Though the phrase the ‘New Journalism’ did not become current in British periodicals until the later 1880s — the earliest recorded instances appear to date from articles issued around the middle of the decade — the first signs of those tendencies towards the personalization, popularization, and commercialization of the newspaper press suggested by the term can be detected at least as early as the mid-century.1 This article attempts to contribute to the theorization of the shift from the ‘Old’ to the ‘New Journalism’ during the latter part of the nineteenth century, by applying to it the analysis of the structural transformation of the public sphere as elaborated by the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 study focusing on the modern period, and summarized in a more wide-ranging encyclopedia article in 1964.2 As Mark Hampton has suggested, scholarship concerning the New Journalism remains generally ‘under-theorized’ in relation to Habermas’s thinking on communications media, a deficit that can only partly be accounted for by the fact that the German’s seminal study was not translated into English until 1989.3 In the limited space available, and given our broad sympathy with his rationalist–modernist project, we will deploy Habermas’s basic concepts without defending or critiquing them.
In his encyclopedia entry on the topic, Habermas explains that his term ‘the public sphere’ is primarily intended to designate ‘a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed’, with ‘public opinion’ in its turn defined as ‘the tasks of criticism and control which a public body of citizens informally — and, in periodic elections, formally as well — practices vis-à-vis the ruling structure organized in the form of a state’ (‘Public Sphere’, p. 49). Habermas goes on to explain that he envisages the public sphere as a potential space between that dominated by the private interests of the family or the firm, and that constrained by the bureaucratic procedures of the state, where, under sufficient conditions of freedom of association and expression, and through institutions like the platform and the press, open debate can proceed and critical opinion be shaped. Habermas traces the origins of the public sphere not only to the literary miscellanies of the eighteenth century, but also to its salons and coffee-houses, where ‘privatized individuals coming together to form a public also reflected critically and in public on what they had read, thus contributing to the process of enlightenment which they together promoted’ (Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, p. 51). Habermas then employs the term ‘structural transformation’ to refer to the historical process whereby, with the emergence of commodity capitalism in societies in both Western Europe and North America, there is a transition from ‘a journalism of conviction to one of commerce’ (‘Public Sphere’, p. 53). The former is shown to be mediated by private men of letters working for small publishing businesses typically under local family ownership; the latter via the consumer services marketed to a mass audience by media conglomerates. Habermas sees this change, where ‘rational–critical debate had a tendency to be replaced by consumption, and the web of public communication unraveled into acts of individuated reception’, as resulting inevitably in a weakening of the critical functions of the public sphere through the increasing intrusion — ‘colonization’ is the metaphor more recently preferred by Habermas himself — of both corporate and government interests.4
We focus specifically on key theoretical interventions during the later nineteenth century, by E. S. Dallas (1828–1879) and W. T. Stead (1849–1912). This is because these two writers seem to us to be among the most critically aware and professionally innovative of Victorian journalists. ‘More than any of his contemporaries, Stead wrote about his profession as well as practising it […]. He repeatedly attempts to pin down the significance of current practice through critical reflection’, in the words of Laurel Brake; while Dallas has recently been described as ‘the Marshall McLuhan of the mid-nineteenth century’.5 Before getting down to the ideas, though, we need briefly to establish a material context for the texts in questions, which are Dallas’s two-part discussion of the periodical press, appearing anonymously in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in early 1859, and Stead’s initial pair of signed articles for the Contemporary Review, ‘Government by Journalism’ and ‘The Future of Journalism’, both published during 1886.6
Much of Dallas’s writing appeared anonymously in a variety of metropolitan journals, including the Saturday Review and the evening Pall Mall Gazette, though his most consistent berth as a journalist was as a prolific obituarist, reviewer, and political commentator on the staff of The Times, which he joined in the mid-1850s.7 Dallas wrote his piece on the periodical press at a triumphal moment for nineteenth-century liberalism, shortly before the final step in the abolition of the long-standing fiscal constraints on public communication — the imposts on advertising, news publication, and paper for printing, known to their many opponents as the ‘taxes on knowledge’ (‘Popular Literature (I)’, p. 98).
