A Chronological History of the Hill Valley Telegraph — Part IV

In addition to being a fun adventure, Oedipal psychosexual nightmare and blockbuster trilogy, the Back to the Future films are a parable about newspapers. Over the course of two of cinema’s greatest films and that one about cowboys, we are presented with an ode to local journalism, championing its community spirit and strict focus.

It is a story told out of chronological order. Until now…

Click for Part I, Part II and Part III.


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If you squint, or have a higher-definition version of Back to the Future Part II than I do, you can see a framed newspaper on the wall of Café ’80s, because this film was certainly right about one thing: restaurants will not easily give up the Crazy Crap On The Walls strategy. It appears to be referencing Ronald Reagan’s second Presidential victory, which by 2015 in this world is a fun, nostalgic thing to think about.

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It appears to be from the Los Angeles Times. For some reason, Café ’80s appear to have gone with a national newspaper rather than a local one to invoke nostalgia. It could easily be that Café ’80s is a chain of restaurants so no local thought was applied. I scoured the Internet for proof that this was a genuine LA Times front page – it’s a real event in our universe, so it stands a good chance – and while I couldn’t find a picture of the page in question, the LA Times’ online archive lists a headline that matches the one from the film.

I could've paid $10.95 to access the archive properly but I have no money

But newspapers aren’t just for decoration in Back to the Future Part II’s vision of 2015. They’re still useful for what they are always useful for: explaining the plot so characters don’t have to.

Doc hands Marty a copy of a paper to expand on his fraught “something’s gotta be done about your kids!” line from the first film’s cliffhanger. But…

BY Basil Exposition, Plot Correspondent

What’s this? It’s not the Hill Valley Telegraph, it’s USA Today!

And on the cover we see that Marty’s son – a dead ringer for his old man, who’d have thought it? – gets arrested for a theft. The event has not yet happened from the point that Doc and Marty (and poor Jennifer) arrive, indeed Doc has already been forward in time and retrieved this newspaper. Anyway, once Marty has been to Café ’80s, rejecting Griff’s offer and made every viewer wish that hoverboards were real, we see that the newspaper changes.

Basil Exposition reporting not live

While the headline and subheadlines change when Marty meddles with the timeline, USA Today’s subeditors have favoured blunt headlines (“Youth Jailed” and “Gang Jailed”) before offering a bit more detail. You’ll notice, however, that the body text of the article looks identical and doesn’t change at all, even though the story now focuses on multiple people. It’s not just substituting “Griff” for “Marty” each time, significant portions would have to be different.

More frustrating still is the bizarre change in line spacing, as you can see:

Guess you could call it a... RULE OF THUMB B')

The changed page has a bigger gap between the two lines of the smallest header, bigger than looks professional for a newspaper. There’s no diegetic reason for it that I can see, it just works better with Marty’s thumb.

But what about Back to the Future Part II’s vision for USA Today?

Firstly, it’s worth noting that USA Today is still published daily on paper, which may not have seemed like a remarkable suggestion in 1989 but seems like the work of a dinosaur in 2015. However, even though the Internet has dented newspaper sales globally, it has actually returned USA Today to where it was in the eighties.

According to USA Today’s own figures in a press release for its 30th anniversary in 2011, the paper hit a circulation of 1,500,000 copies a day by 1987 and these days (according to Wikipedia) it sells 1,674,306 copies a day, as of March 2013.

The paper seems to have hit its peak in 2004 with an average daily circulation of 2,339,919 copies. (Although 2004 was an election year, so that may have caused a general lift overall.) But it has been steadily downhill from there and it is no longer “No 1 in the USA” as its tagline used to claim – having ceded that ground to The Wall Street Journal, with The New York Times in second, pushing USA Today into third.

Not only does Back to the Future’s 2015 USA Today vision still proudly say it’s “No 1 in the USA”, it also claims to have “3 billion readers every day”. This is a bold claim, putting it mildly. There are roughly seven billion people alive in 2015, and USA Today’s readership is not any sizeable proportion of that. Rather than every three in seven people as readers, it’s more like one in every 4,375 people.

