Hamilton Fyfe on newspaper readers and the future of journalism

Hamilton Fyfe
Hamilton Fyfe: “Newspaper reading… is like drug-taking or cigarette-smoking.”

I have just finished reading Sixty Years of Fleet Street by Hamilton Fyfe, a history of British journalism from the late 1800s to just after the Second World War.

It is brilliant, packed with anecdotes from someone who himself played a significant role in newspaper history, rescuing the Daily Mirror after its disastrous launch in 1903 and later writing the infamous report about the Allied retreat from Mons in 1914.

The bit that stood out most is how Fyfe was left with a rather bleak view of newspaper readers and about the apparent lack of enthusiasm with which they were consumed.

He wrote:

Newspaper reading has become a habit. It is like drug-taking or cigarette-smoking, not caused so much by the pleasure of indulgence in it as by the discomfort of abstention from it. Millions of men and women read newspapers, not for information, but to pass the time, to prevent thinking, to escape from the pressure of boredom or bad luck.

Few people take a real interest in news of any kind. They like a murder case, but would as soon read one of 20 years ago as that of yesterday. They are fond of gossip about film stars, but do not much care whether it is true or not. They enjoy being shown that aristocrats are a poor lot, vicious and idle, but are equally ready next day to believe them hard-working, self-sacrificing, patriotic men and women.

So was he right? Whatever you think, it seems a very depressing view to hold at the end of a long and distinguished career.

So was he right? Well, maybe, but it is certainly a depressing view take at the end of a long and distinguished career.

He added to this with a concern about the effect that increasing pressure on news resources was having on the ability of newspapers to proactively seek out news.

“Staff reporters are less and less in evidence,” he wrote, adding that “we have almost gone back to the antiquated method of sitting and waiting for stuff to be sent in.”

It is a lament that many people working in the media today will relate to all too easily.

At least, though, Fyfe held real hope for the future.

When the book was published in 1949, newspapers were still coming to terms with the rise of radio news. Counter intuitively, given that it offered people another way of getting news, Fyfe saw the radio as a good thing for the newspaper industry.

He envisaged a future where there would be a greater number of newspapers with smaller circulations and he believed this would result in better quality journalism. “Far better that 2 million people should support 20 papers with circulations of some 100,000 apiece than pay their 2 million pennies to one,” he wrote.

“Journalists are most of them agreed that the defects pointed out in the Report [of the Royal Commission of the Press in 1949] would tend to disappear if there were a larger number of newspapers with moderate circulations, appealing to different classes of reader and representing different points of view, instead of a very small number with enormous circulations,” he added.

“The Press will then be in the hands of men and women with a sense of responsibility to those whom they serve, admitting an obligation to give of their best and to aim high… The papers they produce… may have more to read in them and will certainly contain more mental nourishment.”

When Fyfe wrote this, he was thinking about what Fleet Street might look like 60 years into the future, which takes us up to 2009. And, as almost always happens with predictions for over half a century hence, he got it wrong. While the days of two newspapers (the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express) selling 4 million copies per day may have been gone forever, this is because overall newspaper circulation has gone down rather than because of a more level playing field.

But as wrong as he may have been about the future of the newspaper industry, doesn’t his prediction feel a bit more right when you think about the media as a whole? Isn’t there something about his vision of much more diverse media and of closer relationships between writing staff and readerships that hints, however vaguely, at the kind of journalism the internet is now in the process of creating?