Dallas enthusiastically welcomes the creation of a free press of all sorts and conditions serving as the engine of democracy, despite appearing in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, a robustly conservative journal founded as early as 1817; and he associates himself from the start with the Tory values of its traditional readers (‘Popular Literature (I)’, p. 99). At the same time, he concentrates less on the emergence of serial publications targeting a broad popular audience, whether Sunday newspapers like the News of the World or entertainment weeklies such as the Family Herald (both long-lived journals founded in 1843 and already circulating in the hundreds of thousands), than on the proliferation of what are called ‘class journals’ (‘Popular Literature (I)’, pp. 99, 103).
This was becoming a standard term with reference to periodicals targeting not common readers en masse, but rather those finely differentiated categories of subscribers affiliated to specific religious, political, professional, social, regional, and cultural communities: for example, it was thus employed in the 1851 House of Commons Select Committee Report on Newspaper Stamps, and by 1879 had been introduced as a key category in Mitchell’s Newspaper Press Directory (Law, ‘Periodicalism’, pp. 538–40). For the reasons above, we can categorize Dallas’s position as a liberal defence of the Old Journalism, as opposed to Stead’s radical justification of the New.
Stead’s manifestos appeared in the Contemporary Review, founded in 1866 as part of a new modernizing generation of intellectual reviews that also included the Fortnightly Review. It was a pioneer in both the theory and practice of personalized criticism, advocating editorial concepts such as the signed contribution and open platform to promote debate within its pages, though with a growing reputation under Percy Bunting, editor from 1882, for a ‘tone of […] broad, evangelical, semi-socialistic Liberalism’.8 In focusing mainly on the provincial and metropolitan daily newspaper, Stead’s Contemporary articles on the state of journalism directly reflect the author’s editorial experience during the first fifteen years of his career. After nearly a decade as the young chief of the Darlington Northern Echo, Stead moved to London in 1880 to become assistant editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, taking over the helm on John Morley’s entering parliament in 1883.9 Stead’s Contemporary Review pieces belong to the period framed by the second and third parliamentary reform acts, which included the majority of the male working class in a significantly extended franchise, generally referred to at that time as ‘the democracy’.10 The articles appeared in the wake of Stead’s most notorious foray into campaign journalism, the ‘Secret Commission’ into the ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ in the Pall Mall Gazette of July 1885, sensationally exposing the prevalence of child prostitution and sexual slavery in London. This immediately provoked both a wave of scandal and the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. Such a context helps to explain the emphasis in Stead’s writing on the press not just as ‘the great inspector’ of social abuses, but further as an ‘instrument for discharging many of the functions of government’ (‘Government by Journalism’, pp. 673–74). Both articles seem to have been penned while the author was serving his sentence in Holloway jail for the technical abduction of one of the ‘maidens’.11
With Stead recognizing that journalism now ‘overshadows the world’ though ‘it is but a thing of yesterday’, and Dallas already regarding the ‘rise of the periodical press’ as ‘the great event in modern history’, what both shared with Habermas was a pressing sense of the ideological gravity of historical transformations in the media (‘Future of Journalism’, p. 663; ‘Popular Literature (I)’, p. 100). Each noted the importance of the application of industrial operations to public communications — whether in the form of steam roller-press or electric telegraph, pulp paper-making or stereotype setting — though their interest was less in the economic and technological causes than in the social and political consequences; less in quantitative than qualitative signs of change. Beginning with Dallas and moving on to Stead, we will attempt to analyse their ideas on journalism as outlined in the texts in question, in each case in terms of a cycle of Authorship, Publishing, and Readership resulting in the formation of Public Opinion. This represents a version of the ‘communications circuit’ identified by Robert Darnton, though in a simplified form because the distribution of journals tends to be so much more streamlined than that of bound volumes, the print medium on which he largely focuses.12 As noted by Darnton, an international pioneer in the development of the interdisciplinary field known as histoire du livre or book history, despite variations of place, time, and medium, the communications circuit consistently ‘transmits messages, transforming them en route, as they pass from thought to writing to printed characters and back to thought again’ (p. 67).
