Imagined communities - What Makes a Readership Share a Certain Idea of Newspapers

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Analysis of Form

3. Imagined Community

4. Analysis of Content

5. Politics

6. Women

7. Sports

8. Advertisements

9. Telegraph and Penny Press

10. Editorial

11. Conclusion

1. Introduction

„Paper is patient! “my high school physics teacher used to say, when he corrected our exams. As he explained to us, he had heard this old printers saying many times before from his father, who was in the printing business himself. This motto is more than simply a justification for the laziness of my teacher who almost never corrected our tests on time. Since it comes out of the printing business – a business hundreds of years old – it has a broader meaning. It expresses the enduring existence of the written word. Hence, letters, black on white, are records of people’s thoughts and opinions at specific points in time, from early signs of human existence on cave walls to digital letters on our modern-day computer screens.

Newspapers as a medium for writing are of special interest to historians as well as to ordinary people like you and me. Throughout history newspapers have reflected society. However, it would be an over-simplification to reduce the complexity of newspapers to the mere role of mirroring. They give us useful information about editors, journalists and authors. Their patient words waiting to be read become vibrant thoughts – even though reader and source might be years apart. It is the dichotomy of individual and collective experience in reading that creates a readership. Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities fits into this context incredibly well. Although a reader might not know all the other readers of his or her newspaper, they still have one thing in common – they have all held the same information in their hands and read the same news.[1] Thus the reader – being aware of this indirectly shared experience – imagines his community of fellow readers. While Anderson refers to communities that overcome all distances I would apply his model to distances in time. It is because of the lasting effect of the written word that, although I am culturally embedded in the 21st century, I can still read, be impressed and influenced by, or even identify with an article that is almost one hundred years old. I leaf through the same pages, look at the same pictures, and think about the same author as did other readers back then. This process – as an extension of Anderson’s theory – makes me a part of an imagined community that knows no borders, neither in space, nor in time.

To illustrate how Anderson’s concept of imagined communities can be applied in general, and in detail, to newspapers I will take The Toronto Globe of Monday, 3rd October 1910 as a randomly chosen example. In addition to an analysis of its form and content I want to examine the economic triangularity of the editor, the reader and the newspaper’s content.

2. Analysis of Form

The first time I leafed through The Globe I followed my old habit. That is to search for the sport section. I was glad to find two pages full of results, standings and rankings. Yet, I was a little bit confused to find an article of a young man that “[…] died on a C.P.R. train … of brain fever […]” close to the latest Baseball results of the American and National League. This was, as I found out later, no exception. There was either an article about a fatal accident or an obituary on almost every second page. Such articles were not only to be found on the title page – where such shocking and eye-catching stories would seem in place because sensation sells – but also on the sport and commercial pages. Thus, my concept of a sectionalized newspaper – where only one type of news fills a section or page – misled me totally. Although there is a small table of content on the title page that indicates the issues of each page, there are no real sections as we know them today. This was the first time my modern expectations misled me – and many more were to follow.

This absence of thematized sections on the macro-level – the whole paper - is also evident on the micro level – the structure of a page. The best example is the title page, where no real leading article is visible at the first glance. Yet, a caricature in the middle of the page guides our view to the main article of this edition, which is about the Queen visiting Canada. There is also a photo on the bottom of the page linked to another article on the Queen. These two pictures give the superficial impression that the paper is full of images. This is, however, not the case, since there are only seven pictures (advertisements excluded) in the entire newspaper. This is because in 1910 printing photos was still expensive. But in order to catch the eye of a potential reader passing a paperboy, this visual element was placed on the first page.

