Home  »  Volume XIV: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part Two The Nineteenth Century, III  »  § 5. Progress of journalism in the Victorian era

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

IV. The Growth of Journalism

§ 5. Progress of journalism in the Victorian era

The nineteenth century, however it may be contemned by later critics of the Victorian drama, painting, music and fiction, was, indeed, a period of revolution, and its changes in regard to journalism were such that, whereas, at the beginning of the century, a newspaper circulating two or three thousand copies a day was looked upon as phenomenally successful, by the end of the century, circulations rising to 250,000 or more daily were recorded of the penny newspapers, which had now become the dearer class; and much larger of the halfpenny press. There had also been a multiplication in the number of daily and weekly journals; and, in their supply of news, some of the best of the provincial papers rivalled the majority of those published in London. In the year 1800, so far as there is definite information,

  • barring the Irish capital, there were no daily journals published outside London, and the total number of news sheets was only about 250, as compared with nearly 2500 at the present time. To-day, the total of daily papers alone is over 240.
  • In 1815, the number of newspapers in the United Kingdom was 252; but this was on the eve of an increase in the duties, and, subsequently, there was a fall. In 1824, it is stated,
  • there were published in the United Kingdom, 266 papers in all.… In the present year (1874) the aggregate number is 1585. Estimating the news sheets printed in 1824, we cannot place the number at more than 30 millions. In the present period, we do not doubt that the issue is 650 million sheets per annum.
  • In 1832, E. L. Bulwer Lytton (afterwards lord Lytton), in his famous speech advocating the abolition of the stamp, reckoned that every newspaper paid 1s. 4d. a sheet (a paper-maker’s sheet) in paper-duty, 4d. in stamp-duty and 3s. 6d. for each advertisement, this being equal, with cost of printing and agency added, to 5 1/2d. on a 7d. paper; so that but 1 1/2d. was left for literary and other expenses, and for profits. To carry the figures a little further, it is said that, in 1782, there was published in the United Kingdom one newspaper to 110,000 inhabitants; in 1821, one to 90,000; and, in 1832, one to 55,000. But the figures do not tell the whole story. There had been a complete revolution in the speed of printing. Prior to 1814, not more than 750 impressions an hour could be obtained from one machine, and, if more than one machine were operated, for each was required a duplicate set of types. In 1814, John Walter, the second of that name who owned The Times, showed that, with the aid of steam, newspapers could be printed at the rate of 1100 copies per hour. Various improvements were made afterwards, greatly expediting the work. But, half-way in the century, papermakers made long rolls of paper, to run in a press fitted with cylinders on which were fixed, in the first instance, type, and, afterwards, cast metal plates reproducing pages of type; so that, by the end of the century, one cylindrical press could print, at the rate of 25,000 copies per hour, journals twice the size of those issued at the beginning of the century. Further, when a mould of a page of type has been taken, the printer can cast plates for about a dozen presses, each producing its 25,000 copies, and, by the application of photography to etching, it is possible to illustrate these rapidly produced journals. The substitution of mechanical type-setters, and, more especially, the linotype, for hand composition, has greatly quickened and cheapened this department of production. Viewed from the mechanical standpoint, therefore, journalism shared to the full the inventive ability which marked the period, and to this is due, in part, its extraordinary growth.

    The collection and presentation of news may be regarded as one of the applied arts—the application of literature to the recording of current, and often very transient, facts, providing, however, abundant material from which historians may reconstruct the life of the century. The student of Greek and Roman history must, of necessity, have recourse to such inscriptions as time and vandalism have failed to obliterate; from these, he endeavours to picture the actual conditions of peoples, their everyday work, their amusements, morality, hopes and fears. The journalism of the nineteenth century is a much ampler record of human activity in almost every direction, and this rapidly multiplied in volume as the century neared its close. Even advertisements are indicative of national life, its industries and amusements, educational and social institutions; often of religious or political and social thought. News embodied in to-day’s journals is more detailed and plastic. The development of reporting, aided by railway transit, by telegraphy and, still later, by the telephone, has placed readers in almost immediate touch with the thought of the whole world; and any observant person who has seen the growth in size of the daily papers during the last quarter of the century, and of the increasing variety of their reports, ought to be able to trace many fresh paths of public activity, for example, the formation of societies, and the holding of meetings for the discussion of ideas upon every conceivable subject. Important, too, has been the discovery that paper could be made from wood pulp. But for this, it is certain there could have been no such multiplication of newspapers as the century saw.

    The extension of British journalism has been the result, largely, of cheapness and of ability to obtain news in increasing quantity, and, in some respects, with greater accuracy—always with increasing speed. This was made possible only by a constant growth of revenue from advertisements. In the course of the century, shipping, manufacturing and finance were multiplied as if by some magician’s wand, and, for daily information regarding them, men of all classes had resort to the newspaper press; the cost to individuals of obtaining such information for themselves being, in most instances, prohibitive. The construction of railways, and even the invention of the motor-car, have revolutionised the means of placing newspapers in the hands of readers. The enterprise shown in distributing The London Evening Courier before the days of railways has been outdone.

    Politically, the century was highly favourable to the advance of the newspaper press. In its earlier years, the nation was exercised about the Napoleonic war. Later came demands for the abolition of the corn-laws, catholic emancipation, popular education, the extension of the franchise, with a host of other political changes, often consequential upon what had gone before; the Crimean war, the Indian mutiny, the expansion of the British empire, also did their part. The growing number of religious sects, of projects for social betterment, the multiplication of universities and of scientific and literary societies, new being added to old, partly as a result of the university extension movement, the growth of trade unions, the spread of concerts and of tours by dramatic companies, each of them advertising and requiring notices of its performances, the increasing work of representative local governing bodies, the planting of the schoolmaster in every little parish—these things have converted the newspaper press from a luxury into what seems to be a necessity of daily life. In Great Britain, it must further be noted, newspapers, for most of the century, have been unfettered by peculiar and restrictive legislation or censorship. In earlier years, this was not so. It was held illegal to publish the report of a criminal case heard before a magistrate, but not finally decided; and verdicts for libel were given against newspapers on this account. Prosecutions at the instance of governments were numerous; parliament often called editors and proprietors to its bar. The press, however, after not a little struggling, was able to assert a large degree of freedom, though it is noteworthy that, when the Newspaper society was founded, in May, 1837, one of its chief concerns was the amendment of the law of libel, and that, seventy years later, the same subject was still under consideration.