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October 05, 2006

The End of the Newspaper? William D. Rubinstein argues that reports of the death of the newspaper have been greatly exaggerated

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Are newspapers as a genre on their death-bed? This has become a fashionable line of argument. However William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution - explores the history of newspaper circulation in Britain and argues that reports of the death of the newspaper have been greatly exaggerated.

The supposed end of the newspaper has been much debated of late. The real possibility that newspapers might have outlived their usefulness as a publishing vehicle - or soon will have done - was the cover story recently of the Economist, and it is the top talking point among all journalists and press observers.

There is a good deal of superficial evidence that the press around the world is in serious decline. Most - not all - papers have declined in circulation in recent years. They are kept afloat by advertising, which might well decline significantly if there is a recession, by ancillary activities and sales, and by cost-cutting, which obviously cannot go beyond a certain point. Even the illustrious New York Times is cutting the average size of an issue by seven per cent next year. Newspapers face stiff, perhaps fatal competition from free giveaway newspapers, now a daily feature at all large British railway stations, and, of course, from television, with twenty-four hour news broadcasts available on four cable stations, and, above all, from the internet.

If the British daily press does indeed move downwards to its grave, it will mark the end of a two-century period of growth but also of consolidation. Newspapers in Britain were limited circulation, limited appeal publications until the mid-nineteenth century, when the removal of the special tax on the newspaper press, the growth of press agencies like Reuters, and the beginnings of investigative journalism and the specialised profession of reporting, all changed the face of the British press.

So, too, did the first use of illustrations and a livelier style of publication, often seen as originating with the weekly Illustrated London News in the 1840s. The tabloid style - but, initially, vastly more upmarket than with today's tabloids - began with Alfred Harmsworth's Daily Mail in the 1890s. With Britain and London at the centre of a vast worldwide empire and a reasonably literate clientele, the size of the British press escalated in the later Victorian and Edwardian eras.

In 1900, London had thirteen daily national newspapers and eight daily evening papers. These evening papers were not simply afternoon editions of the morning press, but entirely separate publications. At least two of them, the Pall Mall Gazette (which existed from 1865 to 1923) and the St. James's Gazette (1880-1905), were very influential in the political world.

In 1900, London also had nine Sunday newspapers, about the same number as today. During the Edwardian period, a range of new daily London newspapers began, including the pro-Labour Daily Herald, the Daily Mirror, and the Daily Sketch.

But this impressive list is only the start. Every significant provincial city in Britain had its own mini-range of locally-produced newspapers, which reported on national and international news as well as on local affairs, and, again, were entirely separate from Fleet Street. In 1900, Birmingham had five daily newspaper of its own; Newcastle-upon-Tyne had four; Glasgow had three. Many smaller cities and even towns had their own: Brighton had two daily newspapers, as did Aberdeen, Bath, Exeter, and many other places. Most of these have vanished, although a few, like Cardiff's Western Mail, still survive as daily papers with national and international coverage. Those which exist are, generally, weekly or biweekly papers with only local news. The provincial press was regarded as highly significant politically, and rival newspapers were usually vehicles for the political parties.

The interwar period saw a consolidation in the number of newspapers, but an enormous growth in national circulation. Led by the great press lords, by the increased use of photographs, a more lively layout and style, and the widespread use of prizes and giveaways, circulations skyrocketed. The circulation of the Daily Express rose from 400,000 per day in 1910 to 4,193,000 in 1939 (Beaverbrook became its sole proprietor in 1918); the Daily Mail increased from 900,000 in 1910 - already an enormous number - to 1.5 million in 1939, and so on. Even the broadsheets grew substantially, with the Daily Telegraph increasing from 230,000 in 1910 to 640,000 in 1939.

Contrary to what one might expect, circulation increases continued, albeit at a slower pace, into the 1960s. The middlebrow papers like the Daily Express reached their peak circulations around 1960, as did the national Sunday press. In 1951 the News of the World reached its all-time peak circulation of 8,407,000 - an unimaginably vast number. The People and the Sunday Pictorial each sold about 5.5 million copies in 1960.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British newspapers had many aspects which marked them out as quite different from anything known today. Many newspapers printed Hansard virtually verbatim, as anyone who looks through an old issue of The Times will realise. Today, not even the heavyweights carry more than skeletal reports of speeches in Parliament, even by Cabinet ministers.

