One Newspaper to Rule Them All | History | Smithsonian

One Newspaper to Rule Them All

In 1900, British newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth predicted a national newspaper for the United States. "Is it not obvious that the power of such a paper might become such as we have not yet seen in the history of the Press?"

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Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe by Elliott & Fry in 1896 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

In the December 26, 1900 issue of the New York World, Alfred Harmsworth, the editor of the London Daily Mail, made some predictions for the newspaper of the 20th century. Harmsworth was pretty spot-on in many of his predictions, most presciently the idea of a national newspaper:

We are entering the century of combination and centralization. I feel certain that the newspaper of the twentieth century will be drawn into the vortex of combination and centralization. In fact, given the man, the capital, the organization and the occasion, there seems to be no reason why one or two newspapers may not presently dominate great sections of the United States, or almost the whole of Great Britain. In other words, where there are now a multitude of papers — good, bad and indifferent — there will be then one or two great journals.

Harmsworth’s predictions were based upon his own success. The Daily Mail was the world’s first national newspaper. Using railway distribution, his paper reached readers across Britain, and had a circulation of approximately one million. His newspaper reflected a populist sensibility of giving the readers what they wanted. Yet, across the Atlantic, there was skepticism that there could ever be a national newspaper for the United States. Harmsworth believed otherwise:

My idea of the newspaper of the twentieth century may be thus expressed in brief. Let us suppose one of the great American newspapers, under the control of a man of the journalistic ability of Delane, the greatest of the former editor of the London Times, backed by an organization as perfect as that of the Standard Oil Company, and issued simultaneously each morning, in (say) New York, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburg , St. Louis, Philadelphia, and other points in America; or at London, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh, Belfast and Newscastle, in Great Britain. Is it not obvious that the power of such a paper might become such as we have not yet seen in the history of the Press?

The thing is not so improbable as it sounds.

An ambitious newspaper man, Harmsworth had a history of buying up and turning around struggling newspapers. The next part of the article almost reads as his fantasy, wherein he and other newspaper owners form a gigantic, powerful newspaper with unlimited funds:

But how could such a multiple newspaper come into existence? Obviously, it would have to be initiated by some man, or group of men, holding practically unlimited capital and possessing intimate knowledge of everything appertaining to the journalism of their country. Such a group might easily be formed of the directors of three or four leading papers of New York or London, forced to escape competition. By combining their forces, they would be in a position to command the situation.

Without a doubt, he sees this kind of consolidation of the media as a great thing. He even sees it as contributing to causes and charitable organizations and to a more obvious extent, propaganda efforts in wartime. Harmsworth would later be acknowledged for doing just that when he was honored at the end of World War I for his service as the head of the British war mission in the United States:

Such a national newspaper would have unrivaled powers of organization in all directions. It is no uncommon thing already for a great journal to equip a scientific expedition to raise a war fund or to carry through some great charitable enterprise. The admirable work done in this way by many of the leading American newspapers is too familiar to need further description here. Similar work has been done from time to time in Great Britain.

Harmsworth imagines that it would be wonderful if the newspapers in the United States “spoke with the same voice”:

The simultaneous newspapers would possess powers of this kind which, we can hardly estimate, and, under the direction of men whose inclinations turned that way, would very possibly become the centre of a vast network of societies, organizations and institutions.

Mr. Pulitzer’s wonderful stroke of journalistic genius in connection with the bond issue, Mr. Hearst’s successful appeal to the people on the war issue between the United States and Spain, and the work of British newspapers in connection with the South African campaign, go to show what can be done in the direction of influencing public opinion even under existing circumstances. Imagine then, the influence which would be exerted if an overwhelming majority of the newspapers in the United States spoke with the same voice, supported the same principles and enunciated the same policy.

Harmsworth looked forward to the 20th century, no doubt because he believed that he would continue to wield great power as his newspaper empire expanded.

I am convinced that the press has its best days to come. Already it is in touch with the people to an extent never attained before. Already its influence has spread into the secret council chamber, as well as into the laborer’s cottage. Already it is casting off the domination of party and the serfdom of tradition, and has set its face steadfastly toward the light. And to this advance — a happy forecast of even better things to come — the enterprising and enlightened press of America has contributed in no mean measure.

After reading Harmsworth’s article, Joseph Pulitzer challenged him to edit one issue of his New York Daily News. Harmsworth accepted the challenge, producing a “tabloid” version of Pulitzer’s newspaper. Published on January 1, 1901, Harmsworth’s opening editorial promised “All the news in sixty seconds”: ”The World enters today upon the Twentieth or Time-Saving Century. I claim that by my system of condensed or tabloid journalism, hundreds of working hours can be saved each year.”

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