As regards authorship, in the Blackwood’s articles Dallas stresses that, because of the multiplication of periodical titles of all kinds, the practice of writing for publication is ‘fast ceasing to be a peculiar profession, and is becoming an ordinary accomplishment — a mode of addressing the public’ (‘Popular Literature (I)’, p. 97). At the same time he defends the practice of anonymity, a key facet of what Habermas terms the phase of ‘literary journalism’ (Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, p. 182), because it preserves the press from personalities and egotism, and, by aligning periodicals with the interests of groups rather than individuals, represents ‘the corner-stone of class journalism — […] the one postulate of the English system’ (‘Popular Literature (II)’, p. 184). By Dallas’s day, particularly with regard to the quarterly and monthly reviews, though rather less so in the case of the weekly and daily newspaper press, the convention of anonymity was coming increasingly under attack in Britain, with unfavourable contrasts sometimes made to the situation in France and the United States.13 But Dallas himself comes down firmly against the new journalistic practice prevalent in America where ‘the editor’s name is under the heading of the newspaper, and the authority of the journal is identical with his personal influence’ (‘Popular Literature (II)’, p. 184). As for publishing, Dallas sees the commercial foundations of the press not as sources of vested interest and venality but rather as affording ‘the best promise of its efficiency and the best guarantee of its integrity’ (‘Popular Literature (II)’, p. 180). While recognizing that ‘where there is no freedom, no education, no discussion, no private judgment [...] the commerce of opinion is liable to abuse’, Dallas is confident that ‘in a country habituated to the exercise of private judgment, opinion is not different from any other item of merchandise; […] it follows the known laws of supply and demand’ (‘Popular Literature (II)’, p. 192). He thus sees the periodical boom of the mid-century as a movement away from the oligopolistic control of opinion and towards a healthy diversity in the conduct of public debate.
With regard to readership, Dallas suggests that journal subscriptions represent not passive consumption of print commodities but rather forms of voluntary combination akin to public associations created to achieve specific social ends. This is expressed in terms deriving from de Tocqueville in his study of American democracy, which argues that a newspaper ‘can only subsist on the condition of publishing sentiments or principles common to a large number of men’, and therefore ‘always represents an association which is composed of its habitual readers’.14 Thus, Dallas states that the press should be conceptualized not as ‘a substantive power of the realm, but a representative one […]. Not a fourth estate, but a second representation of the third estate’ (‘Popular Literature (I)’, p. 106). He describes the nature of the formation of political consensus thus:
In this dialectical process Dallas perceives a virtuous circle of interaction among authors, publishers, and readers that serves to promote the healthy cultivation of public opinion, and thus anticipates Habermas in identifying the periodical press as a key institution in the formation of the bourgeois public sphere.
[Periodical literature] is not only the expression of public opinion and the index of contemporary history, it is itself a great force that reacts on the life which it represents, half creating what it professes only to reflect […]. It creates in the mere act of expressing public opinion; it leads while it follows. (‘Popular Literature (I)’, p. 97)
Let us then turn to Stead’s vision of the press, articulated a quarter of a century later in his contributions to the Contemporary Review. Stead’s ultimate concern is with the healthy formation of ‘public opinion’, a phrase that recurs twenty-six times in the two articles, so that the media historian Jean K. Chalaby is able to claim Stead’s work as ‘the first journalistic interpretation of the notion of public opinion, defined as an aggregate of personal and private opinions’, thus prefiguring the twentieth-century practice of opinion-polling.15 However, within Darnton’s communications circuit, Stead’s immediate emphasis is overwhelmingly on the function of authorship, and more specifically the role of the journalist as editor. The diverse constituencies of the press — ‘papers of business, papers of advertisement, papers of sport, papers of opinion, and papers of power’ — mean that journalists ‘go together to make the Fourth Estate, which is becoming more powerful than all the other estates of the realm’, while in the person of the editor ‘are vested almost all the attributes of real sovereignty’ (‘Government by Journalism’, pp. 657, 661). Here, we should note, there is some uncertainty whether Stead sees the press as superseding or supplementing existing constitutional bodies, with the first article tending to suggest the former and the second the latter. At the same time, Stead promotes an intimate, subjective style of editorial personality through devices such as the celebrity interview or the crusading social campaign. He thus mocks the classical impersonality of the established dailies and quarterlies: ‘Everything depends upon the person — the individual. Impersonal journalism is effete. To influence men you must be a man, not a mock-uttering oracle.’ In a manner symptomatic of his general tendency to view the expanded franchise as determining every defining characteristic of the New Journalism, from its reformist function to its sensational style, he adds, ‘The democracy is under no awe of the mystic “We”’ (‘Future of Journalism’, p. 663). In contrast to Dallas, Stead thus tends to see the popular press in the United States as a model for the future of British journalism in many if not all respects: though the editorial is admitted to be ‘conspicuously weak’ in the United States, American sub-editing is praised as ‘far ahead’ of that found in the Old World (‘Future of Journalism’, p. 667). Nevertheless, newspaper readership in a democratic society is envisaged not as a form of active association or critical community but rather as an idealized representation of ‘the national mind’ (‘Government by Journalism’, p. 654), while the editor tends to be imagined not as in dialogue with participating subscribers, but rather as an apostolic, visionary leader of the people and guardian of the law. This obviously owes more to Thomas Carlyle than to Alexis de Tocqueville.
