Rise of Western Journalism.


The changes in the western world in the nineteenth century are too vast for overstatement. From agriculture to industry, from superstition to science, from word-of-mouth to wireless, from horse to horseless carriage, the century witnessed a cultural revolution. The person born in Europe or its colonial progeny at the time of Napoleon’s Waterloo would not recognize those places at the beginning of the Great War. Indeed, many historians contend that the transformations in this era eclipsed even the cataclysms of the decades that followed when conflict replaced progress as the watchword.

Chronicling the industrial burgeoning of the west and other shifts, as they swept away much of the past, was the press. The press was more than the log of society; it was a social institution. Like other media, from ballads to pulpits, it delivered and interpreted information.  Like them, too, it shaped thinking by selection of stories. Unlike other media, however, nineteenth-century print journalism was an emporium where readers could exchange ideas frequently, an activity that formalized “public opinion” and thus enabled the press to be a powerbroker, a status that a growing mass audience reinforced.

To say that this century marked the birth of the Fourth Estate is no exaggeration. Newspapers, which had begun earlier, still had small circulations in 1815. They tended to be local gazettes by printers who had other revenue or partisan papers concerned with national politics. Locals could be chatty or as polemical and pontifical as metros. By 1914 the artisan had given way to the businessman, circulations had soared, and prices had dropped. Magazines, which also antedated Napoleon, were at first the muses of the rich who could afford their cost and comprehend their subtlety. They and the elite reviews, didactic about politics and literature, faced competition as literacy spread and inexpensive journals catered to every taste imaginable.

Essays in this book illuminate this transition in narratives that incorporate analysis where appropriate. They focus on the principal trends and the chief personnel. Although each essay reveals unique journalistic experiences, common themes appear, notably with respect to the newspaper. Among them are the relationship between government and journalism, the impact of technology, the function of advertising and the emergence of a mass press.

The nexus between government and journalism was important in Great Britain and Australia early in the nineteenth century but persisted in France and Germany much longer. The attempts of British ministers and Australian governors to control by libel law, subsidy, stamp duty or official authorization were modest compared to the more stringent restrictions imposed by Paris and Berlin. The press in the United States and that in France exemplify the extremes, one utterly without restraint and the other shadowed by suppression. Canadian colonies, with English and French populations, showed how ethnicity as well as politics tilted the journalistic balance. Irrespective of divergence in the specific relations between rulers and writers, the only distinction between governments that regulated journalism and those that tolerated it was one of degree. Limitations could check or channel the voices from below, but liberty could just as surely neutralize them by encouraging a plethora of publications. Manipulation by bureaucrats in the first scenario was simply more overt than that by politicians in the second. Whether free or fettered, the press was significant to those in authority because it aired material that readers used to judge public issues and it organized those judgments. In so doing, journalism became a force that could constrain leaders otherwise unaccountable or accountable only to a few. They could not ignore the press, particularly as suffrage widened.

Technology was sometimes coincidental, always consequential for the press of every country discussed here. The invention of telegraphy transformed news-gathering, speeding dissemination of data and siring major news agencies that are still extant. Telegrams soon shaped the presentation of news, abbreviating and homogenizing it. The establishment of news agencies accelerated these outcomes. Charles Havas in France and his disciples, P.J. Reuter in Britain and Bernard Wolff in Germany, started the benchmark services in Europe, while owners of New York dailies forged the Associated Press. Committed to sharing the task of news collection, these affiliations initiated a global information network that was relatively quick and cheap, albeit one that further standardized news. The agencies also were the first trans-national link among journalists, foreshadowing their cooperative endeavors and comradeship in the next century. Like telegraphy, the later and even faster telephone and photography were serendipitous for the newspaper. Journalists, nevertheless, were perennially fascinated by technology. For instance, from The Times’ introduction of the steam press in late 1814, there was ongoing pressure everywhere to improve both typesetting and printing. Constant upgrades contributed to efficiency of a process that eventually produced enormous numbers of pages. As economies of scale permitted reduction of costs, the press was more accessible to more people. This circumstance and print journalism’s monopoly of the information-transfer business that evolved in the nineteenth century were pivotal prerequisites for the “mass media” that arose before the First World War.

Directly connected to technology was advertising. Most of the nations studied here accepted it as a prime source of revenue, one that paid for the latest machines and the ongoing expenses. Both those countries that relied on advertising in budgeting and those that did not were aware of its implications. Placement, wording and art were obvious concerns, but the extent to which capitalism could taint journalism was a constant worry.

