If The Proceedings of the Old Bailey is “the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-élite people ever published” (the Old Bailey archive makes one glad to be alive now), then the most impressive newspaper archive ever put online is that of The Times (of London) between 1785 and 1985 – every word of every issue, fully searchable.
The Old Bailey archive uses new screen text. The Times archive has images of the original printed material – png images of the article in which your search term appears and pdfs of the entire page on which the article appears. It’s a subscription service, but a public or academic library might give you access free of charge. It helps to have a thread or purpose as you navigate it. If any of your family ever wrote letters to The Times, there they are. In the desert of featureless pre-Stanley Morison print, I found, among much else, a tiny ad placed on May 21 1877 by my great grandfather’s brother (he was in his late twenties and died soon afterwards), appealing for work as a decorative artist in London.
Once you engage with it, the archive becomes an overwhelming experience: a portrait of the rise and decline of a power. It does not exclude “non-élite people”. Vide the ad I mentioned. Until May 3 1966 (not 1967, as Wikipedia currently says: I should correct this), the front page contained only classified advertising: births, deaths, other announcements. After that it contained news. This was a profound, not superficial, change. I can even remember the day. The old, Victorian, idea that private life came before everything else was superseded.
The founding Walter family owned The Times from 1785 to 1908, Lord Northcliffe from 1908 to 1922, the Astor family from 1922 to 1966, and the Canadian Roy Thomson from 1966 to 1981. Since 1981 it has been with Rupert Murdoch and News International. I am not sure whether the front-page change came under the Astors or Thomson: probably Thomson.
Martin Wolf in the FT, quoted by Lance Knobel: “Down-market is the direction Mr Murdoch knows. That has been the direction in all of his publications with which I am familiar. Mr Murdoch can take substantial credit for the tide of vulgarity that now floods the UK. For good or ill, he has helped transform my country.” The Times of India has moved in the same direction recently, but isn’t owned by Murdoch.
The closest thing to Rupert Murdoch in The Times’s previous owners was Northcliffe – yet the Northcliffe and Astor years were some of The Times’s greatest. Its faults were the faults of the society it represented. See the 6-volume History of The Times. When I was a child I was told that The Times “supported the government of the day”. Which struck me even then as not much of a position to have.
In 1932 Stanley Morison replaced the old type (Caslon, I think) with the new Times Roman. The relationship between the terms Times Roman and Times New Roman is complicated and not for here. That lasted until 1972, when it was replaced by Times Europa. I can remember that day, too. In 1982 there were further changes, and more have followed. There are bastard elements of the Morison layout in The Times even today (though there are almost daily tinkerings), but it is difficult to keep the classical Morison dignity in a Murdoch paper, let alone in a paper in tabloid format, which it has had since 2004, and which demands a different look.