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26 July 2022

From the NS archive: The newspapers we deserve

6 September 1913: The daily paper is charged with a lack of intelligence, and assuming in its readers no power of sustained attention.

By New Statesman

It appears the British public have always been highly critical of the media, as this article written for the New Statesman in 1913 opens with the debate on “The Newspaper —Then and Now”. The comparison to the past is likely to be before the so-called “golden age” of newspaper publication; a period from 1860 to 1910 when technical advances in printing and communication, combined with an influx of new owners encouraged a general attitude of profiteering. This article targets swipes at W. T. Stead, who is known for pioneering tabloid journalism, Lord Northcliffe, the owner of the Daily Mail, the second biggest-selling daily paper at the time, and the Daily Mirror, and Hamilton Fyfe the Mirror’s editor. The anonymous author lays the blame in these newly popular daily papers — with their scare headlines and reduction of grave affairs to “the trivial, the impertinent, the unreal” — and cautions of their “immeasurable power for the circulation of untruth”.

There are few better subjects, one would have said, for a holiday-season discussion than The Newspaper —Then and Now: the newspapers we once knew, and are rapidly forgetting; the newspapers we now endure, or would like to have, or think we deserve to enjoy. Yet we confess to having got very little out of the protracted correspondence in the Westminster Gazette on the habits of newspapers — a correspondence which in its early stages synchronised with the easy-going criticisms and predictions submitted by Mr Robert Donald to the Institute of Journalists. Mr Donald, long since anticipated by the utopian novelists, rejoiced in the prospect of the news service being laid on to the Englishman’s home along with gas and water; and he asked his audience to share his own belief in the expanding intelligence and morality of the newspaper and its public. But is clear enough, from the letters in the Westminster, that there are pressmen and newspaper readers in plenty who do not accept Mr Donald’s comfortable view of things. They are bored or irritated by the newspaper of the day; and quite a number of them, it would seem, are sighing after the delicious blends of thirty years ago.

Now, there is one thing which can hardly have failed to strike everybody who has gone through the correspondence in question — that is, the comparatively feeble case which the complainants succeed in bringing against the newspaper as we have it in England in these days. Most of them, for example, ride off on small matters of style and method — the neglect of this and that, the omission of a contents table, the jargon of reporters and leader-writers. These things are trifles. Even the question of newspaper English is comparatively irrelevant; for, in the first place, newspaper English has always been full of horrors, and it can hardly be worse today than it was in the youth of the Daily Telegraph; and, in the second place, it could be transformed in a lustrum by the combined efforts of the newspaper proprietors’ association and the journalists’ trade unions. Insistence upon directness and compression, which will be a mechanical necessity in the near future, should effect an entire change in the reporter’s habit of putting down what he sees and hears, with much less effort than has been expended during the past ten years in making him conscious of the split infinitive.

We need not, therefore, trouble much about the minutiae. What we are really up against is an accusation that the daily paper, so far from improving with years, is actually less good for its specific purpose than it was before Lord Northcliffe was born or W. T. Stead came to town. The charge can be condensed into a few sentences. The daily paper is no longer intelligent, and it assumes in its readers an entire lack of seriousness and power of sustained attention. The journalism we still, absurdly, call “new” ignores such grave affairs as political speeches and foreign wars and international relations: or, at best, it subordinates them to “the trivial, the impertinent, the unreal” —to “amazing” crimes or ” amazing ” seaside dresses, or to insipid domesticities like sweet peas and standard bread. More than this, it has destroyed the leading article, and in doing that has put an end to what was, on the whole, the chief glory of English journalism — the impartiality of the news columns; for when the directors have broken up the editorial rostrum, it is an obvious necessity for them to reconstruct it in another form. Again, the newer journalism is less accurate than the old. With all its parade of organisation it does not tell us what is happening in the world: it distorts the simplest event or utterance; it is an immeasurable power for the circulation of untruth, and in general it is concerned mainly with the recording of frivolities which are not only beneath the notice of the adult man and woman, but are not even attractive to the public for which they are brought together.

Such is the accusation, and, so far as we have seen, it has been met in the present controversy by only one champion of the newer order – Mr Hamilton Fyfe. To this well-known ornament of Carmelite House it is clear that the grumblers have forgotten the pit out of which they were digged. They have persuaded themselves, he says, that they enjoy dullness and pomposity. They denounce the Press for trying to interest all classes. Their ideal newspaper would consist of political speeches verbatim and market reports, with a column every day, under a standing headline, about the Ausgleich. They would like to see Mr Asquith’s resignation obscured under a dignified caption, such as “The Prime Minister at West Ham,” or the End of the World announced in a paragraph of small type as “Alleged Unusual Occurrence.” In a word, what they are asking for is to have the daily paper thrust back to the stage when it pursued its dreary way “out of touch with the warm, genuine feelings of humanity.”

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Here, then, we have the charge and counter-charge, the full hearing of which were a heavy business which we, on the present occasion, do not propose to undertake. There are, however, a few points upon which a word or two may usefully be said without any attempt being made to settle the respective claims of the old and the new journalism. And first, there is the commercial aspect. “If those ponderous journals,” says Mr Hamilton Fyfe, “had not changed their methods they would be dead.” The answer is that those which did most conspicuously change their methods are dead; and, in point of fact, the history of journalism holds no record of catastrophe parallel to that which accompanied the “modernising” of a great Tory journal. Colossal revenues, as we know, have in a few instances been earned by modern newspapers, singly or in groups; but there does not now exist a single daily which can show a salaries list for its editorial staff and special contributors and a profit — for its proprietors comparable with that of a typical penny paper in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.

So much for one most important point. Take, again, the question of the display of news. We shall all agree that the earlier notions were primitive beyond words, childish, ridiculous. But, all the same, in the face of a great event they were entirely adequate. If you turn up the Times of 1881, for example, you will find the death of Lord Beaconsfield announced in a single headline on the leader page; the assassination of the Tsar or Russia proclaimed in similar fashion, the large-type heading being followed, in this latter case, by two columns of leaded news from St. Petersburg, and six columns of memoir. And, it may be submitted, no improvement worth talking about has been achieved in this essential matter during thirty years. Today a half-page would be absorbed by scare headlines and excited “write-up”; the main facts and conjectures would be repeated at least three times, and, after all, the reader would have to make his way through the telegrams. On the whole, it may be concluded, the old way was not so despicable as our younger sub-editors would like us to believe.

But these considerations by no means exhaust the topic, and we end with a few dogmatic assertions. Both the old and the new habits of English newspapers were, and are, bad enough, and the reader of tomorrow will infallibly demand something other and better, and the cost of production with the ever-increasing pressure upon newspaper space will be his irresistible ally. Through sheer necessity the superfluous headline will go; the fluffy reporter and the platitudinous leader writer will follow; the newspaper will evolve a style of lean and direct statement and exposition, and four pages will be made to do the work of ten. The tendency is already plain enough to the practised eye. Roughly speaking, the newspapers that are most obviously fighting a losing battle are those that are pitifully trying to do in 1913 what the founder of Carmelite House was doing in 1908, or was planning to begin in 1898. Or, to put it in one word, the most successful of the halfpenny dailies has become fundamentally an old-fashioned paper. And that mainly is the reason why it is the despair of its competitors.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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