In fact, there aren’t even three billion English-speakers in the world who might understand USA Today, much less that number interested in the domestic affairs of the United States on a daily basis. The only language with over a billion speakers – I couldn’t find figures for reading – is Chinese, with most of them living in China. So while a Chinese paper may have hope of reaching a billion people every day, USA Today probably doesn’t.

Unless, of course, it publishes editions in English, Chinese, Spanish, French, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Japanese and maybe a handful of other languages. Perhaps then USA Today would have the reach to grab three billion readers.

That seems excessive and prohibitively expensive for a print newspaper with its printing, distribution and staff costs. We could generously claim that there is an Internet in Back to the Future’s 2015, we just didn’t get time to see it in the film because we’d rather watch Michael J Fox being three members of the same family like a white Eddie Murphy. Even in that case, the biggest online newspaper is MailOnline (somewhat regrettably for humanity). According to ABC circulation figures, MailOnline makes reaches 119,089,705 unique Internet browsers in one month, and 7,833,182 on an average day. Even including the printed Daily Mail’s circulation figures (1,787,558)  we’re not even touching a tenth of a billion per day.

So how is USA Today reaching three billion readers every single day?

“Is there a review of Jaws 19 in here?”
The clue might be in the top-right corner. There’s a yellow diagonal that says this is the “Hill Valley Edition” of the paper. Hill Valley is not a large place, and although it may have become a sprawling metropolitan city by 2015 it seems very much like the large town and surrounding suburbs that we see in both 1955 and 1985. It is not, in short, the sort of place where you would expect a paper to produce a localised version. Not in our reality, anyway.

So perhaps USA Today produces hyperlocal newspaper content blended in with its national, and international, articles and features. Then it has an army of subeditors arrange the local material around the rest, giving local stories prominence and shifting any bigger, national news to the inside pages. If they had enough money to pay journalists, photographers and subeditors then this operation could produce local news across the globe and each localised edition could add its circulation to a total that may, if USA Today expanded large enough, eventually reach the magic three-billion figure.

This all seems, again, prohibitively expensive, although it’s worth bearing in mind that USA Today would be raking in $3,000,000,000 every single day if they charged a modest $1 for each newspaper. So are there any hints as to how they can afford such a huge operation?

Notably, they didn’t bother spending a fortune on a redesign. Our USA Today changed its logo into a hipper (and notably more Internet- and app-friendly) design in 2012, which also included some work on changing the look of the front page. By contrast, Hill Valley’s USA Today logo looks very similar to the pre-2012 version but with the eighties idea of a futuristic font stuck on there. I have no idea how much the redesign of USA Today cost, but some advertising firm probably charged them millions for their “blue-sky thinking”.

Essentially it’s wrong on every conceivable level

In fact, it seems highly improbable that if USA Today were cracking into local markets in different languages it would keep its current name. There are questions of branding, of course, but we might expect to see variations such as “China Today” (or something like “今天中国”, anyway) on display internationally.

But the real money-saver is dispensing with human photographers and journalists who go out into the world, as evidenced by the USA Today-branded floating camera that appears in Hill Valley.

Hate the watermark? Then give me ALL YOUR MONEY

Not only is this a remarkably prescient prediction of remotely controlled airborne vehicles capturing footage for newsgathering operations (oh, OK, “drone journalism”), but it could also very well provide an insight into the way USA Today can be so hyperlocal.

If they have an army of drones ready to capture newsworthy events, these can all be relayed into a central journalistic office which then, not unlike The Huffington Post, could churn out local content at an astonishing rate, supplying USA Today’s many editions with important snippets of news, as well as the rest of the news from around the globe.

And in this constantly churning newsroom, pumping out editions for towns and cities across the world, will mistakes not creep in somewhere along the line? Such a massive operation is bound, one would think, to have occasional slip-ups.