The interaction between business and journalism was most apparent in the late century when the mass press was born except in Germany. Successfully initiated by the French, the mass press was the dominant one by 1914. Whether it was the child of incipient democracy or widespread literacy rates, this press represented journalism as business. Previous definitions of the press – as a forum, an instrument of education and acculturation, or a medium of propaganda by or against government – dissipated once owners realized that the potential for profit was greater if gazettes were politically neutral, or even politically oblivious, rather than partisan. News rather than opinion was a priority, cold facts rather than heated critiques. Winning a mass audience meant responding to popular penchants beyond politics. As prices dropped, content and layout labeled “new journalism” changed to suit buyers with a variety of predilections. Staccato but accurate news, mindless but entertaining trivia, rousing stories about causes real or invented were its chief traits, but sensationalism, however defined, was the mantra that reconfigured every page of papers in larger urban areas. Marketing the press increasingly fell to moguls so committed to selling that they were willing to indulge the lowest personal tastes or to spin the widest public crusades, domestic and international. By 1914 these tactics weakened respect for but not addiction to journalism.

In addition to these commonalities, there were narrower overlaps. For example, the British borrowed the interview and the big headline from the United States. Both countries wrestled with the issue of war correspondence in a free society at war. The Canadians likewise copied American formats and the Australians, British. The Germans drew inspiration from the French in 1830 and 1848, and both, together with the British, utilized money deposited in advance as a safeguard against libel.

While the newspaper has a paramount position in every essay, each one also highlights periodicals. Again, there are similarities among the countries. The Germans copied Britain’s Penny Magazine. Canada’s labor periodicals were the offspring of Americans who crossed the border actually or ideologically, whereas Australia’s were somewhat more home-bred. The Americans, the British and the Germans all circulated

Just as journals had kindred features, so too did journalists exhibit certain characteristics. Until the eve of the twentieth century many of those involved in the occupation came to it from other employment. Without specialized training for the field, they tended to apprentice in one way or another. In Australia and Canada virgin colonies, and in the United States the frontier, offered opportunities to launch papers. In Britain and Germany local gazettes and then news agencies had jobs available. In France journalists shuttled back and forth between political and press engagements. Only latterly did journalists try to organize, though their associations lacked real strength even in 1914. Editors of top serials were routinely stars everywhere, and publishers were occasional ones, notably in the United States. In Australia and Canada, local dynasties fueled newspapers as the press barons eventually would in Britain.

These patterns of interconnectivity confirm that global journalism has a long and momentous history. Yet each country had its own discourse, its own flavor. What may seem like discordance is mainly the result of milieu, but discordance is, in any case, not a bad thing. It evidences that diversity did not reduce the influence of journalism, an influence that each chapter explores at length.

Rod Kirkpatrick’s investigation of the Australian press explains how it flourished in an environment that was hardly congenial at the outset. He demonstrates that the chief mission of early journalists was to escape, or least to evade the limitations placed upon their activities by unsympathetic governors. The necessity to move equipment thousands of miles and to maintain it once arrived was also not conducive to publication. Although the newspaper first surfaced in convict settlements, it thrived in nascent colonies. Perhaps its biggest mid-century boost came from reporting from the gold fields. Papers provided data about the lodes but were often more crucial as conduits of knowledge about relatives gone off to find gold. This human interest strain is one that did not appear in all of Australia’s press contemporaries. Another element of Australian journals that was unusual was the vibrancy of those in mining towns or for workers, both somewhat less temperate than the metro dailies and the smaller provincial weeklies, which Kirkpatrick spotlights with expertise.

The Canadian press, which David Spencer delineates, was similar to the Australian insofar as both commenced in an age when newspapers blossomed in separate colonies. Unlike Australia, the Canadian settlements in 1815 had populations that migrated from not only Britain but also France and the young United States, loyalists who arrived after 1783. The Canadian journals that arose in the nineteenth century reflected the medley of cultural backgrounds, but, akin to Australian gazettes, the North American all initially quarreled with government. Using publications to enter the debate about responsible government instantly politicized the eastern colonial press. After resolution of this issue, the nascent western settlements showcased local issues. While dissident sheets were extremely active, as Spencer explicates, the fundamental contour of Canadian journalism after 1865 was one that emulated the American. There was a steady stream of news and views from the United States. The exchange was not absolutely unilateral as the imaginative Canadian illustrated periodicals proved.

