Reviews and Short Notices
The Americanization of the British Press, 1830s–1914: Speed in the Age of Transatlantic Journalism. By Joel H. Wiener. Palgrave Macmillan. 2011. x + 253pp. £55.00/$85.00.
Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 87–88, December 2012
How to Cite
Law, G. (2012), The Americanization of the British Press, 1830s–1914: Speed in the Age of Transatlantic Journalism. By Joel H. Wiener. Palgrave Macmillan. 2011. x + 253pp. £55.00/$85.00. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 87–88. doi: 10.1111/1467-8314.12032
- Issue published online: 20 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
For much of his career as a historian of the nineteenth century, Joel Wiener has concentrated on the British press, with his first monograph, The War of the Unstamped, published back in 1969. More recently, though, he has turned his attention to the still largely uncultivated field of comparative study of British and American journalism, with a particular focus on mutual exchanges and cultural influences. As the title indicates, this latest volume finds its origin in a couple of his earlier articles: ‘The Americanization of the British Press, 1830–1914’ (in Studies in Newspaper and Periodical History, ii (1994), 61–74); and ‘ “Get the News! Get the News!”: Speed in Transatlantic Journalism, 1830–1914’ (in Anglo-American Media Interactions, 1850–2000, edited by Wiener himself with Mark Hampton, 2007). The former article concerned informality and ‘human interest’, interviewing and investigating, among other characteristics of American journalism tending towards ‘the advancement of democracy’, and the channels through which they gradually spread across the Atlantic. The latter advocated a similar cultural approach to the comparative study of British and American journalism, and focused on speed in relation not only to the collection, composition and distribution of news, but also to the style of its verbal and visual presentation. Since Anglo-American Media Interactions did not limit itself to the newspaper industry, and was preoccupied in its later chapters with the accelerating process of Americanization through film and television, one looks to the present volume to shed light on the question of how American ‘soft power’ began to be generated in the period before the emergence of such audio-visual mass media in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, however, Wiener's thesis seems to be diluted rather than strengthened in the presentation of the case at length, so that one questions whether the title of the present volume truly fits the contents.
For one thing, the book describes a process of press transformation (termed ‘modernization’ in the concluding chapter) taking place on both sides of the Atlantic and over more than three-quarters of a century, and implies that the impetus for change cannot be traced simply and uniformly to the New World. Among the major exceptions noted are the rise of pictorial journalism, with London weeklies like the Illustrated London News taking the lead in the 1840s, the appearance of syndication agencies, with Cassell's of London and Tillotson's of Bolton in the van from the 1860s, and the surge of business consolidation in the last two decades of the century headed by English conglomerates like those of Pearson and Harmsworth. Moreover, formal changes, such as the introduction of front-page news and display advertising that Wiener traces to the 1830s in New York penny papers like Benjamin Day's Sun and James Gordon Bennett's Herald, could be found in the old country with rather less of a time lag if the book paid a little more attention to the popular and provincial weekly press in Britain, instead of focusing almost exclusively on the metropolitan dailies. Thus, as suggested perhaps by Wiener's irregular use of scare quotes around the term, the evidence put forward seems not to support consistently a case based on the concept of Americanization.
And for another thing, with reference to the subtitle, speed, however broadly conceived, is far from emerging in Wiener's current account as the defining feature of Americanized journalism. In those chapters devoted to war reporting and press expansion, most notably, it is true that the key is the influence of the latest communications technologies, whether telegraph, telephone or typewriter, but in those on sensationalism and the gossip column, for example, the social impacts of the expansion of readership and professionalization of authorship loom rather larger. At the same time, since Wiener's wide-ranging account also touches not only on economic factors such as taxation or capitalization, but also on political issues concerning the franchise or party affiliation, say, and legal constraints such as copyright or libel regulations, doubts arise whether the transatlantic differences pointed out can be properly described as predominantly cultural. This question remains rather in the air since Wiener's book does not provide much in the way of a framework of ideas. Among a handful of other theorists, de Tocqueville and Habermas are mentioned in passing in the introduction, but Weiner makes no concerted attempted to explain the advantage of his own cultural approach over the former's liberal analysis of how the power of the press grows with increasing social equality, or the latter's materialist investigation of the ‘structural transformation of the public sphere’ under commodity capitalism. The first chapter, on ‘The Fear of Americanization’, which might be expected to perform this task, is relatively brief and overlooks key contemporary interventions on the topic such as E. S. Dallas's elegant defence of the ‘Old Journalism’ in his ‘Popular Literature: The Periodical Press’, a two-part article appearing in Blackwood's Magazine of early 1859. In short, we are offered no strong thesis on why, but rather a series of ad hoc judgements concerning who and how.
Most of what is best in the book thus lies in the detail of the case studies. Less successful, to my mind, are diffuse chapters like that on ‘The Beginnings of Sensationalism’, which might have been brought into sharper focus by considering the transatlantic debate on the term itself. More cohesive and persuasive, I find, are the chapters on ‘The Democratization of News’ and ‘The New Journalism’. The former offers a fascinating contrastive analysis of the leisurely critical overviews of William Howard Russell as special correspondent for the Times during the Crimean and Franco-Prussian wars, and the urgent snapshots of action during the American Civil War telegraphed by battle-front reporters such as George Smalley of the New York Tribune, who was soon to set up the paper's London office. The latter concentrates on Joseph Pulitzer at the New York World and the Pall Mall Gazette under W. T. Stead, presenting a stimulating re-reading of the British debate over the relationship between the press and the ‘new democracy’ in terms of contrasting reactions to Americanization. According to Wiener (p. 171), Stead's The Americanization of the World; or, The Trend of the New Century (1902) had prophesied: ‘The English newspaper press twenty years hence will be Americanized. It will be more intelligent, better printed, more copiously illustrated, less stodgy, more enterprising.’ Unaccountably, these sentences are nowhere to be found in either the British or American edition of Stead's work, and instead there appears the following rather more equivocal and guarded formulation: ‘American journalism, as compared with that of Great Britain, is more enterprising, more energetic, more extravagant, and more unscrupulous.’