Mass Communication in Britain

The telephone and telegram made it easier for regional newspapers outside of London because it meant they didn’t have to rely on London as their main news source. Regional newspapers could send reporters to London to gather the information themselves, the invention of the railway system also made a giant impact, enabling journalists to get to various locations quicker. The railway system also led to a better distribution of the newspapers, papers were distributed all over the country on the day of publication. The whole of the country had access to fresh news everyday.

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Advertising played a massive part in developing the national press’ power in British society. “Northcliffe made a significant contribution to linking newspapers more closely to advertising.” 1 Before Northcliffe started using advertisements, newspapers used classified adverts to fill gaps, the Mail was the first newspaper to use advertising, and Selfridges was the first department store to use the British press as a way to make more money.

Advertising soon became the main source of revenue for newspapers; they started to rely on adverts in favour of circulation. Newspaper companies realised they could afford to drop paper prices due to this new steady income. More people started to buy these cheaper papers, increasing the companies’ profit margins. Northcliffe dismissed a journalist he employed for being content with earning 5 a week. He wanted ambitious employees because it would make his publications better, making more money.

Northcliffe dropped the price of the Daily mail, making it the “penny paper for half a penny”2 This and its content ensured that the Mail would be popular from the start. The use of advertising also made journalists more aware of their audience and what demands they needed to meet. The Daily Herald struggled to attract advertisers because its content consisted mainly of politics. The newspaper closed down in the 1960s.

During the Second World War, however the national press was hit dreadfully. Due to a lack of resources newspapers were restricted in size and materials used until 1956. This arguably prevented the continuation of growth, however the Mirror by 1955 had a circulation of 4.7 million. The press was also censored to prevent secrets leaking, journalists could only report on foreign news during this period. Consumers also had rationed money, which meant they couldn’t always afford a newspaper or magazine. Even though the press was restricted for nearly twenty years during the twentieth century it was still the most dominant industry in Britain during that period.

When the printing press was first invented in the fifteenth century, several organisations feared it. The church argued against it because it feared people would become free thinkers whereas it wanted to control everybody. But as Britain had grown more secular, the national press grew and the Church of England had less of an impact on society. Overall I believe the main reason for the national press’ dominance during the twentieth century is the change in society. 400 years previous, Britain had been a very strict religious country with the majority of the population (even children) working long hours for little money. Only the rich and the clergy were literate and educated.

People’s lives and attitudes have changed, people have become more independent and freethinking, they started earning more money and having more free time. Education has become more important in the last century as well, mainly because of the press but without the Education Act of 1870 not as many people would have been taught to read or write and there wouldn’t have been such a high demand for newspapers. Even though resources were limited during World War II, newspapers still produced and sold millions of copies perhaps people were only ever interested in the content.


Briggs, A and Burke, P. (2002) A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. Oxford: Polity Press.

Williams, K. (1998) Get Me a Murder a Day! A History of Mass Communication in Britain. London: Arnold.

Welsh, T. Greenwood, W. Banks, D. (2007) McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists (19th edition), Oxford: OUP.

1 K,Williams (1998) Get me a Murder a Day