Dearth of newspapers to create history hole

It dwarfs even the horror of covid19 – Ryerson Index  and other history group projects may have no newspapers from which to continue indexing  Australian Births, Deaths and Marriages.

These are national cornerstones, the go-to place for all research into people, places, events and nations, and yet with the closure of so many regional newspapers these essential public notices will either be non-existent, or at very best re-routed to neighboring major publications in our largest cities.

” It is unclear what will happen to classifieds in these papers, but one thing is obvious – few funeral directors (or their customers) are going to pay a quite large amount to place death and funeral notices on a website. This, combined with the transitory nature of website content, means that Ryerson can no longer index any notices published on the website of a suspended newspaper, because we have no way of directing future researchers to the original notice.” source: http://ryersonindex.org/index.htm

For family historians, public researchers and academics it is the stuff  which nightmares are made off. Births, Deaths and Marriages are a national institution in their own right: we are not just talking here of a regular column that contributed to the upkeep of a regional paper. BDMS have always documented the births and deaths of the everyday people, the ones who don’t make it to any other public record.

“Companies including Australian Community Media (ACM) and News Corp have suspended publishing of numerous regional and community mastheads due to COVID-19’s hit on advertising revenue, prompting fears it could mark the end of traditional local news.” Barrie Cassidy and Annika Smethurst on why regional media outlets matter: ABC News

Before the formal registration of BDMs in any nation, it was newspapers who were the keepers of the permanent record of these events: so for researchers it is the only chance you get of finding the everyday people. The death of a child would often be recorded because of the trauma for it’s parents and community. Deaths by mischance, accident or at the hands of others could be lined up next to obituaries for the landed and gentry. Women who gave births to twins or triplets or other multiple births would find themselves mentioned in newspapers. Particularly deaths at sea would commonly make newspapers, or BDMs for military and naval personal in overseas conflicts and whole lists of deaths or survivors from shipwreck could fill the columns of newspapers.

BDM columns have long been an embedded column in all newspapers

You are unlikely to find this information in any other form prior to the mid 1850’s. And since that time, as colonists made their homes in new corners of the earth, BDMs were automatically distributed by newspapers, linking these events back to family and community in the birthplaces of immigrants, settlers and convicts alike. Today you can find reports of deaths in newspapers in Ireland, Scotland and England of people who died in Australia, prior to this nation setting up their own system of the registering of BDMs.

As new papers arose in formative European settlements of Australia it was the BDMs that informed the community: editors considered it a duty to have the BDMs columns embedded in their publications. And it because of index initiatives like Ryerson, those BDMs columns have been the first port of call for any type of research into the lives of every Australian.

They are not just fact checking exercises – the BDM columns fill in the background to people’s lives. They flesh out the bones of research, they will commonly give information not found on formal registrations in our Justice departments. And they are not just used by family historians – they can aid research into missing people, inheritance searches, unidentified remains and contribute to census gathering for formative settlements.

Reporting away from the source is rife with problems: the 1864 marriage of g.g. aunt Ellen Journeaux was correctly reported in Ballarat papers, but errors crept in by the time it was republished in Melbourne giving her an incorrect name, and wrongly naming her father. It was this ‘Age’ marriage notice that first led me vastly astray in looking for the sisters of my g.g. grandmother. But because of BDM indexing initiatives by local history groups I was able to identify the correct marriage notice.

Its no good arguing that neighboring cities can publish the BDMs -the further away from the source the more likely there is of factual errors. When my g.g. aunt married in Ballarat in 1864 the local paper correctly recorded the couple’s names, their marriage place and date, and the names of parents. But as the notice was picked up and reprinted in papers in Melbourne (as was custom) new notices came into the public arena and which incorrectly named the couples and their place of marriage. So if you only read, for example, the one in the Melbourne Age, you would be searching for a church in Ballarat that did not exist. If you read the one in the Argus, you would be looking for a spouse that did not exist. So the closer to the source, the more accurate the information.

Mind you they sometimes contained Notices that were pranks: when working at a pub in my youth some of the locals decided to put in a marriage notice for our local jokestar: it ended as you might predict, but it is now a matter of public record that this man married a woman, whom he didn’t.

Sometimes it was what they didn’t print that makes a researcher go digging a bit deeper. Like an obituary for colonist Michael Connolly who died in 1856 at Port Fairy in Victoria’s south west. Connolly had cause administrators to take over a still-though barely viable business that propped up Portland, Port Fairy, Warrnambool and Launceston in Tasmania. It brought some popular settlers to their knees and caused the near-collapse of a bank that propped up the towns, so regardless of how well-liked he had previously been, his actions meant no obituary from him from the editor of the local papers (who were all actually related, having done their apprenticeship in colonial Sydney before a short stint in the formative settlements in Melbourne and Geelong).

For over 20 years I have been indexing BDM’s from newspapers from the 1800’s onward. It is truly unthinkable that BDMS can disappear alongside our regional papers, or behind paywalls in city papers. Yes you can obtain formal certificates of births, deaths and marriages in each of our States, roughly from the the 1850’s onward, but they are subject to time restrictions as to their release so particularly for those nearly million people who were removed from their families, placed in institutions or have no idea who their real families are, these newspaper BDMS can be the only tool they can access to find their families. And it is because of public volunteer initiatives, particularly like Ryerson, that those records are available to searchers.

There is little argument that many regional newspapers were struggling before the advent of Covid19, and that the Australian governmental response to start charging a fee to social media giants like Google and Facebook is a case of too little and too late. The dilemma for newspapers is that to be independent they must stand financially on their own two feet, be free from any financial or political influence. But the wicked question of how to continue their own existence and the advent of a pandemic might have finally seen off this bastion of public communication.