A century of tabloid Brits in New York

Another Brit (Colin Myler, ex News of the World) is on his way to New York to edit one of the city’s tabloids.

Nothing new there. British (and Australian) subs and editors have long been recruited as shock troops in the USA’s tabloid wars. An Anglo has frequently been at the helm of the New York Post or the Daily News or both, and the National Enquirer has trawled the UK red-tops for both writers and subs.

So we’ve been there before. In fact, we’ve been there for more than a hundred years.

For one of the little-know episodes in the transatlantic trafficking of tabloidism took place on a curious night in the dying hours of the nineteenth century.

It’s a story that never dies. Only yesterday, just as Myler’s move was being announced, Matt Novak was blogging about it at the Smithsonian. The post got picked up on Twitter by Emily Bell and Charlie Beckett, among others.

I’ve also blogged about it from time to time, as light relief from progressing my obsession into a PhD which should be finished within the year. And as part of that process, I spoke about it in New York in March 2011.

The story is that of Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail. En route to the US for a holiday late in 1900, he found himself on the same ship as Joseph Pulitzer, who owned the New York World.

Oh to have been a fly on the wall. Two of the greatest media moguls ever, taking breaks from the merciless browbeating of their staff, and perhaps talking newspapers – although it’s not clear if they actually spoke during what was a rough crossing. Harmsworth’s disappointing diary records only ‘Pulitzer on board’.

But at some point they hatched a plan for Harmsworth to guest edit Pulitzer’s World on New Year’s Eve, 1900, overseeing production of the edition that would greet the new century. A Pulitzer executive hyped the event as “an epoch-making international episode in the history of journalism.”

The result was the busy man’s paper, or the Daily Timesaver, as Harmsworth called it on his front page .

It was all about condensing the news, and it was ahead of its time. There was something Twitter-like in Harmsworth’s claims about the speed at which his bite-sized news could be consumed. He was offering an audacious solution to what he saw as the huge and riotous form of late Victorian popular journalism which, apart from anything else, could not be read on trams nor folded easily into the pocket to be taken home. He proposed instead what he called a ‘portable, pocketable’ journalism.

His obsession with saving readers’ time, and taming the news into a neat product, was also ahead of its time. The more I read, the more I think that his solution took to new and unwelcome extremes the subordination of journalism’s mission to commercial imperatives, in the form of a packaging up and commodification of the reading experience and the audience itself.

His tabloid prototype foundered on resistance from editors and readers who clung to a different and sometimes older model of journalism. Their popular press provided clutter, disarray, surprises – and space for long editorialising. They liked it that way.

The other intriguing episode of Harmsworth’s American trip was his airing of radical ideas about a new national and simultaneous newspaper, which is what grabbed the attention of the Smithsonian blogger.

This idea, too, met with resistance, from those who feared how such dramatic newspaper consolidation would stifle plurality in the land of the free.

I have not found evidence of Harmsworth returning to this theme of consolidation, and he may have just aired it for shock value. He was, after all, a master propagandist, keen to raise his profile on the eve of the great tabloid experiment.  

The day after the Daily Timesaver’s debut, Pulitzer went back to his old World format. And back home, Harmsworth did not shrink his Daily Mail. But the tabloid idea was out there and the rest, as they say, is history.

There’s more to come – another 80,000 words indeed – when the PhD is done, which may never happen if I keep stopping to blog about it.

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2 Responses to A century of tabloid Brits in New York

  1. James Stewart says:

    Sounds like there’s a book in there somewhere!

  2. Caitriona Noonan says:

    Was this also the beginning of guest editors…now we know who to blame for Bono getting to edit The Independent and most recently Vanity Fair.