Thursday, 6 October 2011

Tabloid Nation - Seminar Paper (October 2011)

Alfred Harmsworth, also known as Lord Northcliffe, was an incredibly influential man in the world of Journalism, demonstrating a vast knowledge of the industry and an ability to write content that would appeal to a mass market. Harmsworth knew what would sell papers and what would get people talking. This, ultimately, was the key to his success.

Harmsworth was the son of an English barrister and was born in 1865 near Dublin. He was particularly close to his mother who he idolised a great deal. The Daily Mirror offices, 'Geraldine House', were named after her.

Academically, Alfred was nothing special. It was not until his first publication 'Answers' that his career in the newspaper industry truly began to gather momentum. Answers to Correspondents on Every Subject Under the Sun, or 'Answers' for short, was his very first magazine.

Published in 188, It was a quirky publication looking at facts and figures from around the world. A year after its arrival, Harmsworth launched a competition which gave readers the chance to win £1 a week for life. To be in with a chance of winning, readers had to guess the value of gold and silver in the Bank of England at the time, which clearly, was near impossible. Nearly 750,000 postcards from hopeful readers were sent in, which proved the competition was a massive success for the paper. Sadly for 'Answers', however, it was decided the following year that prize competitions based merely on readers guessing was illegal.

The magazine was home to some peculiar articles, one of which included: 'Why don't Jews ride bicycles?'. It was this unusual but intriguing formula that slowly began to draw people in. Soon enough, the magazine began to grow. People found offers of free money and the promise of gifts attractive, and 'Answers' reeled in these characters. 

Pictured above: Daily Mail founder Sir Alfred Harmsworth

Harmsworth's first involvement with a national newspaper was for the Daily Mail. It went through several stages of vigorous planning and testing on potential buyers before it was launched in May 1896.

It was decided articles in the paper were not to exceed 250 words. Addressing his staff, Harmsworth explained that State-funded board schools were 'turning out hundreds of thousands of boys and girls annually who [could] read'. He added that such people had no interest in 'the ordinary penny newspaper', instead favouring news that was interesting and 'sufficiently simple'.

The paper did particularly well at its launch, selling almost 400,000 copies on its opening day. Alfred soon became editor-in-chief, working alongside editor Kennedy Jones, who was famous for his writing on the Dreyfus Affair. Jones, also known as 'The Chief', introduced a women's section to the paper, which did so well it led to the arrival of a daily morning paper aimed at women - The Daily Mirror.

The Daily Mirror was struggling for a number of reasons, mainly because not only were there too many people working on the paper, but there were also doubts over the quality of the writing.

It was Hannen Swaffer that made it his job to transform the struggling women's paper into something fresh. Soon the disastrous ladies paper was transformed into a 'picture paper'. Sales shot up to just under 1 million in a few years. Shaffer, although seemingly unapproachable and out-of-control, managed to sway around the office half drunk and still get things done. He was a heavy drinker, a left wing-man supporting the labour party his whole life.

In 1904, Hamilton Fyfe hired Swaffer for the relaunch of the Daily Mirror into the 'Illustrated Daily Mirror'. Circulation shot up after the paper published shots of King Edward VII with his wife and children. From there, the new-look paper continued to sell well, and Fyfe was soon replaced by Alexander Kenealy. Swaffer made it his role to focus on what was written, while Kenealy stuck to finding the best photographs.

Swaffer always had a want and a need to publish the best, most exciting pictures, telling his team without hesitation to get into dangerous situations if it meant grabbing an exciting action shot. The paper struck gold after managing to get pictures of King Edward VII on his deathbed. Naturally, this was massive news. The paper printed a front page photo of the King's head as he lay peacefully. The paper sold out as soon as it went public, and even after special editions had been printed there was still not enough to satisfy demand. It was massive news for the paper, which was then selling a world record of over 2,000,000 copies.

Following the action by the paper, the question was raised as to how the royal family would react to the pictures going public. Amusingly, Swaffer and Kennealy were not phased as a backlash would only make news and therefore improve circulation.

The stress of running such a high demand paper took its toll on the team on more than one occasion. Swaffer's arguments with both Northcliffe and Kenealy became frequent. Following news of the sinking of the Titanic, Swaffer rushed out to buy photos of the ship before news of the disaster became widely known. Swaffer felt that the pictures should be showcased all over the paper, but he was overruled by Northcliffe who felt the photos should be complimented by a written piece.

Swaffer and Northcliffe continued to argue which led to Swaffer sacking himself and joining rival publication, the Daily Sketch. After Northcliffe's death in 1922, Swaffer went on to publish a book explaining how he was not to blame for any of the pairs disagreements. Interestingly, the book featured a conversation with the deceased chief, which was unsurprising as Swaffer had chosen to embrace spiritualism.

Above: An issue of the Daily Sketch, which was founded in Manchester

In 1905 Harmsworth took the title of Baron Northcliffe after donating money and giving his political backing to the Liberal party. At the age of 40, he decided to pursue the world of politics instead of newspapers, yet still saw the advantages in controlling the newspapers from behind the scenes. In the same year, Northcliffe purchased the Sunday Observer. 3 years after that, The Times was also his.

At this point, the Mirror meant little to Northcliffe. He pointed out how it was predominately read by women who couldn't even vote, describing it as 'a good paper for cab drivers'. Northcliffe began to distance himself from the paper on 1910 until 4 years later when he sold the remaining shares to his younger brother, Harold Harmsworth, also known as Lord Rothermere.

Under Rothermere's management, the paper began to crumble. There were issues with budget cuts and editorial interference, and World War I took Rotheremere's attention away from the paper due to his roll as first minister of aircraft. The War was a blessing in disguise for the paper, however, with iconic photographs of the event keeping circulation at a steady pace. Despite a large readership, though, Rotheremere failed to give the paper the attention it needed.

Northcliffe passed away in 1922 following a period of mental deterioration. Leading up to his death, Swaffer was reported to have said: “He was a different man. The fires that burned within him had burned too fiercely all those years. People who knew him knew it was the end.”

Rothermere began to develop extreme right-wing political views, joining Lord Beaverbrook in 1929 to launch the United Party and supporting the cause of extreme fascism in 1931. He described Hitler as a 'perfect gentleman', supporting what he believed was Hitler's desire for 'peace in Europe'. Both the Mail and the Mirror supported the first fascist movement and the Blackshirts until Rotheremere stated in public that he could no longer support a movement centred around dictatorship. However, this was merely an excuse to cover internal issues with advertising revenue.

When Harry Guy Bartholomew took control of the Mirror, circulation was dropping. Rotheremere died in 1940 and at this point, The Daily Mirror had been under the control of Bartholomew for 4 years.Cecil Harmsworth King, Northcliffe's nephew,along with Rothermere, formed an allegiance to become the eventual lords of Fleet Street.

For me, reading about the rise and fall of Northcliffe's empire was particularly interesting. I can't imagine how much pressure must be associated with running a newspaper, keeping things fresh for newcomers and also maintaining the interest of existing readers. Tabloid Nation is a window into the cutthroat world of running a newspaper behind the scenes and the ongoing struggle to be the best.


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