualties. More and more the world was understood as a collection of national entities, of countries and people understood their position of the world within this frame: they became citizen of a nation. Reporting on the role of the Netherlands within this international context was on the rise, not only when it came to politics, but also in articles on culture and sports. The number of times newspapers referred to the Netherlands as ‘we’ or ‘us’ was on the rise.

 Figure 5: Graph of the Ngram ‘ons land’ (our land) in all Dutch newspapers. Source: (http://kbkranten.politicalmashup.nl/#q/onsland)

Figure 5: Graph of the Ngram ‘ons land’ (our land) in all Dutch newspapers. Source: Historische Kranten N-Gram viewer

The world growing larger and smaller in equal measures accelerated in the twentieth century. The popularization of the bicycle broadened horizons beyond our imagination. Cheap magazines presented images of a world that lay sometimes far beyond the imagination of most. The stories of Karl May for instance, popularized in The Netherlands from the 1910s, changed the image of the United States and helped to create the image of ‘America’ as a land of opportunity and suspense. The same holds true later on for the short popularity of the French chanson, the music that enduringly strengthened the connection between French and romance and turned Paris into a fabled destination for young Dutch romantics. This increased reporting in reference to national entities created the ground for national imagologies to take hold: cultural constructions and representations of the character of other nations.

Culture was of crucial importance in the construction of these imagologies. Take the example of music.

Figure 7: Graph of the Ngrams ‘jazz’, ‘rock ‘n roll’, ‘Beatles’, ‘Rolling Stones’ and ‘pop music’. Source: Historische Kranten N-gram Viewer (http://kbkranten.politicalmashup.nl/#q/jazz|rockenroll|beatles|rollingstones|popmuziek).
Figure 7: Graph of the Ngrams ‘jazz’, ‘rock ‘n roll’, ‘Beatles’, ‘Rolling Stones’ and ‘pop music’. Source: Historische Kranten N-gram Viewer

In the Netherlands in the interwar period, France became popular as home of the best modern jazz music. And in the fifties, the chanson, but also the German schlager replaced the Dutch folk song as the most popular music. In the late fifties, there was the upcoming Rock ‘n Roll and the early Sixties gave way to an enormous popularity of British bands like he Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Figure 8: Article on a violent uproar at a concert of The Rolling Stones in a beach hotel near The Hague in 1964. Source: National Library of the Netherlands, www.delpher.nl)
Figure 8: Article on a violent uproar at a concert of The Rolling Stones in a beach hotel near The Hague in 1964. Source: National Library of the Netherlands

For centuries, high culture had transcended national borders, but during the twentieth century, and especially in the postwar years, popular culture became transnational as well.

With the increasing availability of information on other countries and the emergence of mass tourism in the postwar period, people got to know their neighboring countries first hand. With it, images from all over the world,  which people could access via their newspaper and subsequently a magazine, the radio, television and finally the internet are now available at our fingertips in real time. So when we claim our world to be smaller, we actually mean we know more and faster about events taking place on other parts of the globe. And maybe growing larger would be a better way to describe what happened over the last two centuries: where someone born in the early nineteenth century probably would never leave his home town, unaware of what happened elsewhere, somebody born today is much more likely to not only know about the world, but also to experience it via travel.

Newspaper provide an indispensable source to understand these changes. In order to reconstruct public images of certain events, but also to understand images people had of other countries and of their place in the world, newspapers provide a unique source. Because they tell us what our ancestors read on a day to day basis, on what events they were informed, what cultural expressions became popular and why. But most importantly, they tell us something about the size of the world in a particular time for particular people.