And in this constantly churning newsroom, pumping out editions for towns and cities across the world, will mistakes not creep in somewhere along the line? Such a massive operation is bound, one would think, to have occasional slip-ups.

But it’s also bound to provide loads of news. Including the most optimistic sentence on the newspaper’s front page: “Washington Prepares For Queen Diana’s Visit”.

All of Back to the Future Part II’s predictions for the future are supposed to be nonsense. According to the Blu-ray commentary quoted on Wikipedia, Zemeckis said that “rather than trying to make a scientifically sound prediction that we were probably going to get wrong anyway, we figured, let’s just make it funny”. And while it works most of the time, it’s worth pointing out how spectacularly wrong that top-right USA Today headline is.

In Marty McFly’s world, Prince Charles is King by October 2015 (not likey), he is still married to Diana Spencer (they split up three years after the film was made) and Queen Elizabeth II has died while Diana lives on (certainly not the case).

That’s not the only reason the story is notable. Look at the USA Today sidebar, next to the story about Marty/Griff’s gang. The seventh story down the “Newsline” for Thursday, October 22 2015 (a correct date): “Queen Diana will Visit Washington”. Even if these are separate stories, one a feature on the prep and the other straight news about the visit, it’s a very sloppy piece of design work that seemingly duplicates story trails, especially when both are above the fold.

How come such a mistake can be made? Simple: USA Today’s gargantuan newsgathering team overwhelms its subeditors to the point where you’d be happy they just got a paper out, never mind if an item gets two mentions. Getting the paper out also appears to involve “compu-fax satellite”, though the nature of this technology isn’t really made clear.

The rest of the Newsline is a fun little glimpse into more of the crazy future imagined by Zemeckis and co, including:

  • “Thumb bandits strike” – Presumably this has something to do with the future’s security systems. We see the McFly home operates by pressing thumbs on pads, presumably registering finger prints. So it’s safe to assume that “thumb bandits” go around chopping off thumbs and then steal from their victims. The future isn’t always pretty, but will make for some excellent fan-fiction.
  • “Man killed by falling litter” – it’s blurry, but it looks like this is blamed on a “hovering vehicle”, which is an oddly clunky phrase. From that we could assume that flying cars are a relatively new invention, and nobody has developed a short, slang term for them. Or USA Today’s reporters are hedging their bets because they don’t know what sort of vehicle it was. There seems to be no cross-reference to another page, which makes the latter more likely – it’s just eight words of news and maybe there’s more to come the following day.
  • “Swiss terrorist threat” – again, it’s blurry, but I think this is followed up by “may be real say CIA officials”. In which case, Switzerland has finally got interesting.
  • “President says she’s tired” – Back to the Future strikes a victory for feminism, saying there will certainly be a female President. Just as soon as we get dust-proof paper and over a dozen more Jaws films.
  • An item about a pitcher with a bionic arm, which presumably opens up all sorts of questions about athletes competing with technological enhancements and/or replacements for organic body parts. There was some debate on this issue when Oscar Pistorious competed in the Olympics (rather than the Paralympics). Not the last time he was controversial.
  • Above the Newsline section there’s also a Sports box, which hints at a fun-sounding game called Slamball, and a headline about a “3 minute mile” – which research suggests would be impossible. Then again, with bionic body parts, who knows?

Considering these headlines, it suddenly becomes obvious why USA Today’s localised edition has supplanted the Hill Valley Telegraph. It remains Back to the Future Part II’s most satirical, biting and relevant joke about 2015.

We are presented with a vision of a world run by corporations so large and monopolistic that they can reach 3,000,000,000 every day. It’s like the bastard child of Rupert Murdoch and Disney. It has produced a sprawling company of a sickening magnitude that it has forgotten what people want from their local newspaper. The legacy of the Hill Valley Telegraph has been forsaken and what has it been replaced with?

A torrential flood of the factually impossible and complete bullshit. It is not a pretty sight, it is a warning. The Hill Valley Telegraph last over a hundred years before it collapsed, absorbed into part of USA Today and it struggled to hold on to its relevancy. Its unchanging story text? That makes sense, the thing is probably written by machines anyway.

