Monday, January 22, 2007

The Free Press

by Hilaire Belloc



Side by side with the development of Capitalism went a change in the Press from its primitive condition to a worse. The development of Capitalism meant that a smaller and a yet smaller number of men commanded the means of production and of distribution whereby could be printed and set before a large circle a news-sheet fuller than the old model. When distribution first changed with the advent of the railways the difference from the old condition was accentuated, and there arose perhaps one hundred, perhaps two hundred "organs," as they were called, which, in this country and the Lowlands of Scotland, told men what their proprietors chose to tell them, both as to news and as to opinion. The population was still fairly well spread; there were a number of local capitals; distribution was not yet so organized as to permit a paper printed as near as Birmingham, even, to feel the competition of a paper printed in London only 100 miles away. Papers printed as far from London,[Pg 10] as York, Liverpool or Exeter were the more independent.

Further the mass of men, though there was more intelligent reading (and writing, for that matter) than there is to-day, had not acquired the habit of daily reading.

It may be doubted whether even to-day the mass of men (in the sense of the actual majority of adult citizens) have done so. But what I mean is that in the time of which I speak (the earlier part, and a portion of the middle, of the nineteenth century), there was no reading of papers as a regular habit by those who work with their hands. The papers were still in the main written for those who had leisure; those who for the most part had some travel, and those who had a smattering, at least, of the Humanities.

The matter appearing in the newspapers was often written by men of less facilities. But the people who wrote them, wrote them under the knowledge that their audience was of the sort I describe. To this day in the healthy remnant of our old State, in the country villages, much of this tradition survives. The country folk in my own neighbourhood[Pg 11] can read as well as I can; but they prefer to talk among themselves when they are at leisure, or, at the most, to seize in a few moments the main items of news about the war; they prefer this, I say, as a habit of mind, to the poring over square yards of printed matter which (especially in the Sunday papers) are now food for their fellows in the town. That is because in the country a man has true neighbours, whereas the towns are a dust of isolated beings, mentally (and often physically) starved.

Meanwhile, there had appeared in connection with this new institution, "The Press," a certain factor of the utmost importance: Capitalist also in origin, and, therefore, inevitably exhibiting all the poisonous vices of Capitalism as its effect flourished from more to more. This factor was subsidy through advertisement.

At first the advertisement was not a subsidy. A man desiring to let a thing be known could[Pg 12] let it be known much more widely and immediately through a newspaper than in any other fashion. He paid the newspaper to publish the thing that he wanted known, as that he had a house to let, or wine to sell.

But it was clear that this was bound to lead to the paradoxical state of affairs from which we began to suffer in the later nineteenth century. A paper had for its revenue not only what people paid in order to obtain it, but also what people paid in order to get their wares or needs known through it. It, therefore, could be profitably produced at a cost greater than its selling price. Advertisement revenue made it possible for a man to print a paper at a cost of 2d. and sell it at 1d.

In the simple and earlier form of advertisement the extent and nature of the circulation was the only thing considered by the advertiser, and the man who printed the newspaper got more and more profit as he extended that circulation by giving more reading matter for a better-looking paper and still selling it further and further below cost price.[Pg 13]

When it was discovered how powerful the effect of suggestion upon the readers of advertisements could be, especially over such an audience as our modern great towns provide (a chaos, I repeat, of isolated minds with a lessening personal experience and with a lessening community of tradition), the value of advertising space rapidly rose. It became a more and more tempting venture to "start a newspaper," but at the same time, the development of capitalism made that venture more and more hazardous. It was more and more of a risky venture to start a new great paper even of a local sort, for the expense got greater and greater, and the loss, if you failed, more and more rapid and serious. Advertisement became more and more the basis of profit, and the giving in one way and another of more and more for the 1d. or the 1/2d. became the chief concern of the now wealthy and wholly capitalistic newspaper proprietor.

Long before the last third of the nineteenth century a newspaper, if it was of large circulation, was everywhere a venture or a property dependent wholly upon its advertisers. It had ceased to consider its public save as a bait[Pg 14] for the advertiser. It lived (in this phase) entirely on its advertisement columns.

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