Assess whether the Northcliffe Revolution is a useful way of understanding developments in the UK press in the period 1890-1930?

Authors Avatar

(a)        Assess whether the ‘Northcliffe Revolution’ is a useful way of understanding developments in the UK press in the period 1890-1930?




The intention of this paper is to explore the notion that Lord Northcliffe, the owner of popular papers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as the Daily Mail, had such a pivotal role in the press of the epoch that he could be easily described as possessing such incredible power as to revolutionise a growing industry, such as that of the print based press.

To be able to develop upon, or dismantle, such a widely debated topic of the era in which the press industries boomed and caused this vast and historical moment of the public communications field, I intend to analyse both the suggestions which support and the suggestions which disagree with the notion that Northcliffe had such a pivotal role in defining how the press developed in the period 1890-1930.

Questions have been raised as to whether or not the so-called ‘Northcliffe Revolution’ is really a useful way of understanding developments in British press in the above-mentioned period, 1890-1930.  Francis Williams who was the 1940’s press officer to Labour M.P. Atley claimed that Northcliffe started a revolution in the press industry, whereas Jean Chalaby would argue that Northcliffe didn’t produce revolutionary ideas when it came to journalism etc, he more simply applied improved, and developed, upon existing techniques (Chalaby: 2000: 27).  It is from these sort of fundamental arguments that the intentions of this essay will be based, and from this will come an opinion on the usefulness of understanding press developments between 1890 and 1930 through the perspective of the ‘Northcliffe Revolution’.

Northcliffe himself knew the importance that a national daily newspaper would mean to him financially and so introduced to the nation its first daily paper – The Daily Mail.  It was Northcliffe’s entrepreneurial desire to achieve this target that led to the Daily Mail reaching a circulation of just a few thousand under 1 million readers at 989,000 (Williams: 1998: 56). But this would not have been possible if not for the mass use of advertising within his publication.


During the period of 1890-1930 the print based press undoubtedly developed financially.  As is understandable the costs in order to produce a publication such as a daily newspaper rose considerably.  During the 1830’s, publicist Henry Hetherington needed only thirty pounds in order to start his paper, whereas Lord Northcliffe needed almost six hundred thousand pounds in order for his Daily Mail venture to get off the ground and become a realisation (Curran & Seaton: 1991: 35).

It was through this knowledge that Northcliffe knew that revenue would need to be gained through some other approach.  Northcliffe also understood the need to keep the cost of buying a publication for the average consumer down to the minimum as to attract a continual and loyal following.  Thus, Lord Northcliffe pioneered the use of mass advertising.

Undeniably, advertising had always had a part to play, but Kevin Williams, who wrote “Get me a murder a day!: A History of Mass Communications in Britain”, would argue that there had never been such an indisputable link, at that moment in time, between the advertisers and the major publications.  Advertising became not only the main source of revenue but also the main way of keeping prices down, so in turn newspapers ceased to sell at their factual outlay and the cover price of the newspapers was subsidised by advertising profits.

Williams though, recognises the fact that Northcliffe had a major part to play in the area of advertising, but he does recognise the fact that major publications that were not Northcliffe’s were already heavily reliant on the advertising side of their revenue.  By the late eighteen-eighties, nearly sixty one percent of the column space of the Telegraph, forty nine percent of The Times and just over forty percent of the Scotsman were devoted to advertising.  This seems to point to the notion that the application of advertising was already a major factor of publication revenue and not a revolutionary idea drummed up by the ever power-increasing Lord Northcliffe.  Other factors though, indicate a very strong argument in favour of the ‘Northcliffe Revolution’ idea.

Join now!

Lord Northcliffe certainly can be acknowledged as being the founder of the idea in which circulation figures are printed on the cover of the publication.  Lord Northcliffe knew that his newspapers were the major players in their respective target markets, and he recognized that if advertisers had a realisation that this was accurate then they would be more inclined to pay his publications for advertising than his competitors, and so front-page circulation statistics were born.  Coupled with this new idea of openly printing the newspapers circulation figures was the innovative idea that Northcliffe came up with, which was to ...

This is a preview of the whole essay