British Newspaper Development - From the 17th century to the age of globalization

Essay, 2004

17 Pages, Grade: A


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. The early newspaper development (17th – 19th century)
II.1. The radical press and the Stamp Act
II.2. Changes in the Economic Organization of the Press:
Commercialisation, industrialisation, and press ownership
II.2.1. The rise of advertising
II.2.2. Industrialisation
II.2.3. Press barons

III. The 20th century
III.1. The Popular Press and War

IV. The 21st century
IV.1. Competition and globalisation

V. Conclusion

VI. “The Press” by Rudyard Kipling

VII. References

I. Introduction

The Pope may launch his Interdict,

The Union its decree,

But the bubble is blown and the bubble is pricked

By Us and such as We.

Remember the battle and stand aside

While Thrones and Powers confess

That King over all the children of pride

Is the Press - the Press - the Press !

(last verse of “The Press” by Rudyard Kipling, 1865 - 1936)

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Press” exemplifies very clearly the dominant role of the press in the late 19th century. From this, we can conclude that not only the role of the press is a much discussed and disputed topic today but that it was also in the past.

It gives us also a hint that “lessons” of media history are essential in order to get an understanding of its structures, content, and influence. Present-day media arrangements are not natural and unavoidable. A study of media history makes us also aware of alternatives, i.e., how media could have been or can be arranged.

In this essay, I will portray the history of the newspaper development from the 17th century until the 21st century. My aim is to point up how the structures, methods of news gathering and diffusion via the mass medium newspaper have evolved by giving a brief overview over the important stages in the development process. Since this medium boasts such a vivid history, and, as mentioned before, media history is an important chapter to learn about, I want to focus upon the earlier periods of newspaper publishing. Constraints of space do not allow to elaborate on the current debates about media issues. The essay is addressed to students of media studies and should be regarded as a basis reading before exploring further fields of media studies.

II. The early newspaper development (17th – 19th century)

Newspapers had existed long before the press developed as a mass medium. The earliest predecessors of the modern newspaper appeared soon after the invention of the printing press. These news sheets were called “corantoes” and published in the 17th century. They contained short news items for a given period. The “London Gazette” was the first English newspaper, published for the first time in 1665. In the early 18th century, the circulation of daily newspapers started off. However, none of these publications had a wide circulation and their significance and influence was substantially less than commonly believed.

With the emergence of the radical press, the newspaper publishing became more attention, especially from official side.

II.1. The radical press and the Stamp Act

The first wave of radical papers from the 1790s through to the late 1820s caused furore as they played an important role in the general political reorientation. They helped articulating the demands and aspirations of the working classes as well as helping the development of class consciousness.

Radical newspapers aimed at making the press a forum for mobilising parliamentary reform and strong opposition towards the government. The Poor Man’s Guardian, one of the most famous radical newspaper stated on its masthead:

“published in Defiance of the Law to try the Power of Right against Might”.

Most of the radical newspapers were associated with political and industrial organisations of the emerging working classes. Working people should be made aware of their exploitation by producing knowledge

“which makes them more dissatisfied and makes them worse slaves”

(O’Brien, quoted in “The Mass Media and Power in Modern Britain”).

Following the growth of radical trade unions and political movement, the circulation of the radical press increased steadily. The leading publications developed a nationwide circulation and thus it helped to reduce geographical isolation by showing that local agitation conformed to a common pattern throughout the country. Radical papers became the link that bound the industrious classes together. The government took steps to curb the radical press, as it became more and more a means of spreading radical and revolutionary sentiments that might undermine established authorities. The government came to rely increasingly on the newspaper stamp duty and taxes on paper and advertisements, commonly known as “taxes on knowledge”. The Stamp Act of 1712 provided that a newspaper proprietor had to pay one penny per sheet printed and one shilling for every advertisement inserted. The belief was, that it was potentially dangerous to social order to allow the lower ranks to read newspapers at all. Newspaper prices soared beyond the reach of the vast majority of the British people. Between 1789 and 1815, the stamp duty was increased by 266 per cent. However, the “taxes on knowledge” were challenged by some radical newspapers, who refused to pay the stamp. The government, fearful of the threat posed to the social and political order, reacted with vigorous prosecution of the law and many radical publishers and printers were fined or even had to flee the country. However, these measures failed to crush the sales of radical papers. The government had to look for other means by which they could combat the radical press.

From the 1830s, the middle class began to mobilise resources to capture the hearts and minds of working people. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) published The Penny Magazine between 1832 and 1846, which reached a respectable circulation. To assist these newspapers to compete more effectively with the radical press, the government had to free them from the shackles of press taxation. By the 1860s, all press taxes were phased out and the market mechanisms were seen as a measure to free the market from radical papers.

II.2. Changes in the Economic Organization of the Press: Commercialisation, industrialisation, and press ownership

II.2.1. The rise of advertising

The abolition of the press taxes and the introduction of market forces increased competition and resulted in a rise in the costs of newspaper production. For example, the launch of The Poor Man’s Guardian in 1830 cost £30 while in 1896 the launch of the Daily Mail cost nearly £600,000. Moreover, newspapers were able to expand with the average number of pages in a daily newspaper. As more newspapers entered the market, the cover price of a newspaper fell, with the consequence that more copies of a title had to be sold to cover costs. In order to do so and to achieve a profit, newspapers became more and more dependent on advertising. However, advertisers were very selective about where they displayed their products, as they wanted to reach people who had sufficient purchasing power. In this regard, the readers of radical newspapers were not considered to be a potential purchaser. Although these papers had large circulations, their readers, according to one advertiser in 1856,

“were not purchasers and any money thrown upon them is so much thrown away”

(Curran J. and Seaton J., “Power without Responsibility”).

