Press Box

Paper Cuts

The myth of the broadsheet, and anonymice on the dangers of anonymity.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Along with the exploding poodle and the colony of sewer-dwelling alligators, the origin of the broadsheet as a function of British tax policy stands as an un-slayable urban legend. Today’s (March 21) New York Times “Business” section recycles the myth in a piece about the downsizing of conventional U.S and European newspapers to tabloids. ReporterKatharine Q. Seelye writes:

In the 1600’s, newspapers were pamphlets about the size of modern-day paperback books. But in England in the early 1700’s, newspapers began to be taxed by their number of pages. To reduce taxes, publishers printed bigger pages and fewer of them, helping to create the broadsheet that is now considered standard.

Seelye isn’t the only writer breathing new life into the broadsheet-origin myth. In The New Media Monopoly, published last summer, Ben H. Bagdikian writes:

The huge expanse of the newspaper page is the result of a seventeenth-century tax dodge. When the British Crown lost patience with uppity London newspapers and placed a ruinous tax on each page, the publishers displayed their historic ability to escape taxes by simply expanding the size of each page so much that the tax-per-page didn’t put them out of business. Because the British were the world’s source of technology and machinery during the period, ever since, newspaper presses have been built to issue the largest printed page in world publishing.

The poodle and sewer-gator myths thrive because they’re so much fun to believe. But what explains the endurance of the broadsheet myth? It isn’t even plausible when you think it through: If you had been the British exchequer and a newspaper sidestepped taxes by inflating page-size, wouldn’t you have closed the loophole the next day by declaring, “Publishers may print their newspapers on sheets of paper the size of a mainsail if they so desire, but it’s this office’s recommendation that the crown adopt a per square-inch tax on newspapers”? Yes, you would have, and the broadsheet would have expired overnight if it were not a viable format.

Scholar Kevin G. Barnhurst demolishes the broadsheet myth in his 1994 book Seeing the Newspaper, calling it “received history.” No one factor explains the broadsheet’s rise, he writes. Yes, the British did impose a new tax in 1712, but the “British tax on paper did not initiate relatively large newspaper formats,” he writes.

Early printed and manuscript news sheets were often large to begin with, closer in size to today’s magazines than to most novels. A full sheet of book paper (roughly 25 by 38 inches) folded in half two times produces a magazine format called a quarto, for the four leaves (eight pages) that result. Folded one more time, the sheet produces a book-sized format call an octavo. After the paper tax was imposed, some English octavo newspapers grew to the quarto size that had been common in early European news sheets.

If broadsheets owed their existence to a paper tax, then newspapers would have right-sized themselves to a different, optimum dimension after the British tax (a duty on paper) was discontinued in 1855, according to Barnhurst. Yet the broadsheet flourished for another century and a half in Britain before its “quality” dailies started printing in the tabloid format.

Anonymice on Anonymity (“Musings of a techie lawyer”) deflates the New York Times’ breathless Saturday (March 19) piece about the menace posed by anonymous access to Wi-Fi networks (“Growth of Wireless Internet Opens New Path for Thieves” by Seth Schiesel). Wi-Fi pirates around the nation are using unsecured hotspots to issue anonymous death threats, download child pornography, and commit credit card fraud, Schiesel writes. Then he plays the terrorist card.

But unsecured wireless networks are nonetheless being looked at by the authorities as a potential tool for furtive activities of many sorts, including terrorism. Two federal law enforcement officials said on condition of anonymity that while they were not aware of specific cases, they believed that sophisticated terrorists might also be starting to exploit unsecured Wi-Fi connections.

Never mind the pod of qualifiers swimming through in those two sentences—”being looked at”; “potential tool”; “not aware of specific cases”; “might”—look at the sourcing. “Two federal law enforcement officials said on condition of anonymity. …” Seltzer points out the deep-dish irony of the Times citing anonymous sources about the imagined threats posed by anonymous Wi-Fi networks. Anonymous sources of unsubstantiated information, good. Anonymous Wi-Fi networks, bad.


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