Form and Content in the Nineteenth-Century News of the World

[On the 24 February I participated in a panel on ‘Victorian Beginnings’ at a Study Day on the News of the World hosted at King’s College London. Below is my position paper]

As you would expect for a London paper with a circulation as large of the News of the World’s, it has an entry in the first number of Mitchell’s Newspaper Press Directory in 1846. This is what it says:

This is one of the many papers which compresses into a capacious double sheet the news of the week; and the manner in which it is arranged adapts it for the the perusal of a class of readers who, though respectable, may be supposed – through incessant occupation in the week – not to have had much opportunity before the Saturday evening for newspaper reading.  It has no very distinctive feature in its composition, which simply aims at giving as much news as possible; and of a general as well as political character. There is some attention given to literature; and a small selection of sporting news.  Its commercial intelligence is good, and its ‘Grocer’s Gazette’ seems to mark it out as favoured by that class of traders. It is well suited for the respectable tradesman and intelligent persons in that sphere; and its being cheaper than any newspaper (except one), tends of course to enlarge the circle of its readers. It appears to be designed in a great degree for country circulation; and the main feature in its management is, the number of its editions – in fact from Friday evening to Sunday morning, there is a perpetual succession of editions, with augmented if not amended intelligence; so as to secure to every post through which it is sent out the latest news from every source.

Mitchell’s Newspaper Press Directory (London: C. Mitchell, 1846), pp. 79-80.

I think the insistence that the NOTW is not distinctive in terms of its composition is important. The entry makes clear that this is not an innovative paper, but nonetheless has some noteworthy features. I think the following are the key points:

  • it was based around news but there were other types of content such as literature and sport
  • it was aimed at a class of readers who didn’t read during the week, probably because they were keeping shop
  • it was cheap
  • and it published multiple editions

Below, I explore these aspects of the NOTW with reference to its run over the nineteenth century. What I think this analysis reveals is an often overlooked aspect of the appeal of the newspaper: its stability, despite the changing material of the news.

1. Content

From its first number in 1843 until the 1890s, The NOTW consisted of eight pages, each with six columns. The front page was notably consistent over the run. The first columns were always devoted to advertisements: in the early issues, this space was reserved for its proprietor John Bell’s publications, but in the 1850s a much wider range of advertisments appeared, including advertisements for the theatre. From the 1860s, the theatre advertisements moved onto page four, in an important space immediately before the leading articles, leaving the front page to carry miscellaneous advertisements for a range of goods.

The front page also carried a column called ‘The Politician’, the NOTW’s main political content. This ran I until the 1860s, when it was replaced by a weekly letter by ‘Hampden’ – a regular contributor whose letters had already been printed within the paper for a decade. Its other main feature was a column of jokes from the previous day’s Punch. This appeared from the very first issue of the paper in column six and was joined by jokes from Fun in the 1860s. This must have proved popular, as it was a consistent feature of the paper up until the end of the century.

The literary content was also a regular component of the paper. Throughout the run there were two columns dedicated to literature on page 6. Until the 1880s this always consisted of reviews, nearly always of nonfiction and featuring copious quotations. In the 1880s the NOTW began to publish serial fiction, but still within the two columns of ‘Literature.’ In the 1890s, however, when the NOTW sold for a penny but consisted of twelve pages, each with seven columns, usually two pages were devoted to literature, including serial fiction for the adults and content aimed at children.

Unlike literature, sport became more important over the run. Initially published on page five, after the late news and alongside reports about army and navy deployments, it occasionally made its way onto the front page throughout the 1850s. In the 1860s it obtained its regular space on the last page, often extending to a column and a half. By the 1890s it was five columns, covering a range of sports and taking up most of the back page.

News occasionally appeared on the front page, but it was mainly relegated to pages two and three, where regular columns of ‘Foreign News’ were followed by ‘Country News’ and then, from pages five onwards a miscellany. Court reports were a regular feature, usually appearing on page seven. Page eight carried the closing market prices from the Saturday. The NOTW clearly saw its news as important and the gesture towards the international was not empty rhetoric – in fact, in 1853 the paper claimed that ‘every publication that is issued from any country on the globe’ was duly examined ‘(in addition to private correspondence) for interesting articles for the News of the World’ – but the paper also, as the press directory noted, published much more.