That is the story of Back to the Future, the story of an invaluable newspaper – not always the best, but always informative – and how it ended up rotten. Swallowed up by the inexorable rise of monopolistic capitalism and reduced to nothing.

Long live the Hill Valley Telegraph.

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A Chronological History of the Hill Valley Telegraph — Part III

In addition to being a fun adventure, Oedipal psychosexual nightmare and blockbuster trilogy, the Back to the Future films are a parable about newspapers. Over the course of two of cinema’s greatest films and that one about cowboys, we are presented with an ode to local journalism, championing its community spirit and strict focus.

It is a story told out of chronological order. Until now…

Click for Part I and Part II.


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One film later and a whole universe to the side, Marty finds himself in what Doc calls “1985A”, an alternate reality caused by Biff’s stealing of a sports almanac in 2015 and giving it his 1955 self. As Marty, and the audience, stumble around a hellish eighties dystopia, we have to wonder how Biff knowing sports scores before they happened gave rise to this nightmare.

As ever, there’s only one trusted source. Only this time, it’s relayed on TV screens outside Biff’s Pleasure Palace. Yes, Biff’s awful behaviour has even tainted the reliable newspaper, showing just how necrotic Biff’s Hill Valley has become.

Spinning newspaper agogo!

Kicking things off, we have Biff’s first win. The Telegraph seems to have switched to Capitalise Each Word policy for their headlines which I like far less than the all-caps approach they have employed up to this point. Then again, perhaps it’s because CLOCK TOWER STRUCK isn’t as big news as Man Wins Big and they’re reflecting that in the emphasis. There’s other news there, too, including some state highway funds – the sort of local construction project news that often makes headlines – and, strangely, international news about “Khruschev”, the new Soviet Premier. This would place it in March 1958, two and a half years after Biff first got the almanac.

Or it would, if the subs had got their spelling right. Perhaps they were violently ill and nobody in the office knew it’s “Khrushchev”, with three Hs. There’s also mention of Eisenhower at the bottom of the screen, too, to further hint at the day of the big win, and at least they got his name correct.

What about Chip and Kipper?

Following previous news stories, Biff Tannen is back and known only as Biff. When the newspapers treat you mononymically, it can only be a sign that you’re in them far too often. The misspelt Khruschev returns, so I’m forced to consider that this was either the accepted spelling back then and it isn’t any more or the Hill Valley Telegraph has an abstract style guide for Russian names. That’s not the only quirk of their style guide, and it’s about time I brought it up.

Indentation! Every paragraph is indented, which initially seems fine until you realise that also applies to the first paragraph of articles. As indents only denote the start of a new paragraph you don’t need them if the paragraph is obviously beginning. When it’s under, say, a headline. It’s not like this is a weird trick in journalism, it’s pretty standard practice basically anywhere paragraphs are used with a Latin alphabet. Scroll back up through this post, look at the indents. Clearly, the Telegraph is something of a stylistic maverick newspaper.

More like Yuckiest

We’re back to calling him by his full name now as Biff becomes “Luckiest Man On Earth”. You’ll notice the Telegraph has gone back to capitalised words after a brief flirtation of all-caps last time. The indents are still maddeningly present. There’s a colossal amount of white space caused by include the name “Biff Tannen” above the headline and it’s pretty ugly as page design goes. Nasser has replaced “Khruschev” as the go-to international news figure of choice in this increasingly twisted version of the Hill Valley Telegraph.

In fact, it has got so bad that one might be convinced that Biff had decided to buy the Telegraph with his mountain of winnings and is just getting it to print stories about him. In the logic of the Back to the Future world this would be further damnation upon his character – remember his ancestor’s trigger-happy approach to journalism? – and thus a greater demonstration that he is the villain of the piece.