French journalism is unusual because at its core were some of the most powerful journalists in Europe. They acquired that power by abetting, if not engineering two revolutions, in 1830 and in 1848, which altered domestic politics and one might even say, European politics. The French revolutions were closely watched and led to similar unsuccessful attempts elsewhere, such as in the German states, that in turn affected the international press. Writers who jockeyed between being ministers and editors, who owned papers as easily as others owned houses, were distinct from their brother scribes in other countries. Still the French too struggled to survive when government severely leashed them and strived to maintain dignity and honesty when they were free. Outstanding writing and imaginative cartoons were the landmarks of Parisian papers, the heart of French journalism even before the Third Republic granted it the widest liberty of any of its peers. Almost at the same moment, the emergence of the world’s cheapest newspaper expanded readership tremendously. The advantages of liberty and large audience, nevertheless, did not compensate for insufficient funding of a press that disdained advertising. The willingness to take bribes in the run-up to World War I poisoned public perceptions of French journalism.

The analysis of the German press by Ulf Jonas Bjork bares governmental interference akin to that in France but with a different outcome. In some ways the German press before 1871 was in the same situation as the journalism in early Australian and Canadian colonies, each under a separate governor. Yet, as Bjork details, the German states had some degree of uniformity because of the Diet of the German Confederation. As in France, there were extensive and multi-faceted efforts before mid-century to censor journalists. Some practices imitated the French, but uniquely Teutonic rules were often more insidious. German policies after 1871 were complex, albeit unification made for greater coherence. The first and long-time chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck, resorted to covert funding and finagling and an official press bureau to curb journalists. Because of his tactics, German newspapers did not resemble the party papers of France or the editorial columns in American and British gazettes. Since reporting news before and after 1850 was tentative at best, fiction served as a cloak for political commentary but soon attracted another audience. The difficulty of editorializing on politics likewise caused journalists to write more on culture than their compatriots elsewhere, which further differentiated the country from nations where a mass press was prospering.

British journalism, already with a track record in 1815, was much broader in scope and greater in number than any of its contemporaries. Newspapers during the nineteenth century encompassed everything from preeminent metro dailies to isolated rural weeklies, from organs of fierce partisanship to those of friendly advice, from the intellectual to the illustrated, from the gossiping to the gory. Periodicals included expensive annuals, authoritative quarterlies and magazines for every preference. That other countries appropriated British innovations and lifted British texts was a testimony to success, but the press did not grow unimpeded. Government issued regulations later replicated in France and the German states, but official interference evaporated earlier than in those locales. Moreover, proprietors recognized from the start the importance of technology and advertising. By the high noon of Victorianism after 1851, the newspaper was the chief medium of public communication. “New Journalism” in the 1870s slowly infiltrated gazettes but did not undermine this rank. More significant were the fin-de-siècle modifications effectuated by Alfred Harmsworth and his fellow press barons. Given the range of the British press in the era, it is not surprising that journalists were an inchoate lot. Once perceived as disreputable, they won some accolades after war correspondence developed and eventually gained public respect.

Carol Sue Humphrey’s discussion of the American press tracks shifts in its content, size and location throughout the nineteenth century. As in Britain, technology and advertising were critical, but the centerpiece of American journalism was its freedom from official intervention. Although the country had a hearty political press, the independence of penny papers addressed to workers eroded the ties between the authorities and journalists. The Civil War, as Humphrey notes, was another turning point in the style of newspaper reporting, and the so-called “yellow press” marked a third alteration. Responsible for these telling adjustments were owners and editors, such as James Gordon Bennett, Horace Greeley, Charles Dana, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Some of these giants were confreres of the British press barons, but they were also icons of a press in which personality rather than government or politics determined direction. While the newspaper dominated the journalistic arena in the United States, magazines were not marginal. Particularly influential were those directed to women and those open to muckrakers. Both underscored the might of this medium to broadcast community issues and to spur action to deal with them.

The breadth of this book should not conceal the fact that it barely exposes the links that exist in the press. Much work remains to be done. Constructs customarily applied, about historical time, space and especially theme, need reconsideration. For example, does the label Victorian connote real time in an international or even a European world of journalism in the nineteenth century? Did telegraphy globalize information sufficiently to make irrelevant for media studies the ordinary definition of space? Does journalism itself cut across intellectual lines in ways that do not fit neatly into the traditional categorizations of history? Rethinking habitual classifications and concepts is, we think, worth the effort in order to situate journalism as an active institution in and not as a passive chronicle of the past.

Ross F. Collins
E. M. Palmegiano