In Stead’s utopian vision of the future of journalism, the changing mode of production and role of the publisher remain largely hidden from view, except in a few wry asides with a personal animus. Ironically anticipating the problems experienced later in financing schemes like his abortive Daily Paper projects of 1893 and 1904 (Whyte, II, 49–51), Stead suggests that he has ‘not yet lost faith’ in finding a magnate happy to ‘devote the surplus of his gigantic profits’ to the founding of a newspaper ‘for the service, for the education, and for the guidance of the people’ (‘Future of Journalism’, pp. 670–71). And, doubtless recalling how the ‘Maiden Tribute’ campaign provoked a long-term loss in advertising revenue rather greater than the temporary increase from street sales, he notes bitterly that the reformist editor has ‘his Achilles’ heel’ in the dependence on advertisers in thrall to ‘Mrs Grundy’.16 Yet the irony seems unconscious when he unfavourably contrasts the sextennial mandate of the Member of Parliament with that of the popular editor which is ‘renewed day by day’, when ‘his electors register their vote by a voluntary payment of the daily pence. There is no limitation of age or sex. Whosoever has a penny has a vote’ (‘Government by Journalism’, p. 655). This entry into the cash nexus, which converts an act of civic responsibility into one of private consumption, surely undermines Stead’s hope that the columns of the popular press might represent ‘free and open halls’ in which ‘the voice of the poorest and humblest can be heard’ (‘Government by Journalism’, pp. 656–57). But, for all that, Stead’s central concept is that of a virtuous process of public opinion formation, mediated dialectically by a new journalism. He declares:
Stead’s pair of manifestos in the Contemporary Review thus represent an attempt at long odds to press, in a reversal of Habermas’s historical terms, for a journalism of conviction in conditions more propitious to a journalism of commerce — the tendency to swim continually against the tide being exemplified by the remainder of Stead’s admirably quixotic journalistic career.
I am not for a moment advocating the more accurate and scientific gauging of public opinion in order that blind obedience should be paid to its decision, when ascertained. Far from it. The first duty of every true man, if he believes that public opinion is mistaken, is to set himself to change it. (‘Future of Journalism’, p. 664)
It should by now be apparent that, while Dallas’s elegant apology for the Old Journalism provides a remarkably close fit to Habermas’s depiction of a bourgeois public sphere that is critically robust, in most respects Stead’s vigorous espousal of the New goes against the grain of the German’s description of the unraveling of the ‘web of public communication’ which began in the later nineteenth century. In addition to the already noted ambiguities in Stead’s position with regard to both readers and publishers, an explanation can be found in the recognition that Stead’s vision provides only a one-sided view of the character of the New Journalism as it actually emerged in Britain around the turn of the century. For our purposes, the verso can be captured in the parallel activities of that other late-Victorian press pioneer hailing from a northern Congregational manse, the media magnate George Newnes. It was Newnes who provided the initial financial and administrative backing for Stead’s foundation of the monthly Review of Reviews in 1890, following his departure from the Pall Mall Gazette due to his irreconcilable conflicts with the proprietor, Henry Yates Thompson (Whyte, I, 287–89, 319–23). When Stead and Newnes parted company after only a matter of months, Newnes contrasted Stead’s uncommercial commitment to a ‘magnificent’ journalism’ that ‘directs the affairs of nations […] upsets governments, builds up Navies and does many other great things’, with his own ‘humble and unpretentious’ but gigantically profitable efforts to provide ‘wholesome and harmless entertainment to crowds of hardworking people, craving for a little fun and amusement’.17