RAMBLING, NOT SO MUCH

We’re back with all-caps! This would be time to rejoice, but it only accentuates the problem with the swathe of white space to the right of “Hill Valley” which, frankly, doesn’t make much sense. I suppose it’s to point out that the gambling has only been legalised in Hill Valley, and not nationwide? Even so, it’s an abhorrent piece of design. And given that smarmy photo of Biff on the front page let’s just go with the theory that Biff owns the paper. We know he builds a casino, perhaps he was trying to get the town onboard with the idea first?

Even if Biff doesn’t own the paper, then the spelling mistakes and design SNAFUs are another indication of just how badly Hill Valley is doing. Its once noble paper has been slowly eroded into a former shadow of itself. Still, it’s widely-read. Marty picks up a copy to establish the date, on Mr Strickland’s doorstep.

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The desiccated husk that bears the Hill Valley Telegraph logo is running a story about Ronald Reagan going for surgery, it appears. No clock towers, no Biff, just Reagan news. If he’s getting surgery in Hill Valley, that would just about make sense.

When the Telegraph does focus on local issues, though, it’s even more of a horror-show. As if the world wasn’t in dire straits already, Doc shows Marty the full extent of the carnage wrought by 2015-Biff’s time meddling.

This blog would be shorter if Crispin Glover had just participated. Cheers, Crispin!

First up is the news that George McFly has been shot, with the Telegraph using a formula of all-caps headline, capitalised first letters subheadline. And a big headshot of George McFly. The use of his full name would indicate that he is reasonably well-known locally (“Local author shot dead” would be appropriate if he was unheard of), with the subheadline just clarifying matters for those unaware. We’ve also got other news creeping in with the Wounded Knee Incident, setting this piece of news in 1973. You’ll notice, for old time’s sake, that all the paragraphs are indented.

COMMITTED (to inventing time travel)

The Telegraph, some years later going by the “Nixon to Seek Fifth Term” headline, is still using the same arrangement for capital letters in headlines as when George McFly was shot. Except now they’re using a serif font for everything but the headline. Previously it was a lovely sans-serif number, and this frankly looks like a cheap use of Times New Roman. That this is also front page news suggests that by the eighties, Doc Brown was pretty famous around Hill Valley. And then they rather go and spoil it all by calling him a “crackpot” when he’s been “declared legally insane”, which is not an especially sensitive move.

By the movie’s end, though, the paper’s insensitivity doesn’t matter at all as the universe changes once more. Burning the almanac means Biff’s ascent never happens and, consequently, neither George nor Doc have their bad experiences. Instead, the papers end up weirdly familiar.

Yes, that is a newspaper with "More rain predicted" as a front page story

It is commendably plausible that the Telegraph would run a story on George McFly being killed as well as receiving and award – although the D of “award” is so close to the photograph as to look like sloppy layout work.

Surely it should be "Mayor's Office", with an apostrophe?

The strange and fluid approach to typefaces continues, but in this nicer timeline of less Biff the Telegraph doesn’t use the word “crackpot” even though they really need something to fill up some space round the edges. It’s just a classier newspaper without the influence of Tannen riches. We could also deduce the world is better because Nixon is long gone and it’s only Reagan seeking a second term.

Speaking of which…

Onwards to Part IV.

A Chronological History of the Hill Valley Telegraph — Part II

In addition to being a fun adventure, Oedipal psychosexual nightmare and blockbuster trilogy, the Back to the Future films are a parable about newspapers. Over the course of two of cinema’s greatest films and that one about cowboys, we are presented with an ode to local journalism, championing its community spirit and strict focus.

It is a story told out of chronological order. Until now…

Click here for Part I


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It’s seventy years later and two films before, as Marty McFly takes a baffled walk through the town he knows so well. But he doesn’t know it any more. He’s not quite sure what’s happening, and looks for a clue. And he finds it when a suited gentleman drops his newspaper into a bin, which Marty retrieves. He scans the front page and has his definite answer.