Many newspapers also specialised in verbatim reportage of divorce proceedings in court. In effect, these were the only legalised pornography allowed in Britain. At the time, the only grounds for divorce was proof of adultery in a woman, and proof of adultery, and another heinous act, such as bestiality or violence, in a man (the grounds for divorce were made equal between the sexes in the 1920s). Divorce was an expensive undertaking, limiting it to the rich and near-rich. (There were only 3,747 divorces in 1920, for instance.) Newspapers, especially the Sunday press, naturally had a field day reporting on the secret sins of the rich and glamorous. It might be argued that the obsession by the Sundays and tabloids with the pecadilllos of athletes and politicians followed on the liberalisation of the divorce laws in 1969.

On the other hand, newspapers generally left politicians and the high and mighty alone: Gladstone famously rescued prostitutes with no questions being asked; nor was any light shone on Lloyd George's mistress, or onto Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson until the last possible minute. Even Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish nationalist, lived undisturbed with his mistress Kitty O'Shea for many years, and was only exposed when he was named co-respondent in her divorce.

Newspaper circulation began to decline in the 1960s, but headed sharply downwards - in some cases - only recently. The circulation of the Daily Telegraph declined from 1.4 million in 1970 to 1.1 million in 1997 and to 900,000 this year; the Daily Express has catastrophically declined, post-Beaverbrook, from 3.2 million in 1974 to 1.2 million in 1997 and to 840,000 today, and so on.

On the other hand, there has also been some growth, with the Sunday Times, for instance, reaching nearly 1.5 million around 1970, then declining to 1.2 million in the 1990s, but then climbing back to 1.4 million today. Newspapers have found ways to cut expenses. In the 1980s they rid themselves of the "old Spanish customs" of outrageous overmanning, abandoned Fleet Street for Canary Wharf, and moved to cheap but attractive computer-based layout setting and editing.

Nevertheless, no clever innovations for the print press could escape the historical trends of near-universal reliance on television news, free giveaway papers, and the internet. Traditionally, the serious press has surveyed politics and the international scene. There has unquestionably been a long-term loss of faith and interest in the mainstream political sphere per se, with many people viewing Parliament as consisting simply of one group of scoundrels succeeding another with a slightly different patter. Post-Cold War, international affairs appears to consist of terrorism and counter-terrorism, more interestingly surveyed on television.

It seems very unlikely, however, that Britain's newspapers will ever decline so catastrophically as to disappear. The British press has a number of unique features which should ensure its survival. The so-called Fleet Street press is, first of all, national, with the same newspapers sold in Carlisle and in Exeter. This is not the case in the (vastly larger) United States, whose press is totally local. The New York Times is arguably something like a national newspaper of record, and there is also USA Today, but the New York Times has only a national circulation of 1.1 million in a nation of nearly 300 million.

Britain's press is also divided horizontally by ideological orientation, and vertically by I.Q., such that few readers of the Daily Telegraph would willingly read the Guardian (or vice-versa) unless someone threw a copy away on the train and he or she picked it up. Most would not even pick it up, unless they were willing to run the risk of a heart attack with their morning coffee. Neither is very likely to pick up the Sun except to sneak a look at Page Three.

This pattern of vertical and horizontal division is also quite different from anything in the English-speaking world. Newspapers in America and Australia are (with the exception of the national Australian paper there) purely local in their source and orientation.

In Britain, as well, the national market and lines of division have the effect - however much they whinge about being marginalised - of greatly enhancing the left, which has three daily newspapers, the Guardian, the Independent, and the Daily Mirror, compared with a handful in the whole of the United States, if that. The orientation of the British press around on-going and readily discernable niche markets will probably ensure their continued existence for an indefinite timespan, although every paper will have a difficult task in finding a new generation of readers.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. The Social Affairs Unit is publishing a fully updated and revised edition of Prof. Rubinstein's seminal Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution.


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You must be joking. Or a member of the board.

I thought of exactly one word after reading your article. Denial.

Print is dead. It has been for years. It's not a matter of "if", but "when". Look at the numbers. No, not circulation, which are gladly inflated for the sake of sales, but the actual advertising revenues dripping (not pouring) in to the dailies. Ouch.

In the real world, the printing press can only run when advertisers are dumb enough to pony up the tab. It has nothing to do with circulation. Sorry. And advertisers are finally getting a clue that the net effect of advertising in print is the equivalent of putting a bag on one's head.

Get a grip on reality. Then count to five. Because that's how many years it will take before many newspapers, even the high and mighty who span the brows, fold to their better senses and realise they can no longer cast the rogue of numbers they've extolled for years.

Goodbye, and good luck.

Posted by: don askins at September 11, 2007 06:48 AM
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