Centenary reflections

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Chris Fautley reports on a an exhibition celebrating 100 years of tabloid news

Harriet Quimby should have been famous. When, on April 16, 1912, she became the first woman to fly an aircraft across the English Channel, she should have been front-page news. Yet her achievement almost became a non-event. Quimby's great misfortune was to make history the day after Titanic sank; it was that story that filled the newspapers. Her story is revealed in Exclusive! Tales from the Tabloid Front Line - a Science Museum exhibition to celebrate the Daily Mirror's centenary. It vividly illustrates the exhibition's claim that "reporters write the first draft of history".

In recent years, almost every aspect of life has been affected by new technology - and nowhere more so than in Fleet Street. Exclusive! uses the centenary as a launch pad from which to plot changes in newspaper production. Each stage of the process is examined, with areas devoted to printers, editors, reporters, photographers, the newsroom and technology.

Obsolete equipment, such as old printing cylinders, wireless telegraphy apparatus, teleprinters, glass-plate negatives and tickertape machines are displayed alongside their 21st-century counterparts. "Now and then" photographs, together with quotes from staff past and present, are a clever way of comparing the old and the new.

Exclusive! also reveals how innovative and tenacious Fleet Street has been over the years, especially during the restrictions of wartime. Indeed, some of the best human-interest stories actually involve the reporters and photographers - the remarkable lengths to which one photographer went to get a picture of murderer Dr Crippen being arrested in 1910 is a case in point.

Nevertheless, in an age dominated by microchip technology, it is almost reassuring to discover that some things have not changed. Page layouts are still drafted by hand on, yes, paper. "Cut and paste" is an age-old process: pages were "constructed" by having stories literally cut out and glued on to them. A mock-up page could be several millimetres thick.

Nor is the exhibition short on surprises. Digital photography? Nothing new at all. Check out the example from 1923 when the Mirror and the New York Daily News experimented with transatlantic picture transmission.

Exclusive! is very much a thinking person's exhibition and will be of most benefit to students at KS3 and above. Even the interactive exhibits require quick thinking. If you wish to discover how a newspaper is produced to excruciatingly tight deadlines, the Print Works game is a must. Using a touch screen, the aim is to produce 2.4m copies in one night. It must be as difficult as the real thing. The executive editor role-play is even better: produce a circulation-boosting front page within production deadlines by choosing the correct story; then create an eye-catching layout and headline, cope with delayed pictures and consider late-breaking news.

Real-life efforts are displayed in more than 100 blow-ups on the gallery walls: "Fire Wrecks Crystal Palace"; "Hitler Dead"; Profumo Quits"; "Man Walks on the Moon". Sarah Leonard, the museum's education manager, suggests using them as discussion points. Pick a favourite; identify its message; analyse the headline's power; discuss the message it seeks to portray. Other subject ideas include: * History: consider how and why events have been interpreted as they have (consider the Quimby story).

* ICT: contemplate the effect of technology on newspaper production, and how news reaches us.

* Citizenship: discuss how information is provided and how it affects opinion.

* Media studies: talk about changes in the industry, producing circulation-boosting stories, and exactly how a newspaper is produced.

Exclusive! Tales from the Tabloid Front Line is at the Science Museum until April 25. While you are there, check out the printing and paper-making gallery. Admission is free but school parties must book in advanceTel: 020 7942 4777www.sciencemuseum.org.uk

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