Bonfire Night! Wait, they don't do that in America

Despite adverts for Ronald Reagan films, the 1950s cars nearly running him over, Patti Page and Nat King Cole in the music shop and a working clock tower, Marty only really clicks that he’s travelled back in time when he says the date in black and white. In newsprint. Saturday, November 5, 1955. In the world of Back to the Future there is plenty of strangeness, and the only reliable source of information is the Hill Valley Telegraph. It’s a reliable, impartial guide to the madness, a singular source of reason amidst confusion. It even has that blackletter masthead! A familiar sight for Marty, no doubt.

Having established that he is now in 1955, and ruining his parents’ first meeting, Marty is understandably desperate to get back to the eighties. You can only go so long without a Huey Lewis fix. And what does he need to get there, Doc?

Marty is faced with a problem and yet again (or for the first time in his own personal chronology), it is the Hill Valley Telegraph that saves him. The Hill Valley Preservation Society had earlier (by which I mean thirty years later) given Marty a flyer that has a copy of a newspaper clipping, leading him and Doc to know exactly when lightning will strike. A storm in Hill Valley and the surrounding area is never going to make the headlines of a national newspaper, and any fleeting mentions on TV news will be lost as soon as they’re broadcast.

Yes, that is ORGY playing at the cinema in the background

It is local print journalism that is uniquely suited here. It informs and records history simultaneously, and can be preserved for incredible lengths of time – especially when the Hill Valley library adopts the archive, as we have seen it do.

And of course the newspaper thinks the clock stopping is the most newsworthy event of the prior night. The Telegraph is an august institution with a long history and as such has great affection for the town’s traditions, including the clock tower. There was a little matter of a local school student trying to rape another student, but the fact that Biff’s crime went unreported (at least on the front page, but probably at all) tells us plenty about the attitude of the 1950s.

Apart from the repetition of “clock” in the subheadline – “Stopped at 10:04” would be fine on its own – the front page of the Hill Valley Telegraph as presented here is a properly professional piece of work. No unnecessary white space, a clear headline, a picture and some columns, weather notices in the masthead. It all looks like the great local paper we know the Hill Valley Telegraph is.

I wouldn’t be so complimentary about the Preservation Society, mind, who really should have structured the top of their flyer as

SAVE THE
CLOCK TOWER

“Tower” on its own on the second line looks a bit lonely otherwise. But the rest of the Telegraph? Well that’s spot on, as we’ve come to expect. What could possibly go wrong for the esteemed publication?

Find out in 1985(A) with Part III!

A Chronological History of the Hill Valley Telegraph — Part I

In addition to being a fun adventure, Oedipal psychosexual nightmare and blockbuster trilogy, the Back to the Future films are a parable about newspapers. Over the course of two of cinema’s greatest films and that one about cowboys, we are presented with an ode to local journalism, championing its community spirit and strict focus.

It is a story told out of chronological order. Until now…


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We start with the third film, which is only appropriate for time travel. When our plucky protagonist Marty McFly arrives in 1885 in an improbable cowboy outfit, it’s not long before he’s sauntering through Hill Valley.

It’s a newly-established town and they haven’t even built the clock tower yet. We are treated, though, to some familiar sights: Statler, the car dealer brand of the future, is selling horses. There’s a company that transports manure. Notably absent is Goldie Wilson, so leave your Django to the Future dreams at the door.

Marty has rocked up in the nineteenth century because he found Doc Brown’s tombstone in 1955, which bore bad news as only a comically verbose and expository tombstone can.

It’s entirely plausible that Doc deliberately had this tombstone made so Marty would spot it, go back in time, and save him. If we stretch the definition of the word “plausible”.

Marty and Doc, having seen this news in 1955, decide to visit the library and see if their archived copies of the Hill Valley Telegraph from 1885 have anything to say on the matter of Buford Tannen shooting a man over $80. While that may sound trivial to modern ears, there are people who have been shot in the USA over far less and it’s about $1,900 these days when you adjust for inflation.

