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Response to Review of The Americanization of the British Press, 1830s-1914: Speed in the Age of Transatlantic Journalism

I am grateful for the detailed analysis that Dr Andrew Hobbs has provided in his review of my book. He has sought to place the book within a broad context of writing about British journalism in recent decades and has been complimentary to portions of this book as well as to my earlier work on the press. He has also pointed out – rightfully – that I have not given adequate emphasis to the vitality and character of the provincial press in Britain. Dr Hobbs is an authority on the British provincial press and I look forward to reading his work in this area in coming years.

Nonetheless I feel that Dr Hobbs has not done justice to my general argument or research techniques, and that he is in effect suggesting I should have written a book very different from the one I deliberately set out to write. Near the beginning of his review he states that my book is ‘much narrower and more contentious’ than it need be. Readers must themselves make a judgment as to the validity of these points. But my intention was neither to write a book with a narrow theme nor to be unduly argumentative. On the contrary, I attempted to trace in relatively broad comparative terms the great revolution in popular journalism that took place on both sides of the Atlantic during the 19th century and, specifically, ‘the ways in which British and American press experiences in the nineteenth century interacted and exerted influence on each other’(p. 4). My primary focus throughout was on the creation of a mass circulation press in America as well as in Britain (this central component of the book is not even touched upon by Dr Hobbs), meaning for the most part a study of those cheap daily newspapers that attracted large numbers of readers. In effect I tried to write a book about the origins of 20th-century tabloid journalism without glibly passing judgment, adverse or otherwise, on the quality of the end product. I sought to place this mass circulation journalism within the framework of a democratizing transatlantic culture, by which I meant the introduction of popular journalistic tropes and genres into mainstream daily popular journalism A core argument was that these changes have had the effect of making newspapers attractive to millions of ordinary readers, primarily by bringing about a redefinition of what constitutes news. This book is largely written from the point of view of these readers, who gained increased amusement and entertainment as well as edification from such a press. My general point as to the nature of this popular press revolution, which I believe was driven by speed more than any other single factor, is not I think notably contentious, namely, that ‘most of the key transformations in journalism occurred a little earlier and had a greater impact in America’ (p. 4).

Dr Hobbs is mostly on target in his summaries of my individual chapters but he diverges sharply from the substance of my book when he launches the first of many criticisms for my supposed disproportionate emphasis on the London and New York press and failure to pay adequate tribute to the provincial press in Britain. Throughout the volume I acknowledge that this provincial press – or regional press, as it is better described in the United States – was of immense importance in both countries. There is no doubting this, and the statements that Dr Hobbs repeatedly makes to substantiate this point are largely irrelevant to what is in my book. For the purposes of analyzing the rise of a popular daily press in both countries (taking into account that no daily provincial newspaper of any note was published in Britain before 1855), and of elucidating the transnational arguments that are central to my book, I made a conscious decision to focus on newspapers in London and New York. Here is my statement about the London press: ‘Key elements of mass circulation journalism derived from the experience of the London press. Between 1830–1914 an overwhelming number of aspiring journalists regarded work in London as the pinnacle of their ambition. They migrated to ‘Fleet Street’ when and if they were able to do so, and sought to write for newspapers located there. London, dominant in so many ways, was, clearly, a forcing ground for journalistic creativity’ (p. 5). (It should be noted that in my book I make a number of similar statements about ‘Newspaper Row,’ in lower Manhattan.) Dr Hobbs disagrees profoundly with my comments about London, which seem to me relatively non-controversial, and asserts that, ‘to foreground London dailies in a history of new journalism is rather like choosing Saudi Arabia for an international study of women’s suffrage’. If this is intended as a serious analytical observation, it is at the very least a grossly misleading one. His further point that no national press existed in Britain during the 19th century is at best only a partial truth. The Times was, indeed, in many ways effectively a national newspaper, much more so than any American newspaper printed during the century, or perhaps even today. Additionally, the relatively small distances in Britain between London and the leading provincial metropolises meant that newspapers printed in the former city could be transported rapidly by train to Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and elsewhere and read the same day, whereas cities like Chicago, St Louis and San Francisco – where much of the American regional press was concentrated – could not even remotely be catered to in this way.

Dr Hobbs states that my sources are unrepresentative and that I have written in essence a biographical history of journalism. Several times he makes claims for content analysis as a critical tool of analysis that I have overlooked in my study of the press. While conceding the potential usefulness of such a research technique, I have instead chosen to rely heavily on memoirs and biographies of journalists, on the scholarly work on the press that has been published on both sides of the Atlantic in recent decades, on archival material and on a reading of a large number of the most important newspapers that appeared on both sides of the Atlantic during the 19th century, including almost all of the dailies published in London and New York. I do not think this approach is unduly biographical or, as Dr Hobbs suggests more than once, that I have read the memoirs of many of these journalists uncritically. It seems to me that the exchange of information and ideas among working journalists, editors and proprietors of all ranks was at the core of the transformation of the press during the 19th century, especially when viewed within a transatlantic context. I also believe that what working journalists read and think and do largely determines the structure and outcome of events, and that for the most part their memoirs are an excellent source of information about the past and not necessarily distorted by the ‘aging process’, as Dr Hobbs contends in his review. I have chosen to focus on events such as the reciprocal movement of reporters, editors and correspondents across national boundaries, the increasing interest in transoceanic news and the expansion of United States press bureaus across the Atlantic, particularly in the decades following the Civil War. It should be noted that all of these American press bureaus (including several emanating from regional newspapers), which exerted a considerable influence on British journalism particularly in introducing the idea of speed into British journalism, were launched in London, which served as the central conduit for the communication of Continental and American news.

The failure of Dr Hobbs to acknowledge that my book is fundamentally about changes in popular daily journalism and the democratization of culture that underlay it leads him into a number of statements that are either irrelevant or misleading. For example, he suggests that I have naively adopted a ‘rags-to-riches plotline’ in my reading of journalists’ memoirs, a point that is nowhere reflected in my text and for which I see no evidence whatsoever. What I have derived instead from many of these memoirs are details about the profound changes taking place in the press, including the critical impact of speed in almost every area. Dr Hobbs disagrees with my point about the centrality of speed but surely it permeates almost everything of note in evolving 19th-century transatlantic journalism: technology, economics, expanded content, reporting and editing, sensationalism of presentation, even continuing arguments as to the respective merits of journalism and literature and an assessment of the qualities to be assigned to each. Dr Hobbs faults me for not offering a theoretical analysis of the concept of speed but it seemed to me much more interesting to focus on the ways in which speed ‘took off’ in practical terms in transatlantic journalism during the century, drawing nourishment primarily from its roots in American popular culture. There are other statements in this review with which I disagree strongly but two related points warrant a direct rejoinder. Nowhere do I state (or believe) that ‘feather-brained’ features and sensational reporting replaced ‘serious’ news coverage in the British press by 1914. I would not even endorse such a statement if made today about the more ‘extreme’ tabloid papers. And without any question, I adhere to the view that old and new types of journalism continued to run in tandem throughout the century. I have written elsewhere in support of this interpretation and my position – in agreement with that of Mark Hampton and others – is built into my analysis. Numerous changes brought about a transformation in the nature of journalism during the 19th century (no argument about that) and many of these changes generated anxieties and fears in the minds of contemporaries who sought comfort in the preservation of an older, more traditional version of journalism. I am personally out of sympathy with the latter form of journalism. But as a historian I have tried to be objective about this reconfiguring of the transatlantic press and to explain its strengths and weaknesses without I hope exercising overt judgment on them.