To conclude my analysis of the newspaper’s structure, and in order to know roughly where which content is to be found, it is necessary to know how the editor titled the pages. The first four pages have no particular topic, and the content’s spectrum ranges from political news, to over economic reports to gossip. Page five is the first page dedicated to a specific topic, or rather at a certain target group: women. Since this page is a peculiarity, in the sense of a community within a community I will discuss it later on. The editorial page and the legal page are next. On page eight, which has no special title, we find what I would call the “religion” page, because it is full of reports about ministers and sermons. The following page is largely dedicated to gossip, with most of its articles dealing with accidents, and death but also including a music and drama section. The tenth and also the eleventh page are both dedicated to sports. The following pages are the financial page, and two commercial pages. The last three pages are advertisements, which need further attention since they could provide useful information about the economic situation of the newspaper.

3. Imagined Community

Now coming back to the assertion that a newspaper’s readership is congruent with Anderson’s concept of an imagined community, it is important to specify what he meant by imagined. Anderson uses this term in the context of press as a means of nation-building. He thinks that a community such as a nation is imagined because one citizen does not know all his fellow countrymen. Nation states are also imagined because they are not face-to-face communities like villages. You might know your neighbour, but surely do not know everybody, in a metropolis like New York. One aspect all citizens have in common is their citizenship, and in some cases even the same love for their country. This is what Anderson calls an imagined political community. However, nation serves only as an example of this because “Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”

Hence, a newspaper-readership could be seen as an imagined community, which itself could be subdivided into even smaller groups. The content of a newspaper is determined by the cultural, social, economic and political make-up of its readership. However, as a newspaper has different pages dedicated to different issues, the readership is not necessarily homogeneous. I would rather say that the readership community is fragmented into a spectrum of various imagined communities. So instead of analyzing the content of The Globe page by page, it is more useful to categorize these different groups, looking at the newspaper’s content as a whole, and for further details, concentrating on the importance on certain articles. I have analyzed the paper’s content using the following categories: society, economics, and politics.

4. Analysis of Content

The Globe’s main subject matter is economics. More than one third of the articles are about economic developments and arguments. Almost half of the title page is devoted to the reader interested in economics. Additionally, the last quarter of the paper deals with commercial news and financial issues such as the stock market, as well as advertisements – be it condensed, or extended, as in the form of the last page, which is one large advertisement. This might give the impression that The Globe only discuss economics, but merchants and businessmen are not the only group that this newspaper targets.

Although the category “society news” makes up more than 50 percent of the articles, it is not the main subject of The Globe, as this category consists of different aspects such as: articles about disasters, sports, music and gossip. Reports of disasters, such as the sinking of a steamship or car accidents, seem to be obligatory for any newspaper that wants to be in big business, because bad and shocking news are what most people are curious to read about. Newspaper’s sensationalism exploits this curiosity, which is an atavistic element of human kind.

Politics is the third most important topic. Although there is no real political section indicated in the table of contents, all articles dealing with national, American, and even international politics are on the first three pages. Therefore I would suggest because that politics were such valuable news, The Globe put them right at the beginning of the paper. But what made this news so precious? It was the importance that these articles had for the reader and since economics and politics often go hand in hand it is necessary for a newspaper editor to supply the demand.

All in all it can be said that the most important issue for The Globe is economics. Consequently, this shows us what the main target group is. They are not necessarily only business men and merchants, but also people interested in economic and political news. Certainly these topics could be people of all classes. Yet, who should be interested in the latest oil prices at the New York stock market if not the people who really can afford to speculate, and might in other words, the upper-middle and upper-class. The Globe serves as an advisor and messenger of economical issue to the intellectual, economical, and political aristocracy. This assertion will be supported by further examples which do not lie in the sphere of economics and politics but are to be found in the socio-cultural sphere.


[1] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso. 1991.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Imagined communities - What Makes a Readership Share a Certain Idea of Newspapers
Free University of Berlin  (John-F.-Kennedy-Institut)
History of News
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
496 KB
Prüfer: This is excellent.
Imagined, What, Makes, Readership, Share, Certain, Idea, Newspapers, History, News
Quote paper
Paul Vierkant (Author), 2005, Imagined communities - What Makes a Readership Share a Certain Idea of Newspapers, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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