Hence, the market forces were not in favour of the radical press and they either closed down or became less political or simply ended up as specialist political journals.

Publications which conformed to the marketing requirements of advertisers obtained what were, in effect, large external subsidies, which they could spend on increased editorial outlay and promotion in order to attract more readers. Rising advertisement expenditure also provided a powerful inducement to entrepreneurs to launch publications directed at markets that advertisers particularly wanted to reach. As a result, the number of local dailies grew from only two in 1850 to nearly 200 in 1900. The number of local weekly papers expanded from fewer than 400 in 1856 to an estimated 2100 in 1900. New popular papers such as People in 1881, the Daily Mail in 1896, the Daily Express in 1900, and the Daily Mirror in 1903 were published.

An enormous expansion in newspaper consumption accompanied the growth in the number of publications. Annual newspaper sales rose from 85 million in 1851 to 5,604 million in 1920. This increase was only partly due to rapid population growth.

New print technologies, rising advertising subsidy, and lower cover prices facilitated the growth. The rise of mass consumption was also a product of cumulative social and economic change: the rise in adult literacy, the fall of working hours, and the rise of average wages.

II.2.2. Industrialization

Increasing industrialization, urbanization, technological innovation, and changes in transportation all had an impact on the growth of newspaper circulation. Beside the rise in literacy, the invention of the kerosene lamp increased the opportunities to read. The growth of cities tended to increase demand for information in urban areas. In the 1830s and 1840s, passenger trains carried London newspapers to provincial English towns.

Technological developments such as Morse’s telegraphy of 1844, the transatlantic cable that was laid in 1850 between Europe and North America, or telephone communication, which became possible in the 1870s, all established for reporters a means of transmitting news quickly. International news agencies – Havas in Paris, Reuter in London, Wolff in Berlin – extended news gathering internationally and provided to newspapers previously inaccessible content.

Advances in papermaking and printing techniques made mass production simpler. Steam power was applied to the printing press, and the cylinder press was developed, which enabled an accelerated production process.

II.2.3. Press barons

Between 1820 and 1920 a number of takeovers and amalgamations, which meant even the closure of many newspapers, caused a concentration of ownership. A considerable proportion of the British press fell into the hands of three brothers – the Harmsworths. Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, controlled The Times, The Daily Mail, The Weekly Dispatch, and The London Evening News while his brother Vere, Lord Rothermere, owned The Daily Mirror, The Sunday Pictorial as well as The Daily Record, Sunday Mail, and The Glasgow Evening News. Together they owned the Amalgamated Press, Britain’s largest magazine group. Lester Harmsworth controlled a chain of local newspapers in the south-west of England.

Apart from these press empires, Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Express Group with titles such as The Daily Express, Sunday Express, and Evening Standard, and the Berry brothers, namely Lords Camrose and Kemsley, dominated the newspaper business. A small number of press barons had acquired a considerable amount of power, which was a direct threat to the development of democracy.

Newspaper ownership became a means by which to impress their views on politicians and political parties, as well as shape the pressing issues of the day. Their aim was to achieve political power. The press barons claimed the right to speak for British public opinion as they were convinced to be “representative” of their readers in the same way as politicians represented their voters.

Critics of this concentration of press ownership claimed that the era of the press barons represented

“the worst of all the menaces to modern democracy”

(Angell, socialist and critic of press empires, quoted in “The Mass Media and Power in Modern Britain”).

According to him, the cheap, mass-circulation newspapers deprived the reader of the facts that are necessary for collective decisions in a democracy. Rather than playing a role in building an educated democracy, they used their newspapers to manipulate public opinion for their own personal crusades. The Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin accused the press barons of “exercising power without responsibility” and he called their papers as

“engines of propaganda for their constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes”

(Boyce, quoted in “The Mass Media and Power in Modern Britain”).

The “freedom of press” was called into question by these developments since the press lords decided arbitrarily what was passed for news, making the content thus false and contemptible.

According to this allegedly exercised political power, Lord Northcliffe and Beaverbrook were said to have brought down the Asquith coalition in 1916 and elevated Lloyd George to the premiership. Rothermere’s Daily Mail was regarded as having been responsible for the Labour Party’s failure in 1923 by publishing manipulated news items. However, their influence on political affairs was not always exercised successfully – and thus limited. Nonetheless, according to Curran and Seaton it would be wrong to assess the influence and power of the press barons in terms of their ability to persuade people to vote for new parties or candidates, or to buy new products. Curran and Seaton stressed that they, in fact, used their power to support the status quo and the dominant culture, selecting certain issues for discussion while ignoring others.

When discussing press barons, the name Rupert Murdoch of News International can not be omitted. But since he established his media empire in the later part of the 20th century, I will elaborate on this so-called “media mogul” in connection with globalisation.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


British Newspaper Development - From the 17th century to the age of globalization
Aston University  (Department for Languages and European Studies)
Media Review
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ISBN (Book)
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British, Newspaper, Development, From, Media, Review
Quote paper
Kerstin Mickenbecker (Author), 2004, British Newspaper Development - From the 17th century to the age of globalization, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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