“The New Journalism,” a phrase made famous by cultural critic Matthew Arnold in 1887, refers to a wide range of changes in British newspaper and magazine content and format, aimed at making print culture more accessible to working class and female readers. The controversial changes, some influenced by American practice, included formatting innovations, such as headlines, and new types of content, such as interviews, human interest stories, celebrity features, and a shifting emphasis from opinion to news, facilitated by the emergence of Reuters and other news agencies. Lengthier columns were replaced by paragraphs, often derisively called “snippets,” and the tone grew more personal. To its detractors (such as Arnold), the New Journalism entailed a challenge to the mid-nineteenth-century daily newspaper’s authority and political seriousness. To its defenders, including such innovating editors and proprietors as T. P. O’Connor, George Newnes, and Alfred Harmsworth (subsequently Lord Northcliffe), the New Journalism represented an awareness that life was broader than parliamentary politics and the belief that press content should reflect readers’ actual tastes rather than an elite’s conception of readers’ needs.
Although the mid-nineteenth-century daily morning newspaper had certainly been based on commercial motivations, many observers in the 1880s and afterwards perceived a decided heightening of commercialization. To be sure, the expansion of readership following the repeal of paper, advertising, and newspaper taxes between 1853 and 1861, and significant innovations in print technology, changed the economics of publishing and paved the way for newspaper chains to begin emerging in the 1870s, a trend that expanded even further in the twentieth century.
The resulting economies of scale allowed a dramatic expansion of circulation, while the growth of advertising revenues ultimately allowed newspapers to lower their sale price below the cost of production; the Daily Telegraph had emerged as a penny daily in 1855, but the Daily Mail in 1896 pioneered the half-penny daily paper. By this point, selling newspaper copies to readers was no longer the most important financial transaction; rather, newspaper companies were selling circulation to advertisers. Whereas in 1856
Reynolds News and Lloyds Weekly had both become the first (weekly) papers to reach sales of 100,000, the Star reached 200,000 in the 1880s, and by 1900 the Daily Mail reached nearly a million. To the horror of many champions of the mid-century “educational” daily press, a venerated cultural icon had been turned into a mere commodity, an impression only magnified by a trend toward using contests and giveaways to attract purchasers (not necessarily readers). This type of practice reached a peak in the “circulation wars” of the 1930s. Champions of the sober educational press worried not only about the impact on readers of the popular press, but also about the danger that even such elite papers as The Times and the Manchester Guardian would be influenced by the New Journalism.
While many critics lamented the commercialization of the press, and many defenders scorned the idea that newspapers should be viewed differently from any other product for sale, the New Journalism also had champions who insisted that the press’s transformation had truly democratic consequences. Not only did such defenders doubt that very many people had actually read, say, the lengthy verbatim parliamentary reports in The Times and other mid-century elite papers, but they also argued that high circulations gave newspaper editors a daily democratic legitimacy that Parliament could not match. For W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, a London evening paper, a daily paper could publicize wrongs that needed addressing, acting as a people’s tribune and forcing Parliament’s hand. Putting these views into practice, his 1885 campaign to raise the age of sexual consent did not offer reasoned legal opinions, but instead featured sensationalistic and melodramatic tales of aristocratic rakes ruining innocent and helpless young women and forcing them into a “white slave” trade, as well as a “stunt” that landed him in prison: the purchasing of a virgin in order to demonstrate how easily it could be done. For the controversial Stead, this (successful) crusade showed that campaigning journalism could blur the line between politics and entertainment, giving the New Journalism just as serious a purpose as its mid-century predecessors. On the other hand, it would be hard to find any political significance in Lord Northcliffe’s 1920 campaign to create a Daily Mail hat.
The early scholarly response, including that of R. A. Scott-James (1913), R. C. K. Ensor (1992, 1st pub. 1936), and Alan J. Lee (1976), tended to reaffirm the Arnoldian view of a fairly rapid introduction of largely frivolous new qualities. More recently, Jean Chalaby (1998) has argued that the 1855 repeal of the Newspaper Stamp Tax marked the decisive break between a press oriented toward political “publicity” and a new commercial product deserving of the name “journalism.” On balance, though, the past generation of scholars has demonstrated considerable continuity between the New Journalism and its predecessors, as well as challenging the distinctions between popular and elite forms in the late nineteenth century. For example, Raymond Williams (1961) and Joel Wiener (1988) have shown that many of the qualities offensive to the New Journalism’s critics were borrowings from the working-class Sunday press of the mid-century, while Kate Jackson (2001) and Michelle Tusan (2005), among others, have shown that methods of the New Journalism could be employed in the service of the education and advocacy more commonly associated with mid-nineteenth century daily newspapers. This scholarship shows that the undeniable transformations in format, style, and content that characterized the New Journalism should be seen as gradual changes, dating perhaps from the 1840s through the 1930s, rather than sudden products of the 1880s. For contemporary critics and defenders, though, the New Journalism was above all a concept through which to debate the merits of an emerging mass democracy.
- Chalaby, J. (1998). The invention of journalism. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Conboy, M. (2002). The press and popular culture. London: Sage.
- Ensor, R.C.K. (1992). England 1870 –1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1936).
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- Jackson, K. (2001). George Newnes and the New Journalism in Britain, 1880 –1910: Culture and profit. Aldershot: Ashgate.
- Lee, A. J. (1976). The origins of the popular press in England, 1855 –1914. London: Croom Helm.
- Potter, S. J. (2003). News and the British world: The emergence of an imperial press system. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Scott-James, R. A. (1913). The influence of the press. London: Partridge.
- Tusan, M. (2005). Women making news: Gender and journalism in modern Britain. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
- Wiener, J. H. (1988). Papers for the millions? The New Journalism in Britain, 1850s to 1914. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Williams, R. (1966). The long revolution, rev. edn. New York: Harper and Row. (Original work published 1961).