Critically evaluate the relationship between newspapers and their readership between 1896 and 1950 in the UK.

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MS 203

Histories of Public Communication

Tom O’Malley


B. Critically evaluate the relationship between newspapers and their readership between 1896 and 1950 in the UK.

B. Critically evaluate the relationship between newspapers and their readership between 1896 and 1950 in the UK.


In this essay I will explain some of the history behind the origins of the press, and the developments that were to help its rise and growth. I will also look at the society of the time and how it had been changing and developing. To do this I will link ideas of how these changes directly affected information exchange and newspapers. Also as a means of clarifying the style of newspapers of the time I will identify how ownership shaped their looks and viewpoints, with particular reference to Lord Northcliffe and the Daily Mail.

This study of Northcliffe will also show the innovations in how relationships between newspapers and readership developed. This will also address how the press barons of the time adapted in an attempt to woo a greater audience. I will discuss nineteenth to early twentieth century culture changes and discuss how it was a time when society was to change the medium of newspapers. The essay will also show how newspapers responded to the pressures enforced upon them and how they were to change society themselves.

To understand the relationship between newspapers and their readership between two dates, you have to first understand some of the history that came before this period.

The first recognisable newspapers appeared in the UK in about the seventeenth century. These were mainly concerned with political news (the Proceedings in Parliament etc) and to some extent worked as manifestos for the different political figures. In this early period these publications were controlled and restricted by the government and were solely aimed at the ruling and educated classes. They were, however, slow to evolve, with the largely illiterate population relying on town criers for news. To prevent ‘miss use’ of the press several measures were used and also introduced to retain a harness on the flow of information. For example the Star Chamber, a council used to enforce the will of the king, became involved with controlling what was allowed to be printed. Also the 1662 printing act was introduced to prevent the ‘Frequent Abuses in Printing Seditious Treasonable and Unlicensed Books and Pamphlets and for Regulating Printing and Printing Presses’ (). The readership of these early papers had very little choice and was very much uninvolved with dictating what was newsworthy.

The newspaper industry grew through the eighteenth century and saw the introduction of stamp duty on newspapers and advertisements in 1712. This duty was a tax on top of the price of the paper.  As few people could afford to pay 6d or 7d for a newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most of these journals to people with fairly high incomes. Illiteracy was still a major problem so circulation was very limited. At this time most newspapers in circulation were regional and limited to weekly editions or less. As a result of this the market was far wider than today, and the newspapers were open to a revolution to make them better.

As the newspaper industry progressed into the nineteenth century, it witnessed several changes and innovations. None more so than the Industrial revolution. As it transformed all aspects of life and society, dramatically affected newspapers. Both the numbers of papers and their circulation continued to rise. In the 1850's powerful, giant presses appeared, able to print ten thousand complete papers per hour. At this time the first ‘pictorial’ weekly newspapers emerged; they featured for the first time extensive illustrations of events in the news, as woodcut engravings made from correspondents' sketches or taken from the new photographs. It is also during this time that and the first telecommunications cables were being laid across the world. News flow was increased hugely, with almost instant reporting of international news making it possible for newspapers to carry foreign news reports the day after the event. In 1855 after many years of campaigning, the stamp act was repealed which gave papers a greater freedom. Only a month after the repeal, the Colored News, the first coloured newspaper was launched.

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This is also the age of media consolidation, as many independent newspapers were swallowed up into powerful "chains". This was with regrettable consequences as many newspapers were reduced to vehicles for the distribution of the particular views of their owners, and so remained, without competing papers to challenge their viewpoints.

However there is also the emergence of the predecessors of the modern news agencies, which greatly helped the flow of information.

The Northcliffe Revolution.

In 1887 the journalist Alfred Harmsworth formed a new publishing group. With this company he went on to produce several magazines including ‘Answers to ...

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