newsroom

Lasticle, not listicle

Hey, millennials, turns out you’re last to the party.

Because your favourite form of information digestion, the listicle, beloved of buzzfeed and aped into parody is actually a favourite of…er…18th Century newspapers.

And just like the the Internet of today, attribution and honesty appear to have fallen by the way side as small team start-ups eschewed original journalism and went ripping their way through other rivals’ content.

University professor Ryan Cordell, an expert in  virality in 19th-century newspapers, revealed the extent of the similarities during a talk he gave recently at MIT.

And it seems those pioneering outfits of the time not only aggregated other people’s content but were only loosely acquainted with facts as they did so.

In this excellent summary from Nieman Labs (hey, the lecture is more than an hour and this is 2015, right)  for many newspapers it was common to take articles wholesale from others to fill space at tops of pages or to boil down long-winded pieces (long-form) down into simple lists (short-form).

Often editors would simply cut and paste (literally) articles wholesale from other publications.listicle 2

The practice allowed start-up newspapers to spread quickly from a  low-cost base, much like today, and to act as market disrupters, much like today.

According to Prof Cordell:

 “Many 19th-century newspapers are comprised primarily of content from other newspapers,” he said. “They were more aggregators than producers of original content. And often they were created by very small staffs, and scholars such as Ellen Gruber Garvey have shown that this aggregation is what allowed newspapers to spread as rapidly as they did in the 19th century, because you didn’t have to produce the whole thing.”

And, just like the web of today, once an inaccuracy is lifted it can take on a life of its own.

Dickens: Became a poet and he didn't even know it

Dickens: Became a poet and he didn’t even know it

One poem by Charles M Dickinson originally printed in The New Orleans Crescent entitled The Children was lifted and republished as written by Charles Dickens in The Crescent adding a new work to the author’s vast canon.

So viral was this inaccuracy that upon Dickens’ death in 1870, newspapers reported that the poem had been found in his papers posthumously.

Viral AND wrong? You don’t always need the internet for that.

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