In My Opinion: Maurice Smith: Two hundred years of The Courier

DAVID Coupar Thomson was a far-sighted man, an aggressive entrepreneur in the great tradition of newspaper proprietors everywhere. In 1911, he commissioned the Gaumont film company to make a movie about a day in the life of the Dundee Courier.

The film, ‘Dundee Courier: Production of a Great Daily Newspaper‘, remains on the National Library of Scotland archives, a brilliant snapshot of life in bustling, industrial Dundee.

Marvel at the rows of apron-clad men at their Linotype machines, moulding the day’s news using hot lead type. Watch as the reporters and sub-editors work together to craft the stories that will be lapped up by a keen population, eager to find out what’s happening in the world, from the eyes of the silvery Tay.

The film tells us as much about Dundee and industrial Scotland before the Great War as it does about the newspaper that continues to appear each day, albeit by much more modern processes off the city’s Kingsway.

The excitement, the very urgency of the newspaper’s daily process, from sub-editor’s desk to the cobbles outside, where cigarette-smoking urchins grab their quires of papers to sell on the street, is all there.

Newspapers were the primary source of news back then, long before the days of radio. Despatches came back from the Front in war-time, events like the Tay Bridge Disaster recorded in the broadsheet columns that ran off each day’s press.

Much has changed since for The Courier and for every other newspaper. Yet, today the paper remains an important element of life on Tayside. It is the fourth-largest paper of the UK’s 65 surviving regional dailies, and has remained within the top 15 performers within the last decade – according to editor, Richard Neville.

He has been celebrating the paper’s 200th anniversary – as noted, here, by The Courier, and here, by Press Gazette – a milestone that many newspapers will not reach, thanks to the march of the internet and the decline of print.

But Neville emphasises the merits of papers like his as a bulwark of the community it has served for so many generations.

The Courier succeeds by remaining proudly parochial; in a good way. It retains a strong sense of local identity. Like its sister title, The Press and Journal, it continues to editionise heavily, ensuring local news for each part of its circulation area.

As Dundee Lord Provost, Bob Duncan, remarked this week: “It has a very significant place in the hearts of Dundonians.”

Neville told local dignitaries at a bicentenary party: “We dedicate ourselves to try to give our readers what they expect, what they don’t expect, what we think they’ll like and what we think they ought to know about it.

“We hope to continue to do that for you and that our successors continue to serve your descendants for the next 200 years.”

The paper outsells twice over the more celebrated Scotsman newspaper, which celebrates its own bicentennial in 2017.

The Glasgow Herald had a similar anniversary more than 30 years ago, its first edition in 1783 having famously reported the ceasefire that ended the American Revolution.

The death of newspapers has been predicted for so long that nobody, really, knows if it will, indeed, ever happen. The news media is increasingly digital and print will surely end as the physical means of delivery, some day.

But nobody has truly found a better means of telling local news. The Courier is a perfect example of a paper that has kept sight of its community – “This remarkable community of Dundee,… our beautifully imperfect city,” as executive chair of DC Thomson publishing, Ellis Watson, calls it.

So this month belongs to The Courier and its owners, descendants of DC Thomson – described by Watson as “modest, generous, visionary and ever-so-slightly-bonkers” – as they celebrate two centuries of an unique presence in the news business.

Maurice Smith is a journalist and documentary producer.