Hill Valley’s library is a dutiful steward of local history and has copies of the Telegraph from 1885, providing the duo a few clues as to what went down. They find reference to Buford Tannen and it’s made immediately clear that he is an absolute bastard. A record about his deadliness as a gunslinger is apparently unverifiable, given that “Tannen shot a newspaper editor after printing an unfavorable story about him in 1884”. That’s how important newspapers are in the world of Back to the Future: if you disrespect their mission to report the truth, you’re also the type of guy who would kill the beloved Doc.

We only get a brief glimpse of an edition of the Telegraph in the library, and although it is undated we know it must be from around 1885, because our heroes have no reason to look up any other era.

From the year they decided H.V. was a cooler name

The masthead is very plain and simple, but the headline is in a beautifully ornate typeface that I can’t for the life of me identify. It makes a change from the usual style of a newspaper, anyway, where the title of the paper is in gothic blackletter and the headlines are in bold, blocky sans serif types. That “complete” under the logo is absolutely bonkers and I can’t get enough of it. The Hill Valley Telegraph has already established a unique style.

It says this is a copy from Volume XVII, No. 32. It would make sense to assume that the Telegraph sorts its volumes by calendar year, meaning that it has been around for seventeen years by the time this edition is printed. We don’t know if it’s weekly or daily at this point in its history, so it’s either from around August (if 32 is the week number) or around February (if it’s a day number). I’m assuming here that it is regularly printed, which is not necessarily a given, but certainly makes things easier to work with.

Given that Doc travelled to September 1, 1885 this could very well be the preceding week’s Telegraph, an obvious starting point to look for clues about Buford Tannen. If that’s the case – and it’s a very sketchy guess – we can establish the Hill Valley Telegraph was first established in 1867. The headline seems to suggest that Hill Valley is celebrating a 20th anniversary, possibly of its founding – meaning the Telegraph has been around almost since the town’s very beginning.

Under the heading of “News In The Mail”, this Telegraph edition has some column-filling text rather than anything specific to Back to the Future Part III. However, it is at least in English and is deliberately generic so that it could refer to any event somewhat vaguely.

“Many persons feel at this stage that some legal action is forthcoming, but it now becomes common knowledge that there is pressure from the inside which will materially change the [something] of the case.”

And on it goes, fleetingly. There is a potential explanation: the journalists who work there aren’t very good. It’s been going since 1867 but they must have hired a new recruit who is the dreariest writer imaginable.

A perfectly ordinary photograph to take

As Marty finds Doc posing with the town’s new clock in a photograph from 1885, we can see on the desk behind him a newspaper clipping about a town square. This doesn’t resemble the headline typeface we’ve already seen on the Hill Valley Telegraph, although it could possibly be the one from the masthead. But it’s the Old West: it’s not hard to imagine that style could have been a very fluid thing.

We see that photo of Doc being taken later on, only now Marty has joined the picture. That is one of the primary rules of Back to the Future’s time travel: time can change. This is usually visually conveyed with a photograph; where once it was just Doc it is now Doc and Marty, because the latter has now ventured back in time. The same thing happens in the first film, when Marty’s siblings fade away from a photograph.

When the picture is being taken they’re at a ceremony to mark the erection of the clock tower, where Ye Olde ZZ Toppe are playing for the locals. We’re also treated to the invention of the Frisbee (in real life, the work of university students playing with pie tins) and a brief shot of the Hill Valley Telegraph’s office.

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It’s a bit blurry but it seems obvious that the paper has switched from its plain masthead with small caps and has embraced the blackletter style of which so many newspapers are fond.

Prestigious

So the paper is certainly well-established enough to have an office in the centre of town, and now it has adopted a very definite look. Even if your style is shifting a bit you have to be committed to a logo to have it emblazoned above your office door.

It seems, then, that the Hill Valley Telegraph is here to stay beyond 1885.

Fire up that flux capacitor and journey all the way to 1955 for Part II.

20,000 leagues of nonsensical news

It’s Marvel’s Avengers blockbuster team-up crossed with Penny Dreadful, but made ten years before either of those – yes, would could it be but The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? “Based” on a comic book by Alan Moore, it’s a film that is almost universally reviled (“What a mess.” – Roger Ebert) and the experience of it drove Sean Connery to quit acting.