2. Readers

The readers of the NOTW are difficult to pin down. There was a ‘Correspondents’ column from the first issue, which usually just printed the paper’s responses but occasionally printed a (signed) letter from a reader too. Reader’s letters did not appear until the 1890s, and then only sporadically. Advertisements were for a range of goods and services: men’s and women’s clothes; as well as the usual clutch of advertisements for insurance and patent medicines. Perhaps most revealing are the frequent advertisements for emigration, which complemented the regular columns of ‘Emigration News’ in the 1850s and 60s. These were readers interested in the colonies, and readers advertisers thought might become emigrants themselves.

By the 1890s, there was a deliberate attempt to target women. In the earlier decades there was plenty of content considered suitable for women, and the lighter matter – especially the regular ‘Varieties’ column – that might be marked as feminine. The introduction of serial fiction, too, can be seen as an attempt to broaden the readership. However, the expanded NOTW in the 1890s had dedicated columns such as ‘Our Home Circle’ (by ‘Clarisse’) covering fashion and gossip, as well as the much extended literary sections. It also had a separate column of advertising dedicated to women.

3. Cheapness

The NOTW’s cheapness was an explicit bid to gain a large circulation. In the first issue cheapness was justified as an attempt to bridge an apparent divide between journalism for the rich and the poor; with the former characterized ‘by the the manners, the dress, and the habitations of the rich’, while the latter was marked by ‘the customs, the squalor and the dens of the poor’ (p. 1). Melissa is going to say a bit more about this, but when the paper claimed that it represents no classs or party, only ‘truth’, and its prime motivation was to serve ‘dear old England’, it was clearly trying to occupy as neutral an ideological position as possible for a liberal, reform-minded Sunday paper.

On the News of the World’s tenth anniversary the paper recast its price as a deliberate response to the reduction of the newspaper stamp in 1836. Rather than lower the price by a penny, as many of its competitors had done, the NOTW boasted that it had set its price as if it passed on the whole saving to its readers. This revisionist account of their pricing strategy – I’ve not seen anything about this in the early issues – seems to be an attempt to ally the NOTW to the agitation for the repeal of the remaining ‘Taxes of Knowledge’. What is notable about the price is the extent to which the paper advertised it while insisting that it would never change. Price was clearly the NOTW’s main selling point, but this was complemented by a concern for the quality of the paper. This was literalized in December 1844, with a boast that ‘Our newspaper shall be perfect in information – perfect as respects the quality of the paper it is printed upon – and perfect also with respects to its type’ (p. 1). Throughout the run there were frequent claims that it was a ‘First Class’ paper, and this clearly refers to both its content and properties as a commodity.

4. Editions

From the outset the NOTW published three editions: the early edition published on Friday was sent by evening post and rail so that it was available Saturday; the second edition was published on Saturday; and the final, late edition early Sunday morning. News was inserted, usually around the middles, up until publication so the NOTW, especially the Sunday edition, was up-to-date. Yet I am a little puzzled by the Newspaper Press Directory’s remarks about editions. It was common for weeklies to publish multiple editions in this period, certainly for those published on Saturdays. Perhaps this was a bid on behalf of the directory to appeal to advertisers?


So what can we make of all this? Well, the NOTW obviously found and maintained a large readership throughout the nineteenth century and it did it by steadfastly not innovating. I suspect that the NOTW, although clearly serving to deliver content of various kinds to its readers, also served to represent ‘the newspaper’. This is why the paper continually stressed its quality: although it was cheap, it was not second class, in terms of its form or content. Of these, I think the form was more important. The remarkable consistency of the NOTW performed that often undervalued aspect of the newspaper: stability. The NOTW was able to offer a consistent framework through which to accommodate the events of the past week. It provided readers, week after week, with a stable form that promised mastery over the recent past. In buying the NOTW readers were buying a fairly robust, crafted object that warranted its readers’ participation in the emerging force of public opinion.