Tit-Bits, the flagship periodical of Newnes’s expanding publishing empire, which started up in 1881 and quickly established itself as one of the best-selling papers of the Victorian era, represents the apogee of the commodification of reader involvement in public communication through mass journalism. From the start, Newnes realized that the lion’s share of the many bite-sized pieces of copy for his aptly named new miscellany could be concocted both appetizingly and cheaply by readers themselves. In every issue there was thus a notice in bold capitals offering the refined and apparently generous sum of ‘one guinea per column’ to ‘litterateurs’ for original contributions. There were regular interactive features like the ‘Inquiry Column’ where subscribers both asked and answered examination-style questions, with the reader who scored best over a three-month period winning ten guineas. Even letters to the editor were drawn into the cash nexus in the ‘Correspondence’ section, where the focus was on trivial, pre-assigned themes such as ‘Is Early Rising a Mistake?’ or ‘Who are Most Polite — Men or Women?’18 There were publicity-oriented prize competitions on a lavish scale, such as the ‘Tit-Bits Villa Competition’ of 1884 that received over 20,000 entries, and many more readers made a day trip to Dulwich to inspect the bijou residence on offer, each purchasing a souvenir postcard to celebrate the outing. In a substantial ‘Answers to Correspondents’ department run by the proprietor himself, Newnes constructed an editorial identity that was chummy, personal, comic, and self-dramatizing. In short, the forms of editor–subscriber interaction found in the late-Victorian mass-market periodical fostered as little rational–critical sense as the audience ‘vote-off’ in contemporary ‘Reality TV’ shows like Big Brother or American Idol.
At the same time, though its earliest issues contained no external advertising, Tit-Bits soon began to feature numerous and extensive display notices for dubious patent medicines and food products like ‘Salt Regal’, sold as a ‘preventive and safeguard’ not only against ‘the coming epidemic of influenza’ but also ‘malaria, cholera, and the like’; as well as its own-brand goods such as ‘Tit-Bits Tea’ (‘You like the Journal, Try the Tea’) (Figures 3 and 4). The paper also turned itself into the vehicle for the most enterprising and interactive cross-media advertising campaigns of the era, which radically confused public interest and private profit. Among the most audacious publicity stunts were: the ‘Tit-Bits Insurance Scheme’ from 1885, where each subscriber carrying a current copy of the paper and meeting a fatal railway accident would leave his or her next of kin better off by £100; and the ‘Tit-Bits Hospitals Fund Campaign’ of 1889, whereby, through a process of ‘cooperative philanthropy’ the proprietors would give £10,000 to the Hospitals Fund and a small reward to the ‘willing Tit-Bits canvassers’ recruited — IF the paper’s circulation were raised above half a million (Jackson, pp. 209–10). With its subscribers thus willingly co-opted not only as consumers but also as marketing agents, Tit-Bits managed to achieve a circulation of over 600,000 by 1893.19 Thus Newnes’s Tit-Bits approaches the extreme version of a new journalism of commerce envisaged by Karl Bücher, in an analysis quoted approvingly by Habermas, where the periodical ‘assumes the character of an enterprise which produces advertising space as a commodity that is made marketable by means of an editorial section’.20
The character of Newnes’s flagship journal helps to reveal radical changes in the role of the publisher and in modes of publication prevalent at the turn of the century, changes that remain largely obscured from view in Stead’s own articles for the Contemporary Review. Today, micro-blogging services like Twitter or Sina Weibo, and more general platforms for mobile social networking such as Facebook or Netlog, are often conceived as new modes of new journalism, with potentially radical socio-political consequences whether in North America, China, or the Middle East.21 At the same time, many scholars have underlined the contrary tendencies of social media increasingly to commodify social interaction in the interests of maximizing private profit or to facilitate systematic government surveillance of the thoughts and actions of citizens.22 In this context, applying Habermas’s concept of transformation in the public sphere, as we have tried to do, to the theory and practice of the first new journalism at the end of the nineteenth century, may — if nothing else — help us in the study of the potential ideological ramifications of developments in the ‘web of public communication’ now at the beginning of the twenty-first.23
Fig. 1 Portrait of E. S. Dallas. Illustrated London News, 8 February 1879, p. 129.
Fig. 2 Photographic Portrait of W. T. Stead. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-B2-790-15.
Fig. 3 Display advertisement for ‘Salt Regal’. Tit-Bits, 1 June 1895, p. ii.
Fig. 4 Display advertisement for ‘Tit-Bits Tea’. Tit-Bits, 1 June 1895, p. iii.