But we’re not here to dissect the flaws of a 2003 blockbuster, including the marketing department’s decision to market it as the catchy “LXG”, we’re here to talk newspapers. And there’s three of them, sort of, and they’re only there to function as a quick burst of exposition after a tank smashes into the Bank of London in 1899.

"Tanks for the memories"

It’s just that sort of film, you see.

Then we’re treated to what I suppose is supposed to be an update of the passé form of spinning newspapers. Instead of whizzing round, the front pages now shoot through a black void looking like flat 2D graphics. The effect is notably cheap and the sort of the thing that even Windows Movie Maker would have deemed excessive.

Whoosh!

First up is The London Post, which sounds real enough and is here 100 years after the real newspaper the London Evening Post closed. It looks distinctly like a 21st century newspaper.

There’s a big picture on the front (an artist’s impression of the tank), a large headline stretching the length of the page, smaller headings and a few columns. It looks irritatingly clean, both in its slickly efficient design and in how crisp everything looks. The sweat and grime of printing presses has not touched this.

An effort has been made to make this look like an actual piece of paper, though, with some creases here and there. The text, as far as I can make out from my DVD copy (two disc special edition!), seems to be written to fit with the headlines it appears under. It’s a nice touch and it doesn’t read as particularly modern or antiquated.

Not just yet, it isn't

Then it’s The Morning Leader (not that one) sweeping into view, unknowingly fulfilling rule number one of reading a newspaper: if the headline poses a question, the answer is almost certainly NO.

The design of the Leader is basically identical to that of the Post, and still it all looks sleek and mocked-up-on-InDesign-in-your-lunch-break. The sub-editors need a good kicking, too, for including two questions with the word “Germany” in them. It’s a bland and repetitive page, although their in-house artist has added a man to the tank. Dramatic!

NICHT UNS

And this is frankly the most laughable front page you’ll ever see in a movie. The Globe & Traveler – not real – has firstly used those godawful opening quote marks that are mirror images of closing quotes. I hate those things with a passion, but that’s just me.

What’s actually indefensibly awful here is that headline. It is a wholly tabloid way of writing a headline, especially with the exclamation mark. Globe & Traveler are clearly pioneers of cutting down issues to four words and it’s that ruthless efficiency we should blame for the way it seems like Germany is making diplomatic announcements with all the dignity of a four-year-old.

It’s so thunderingly anachronistic and stands out as such even in a film where Tom Sawyer drives a car around the streets of Venice. In fact, I only wrote this post after The Remake podcast noticed the stupidity of the headline and realised no newspaper criticism blog would be complete without it.

I shouldn’t even need to point out that as well as a modern sensibility of headlines, Globe & Traveler has a strikingly familiar design. Familiar to the other newspapers in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and none that exist in the real world. Just for reference’s sake, here’s a newspaper published in 1881, eighteen years before this film is set.

Obtained from Wikipedia
Obtained from Wikipedia

It’s wall-to-wall tiny writing and it’s all adverts and paid announcements. This was a very common practice in the era of Victorian newspapers and drove a lot of the revenue of the press earned. You’ll notice how the newspapers breaking the news of German tanks in 1899 are apparently funded by millionaires who see no need to blight their newspapers with grubby adverts. If you’d like to learn more about the industry of newspapers when they began then Judith Flanders’ excellent The Invention of Murder touches upon how the zeal for news about killings helped the papers flourish.

Still, while The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has newspapers no more improbable and ridiculous than the rest of the film, there is one thing I really love about the film. I’m a sucker for when films use the studio logos at the start in an interesting way, and here the 20th Century Fox logo fades into… a rusty metal sign atop a London building for 20th Century Fox!

“Charlie Chaplin is ten, shall we sign him up?”

We can only imagine what this company might be producing, but I like the idea that some enterprising cockney decided to make his business sound futuristic in 1899 by alluding to the incoming hundred years.