19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 16 (2013)

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Old v. New Journalism and the Public Sphere; or, Habermas Encounters Dallas and Stead

Graham Law, Matthew Sterenberg


This article attempts to contribute to the theorization of the shift from the Old to the New Journalism in Britain during the later nineteenth century by applying to it the analysis of the structural transformation of the public sphere by the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas. It proceeds by focusing specifically on key theoretical interventions during the nineteenth century itself: E. S. Dallas’s two-part discussion of ‘Popular Literature – the Periodical Press’, appearing anonymously in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in early 1859; and W. T. Stead’s initial pair of signed articles for the Contemporary Review: ‘Government by Journalism’, and ‘The Future of Journalism’, both published in 1886. It concludes that, while Dallas’s elegant apology for the Old Journalism provides a remarkably close fit to Habermas’s depiction of a bourgeois public sphere that is critically robust, in most respects Stead’s vigorous espousal of the New goes against the grain of the German’s description of the unraveling of the ‘web of public communication’ from the later nineteenth century. In the final section of the article, an explanation is found in the recognition that Stead’s vision provides only a one-sided view of the character of the New Journalism as it actually emerged around the turn of the century. The verso is captured in the parallel activities of the media magnate George Newnes, whose popular weekly Tit-Bits serves to represent the apogee of the commodification of reader involvement in public communication through mass journalism. Newnes’s case thus helps to highlight radical developments in the role of the publisher and the mode of publication occurring at the turn of the century, changes that remain largely obscured from view in Stead’s own articles for the Contemporary Review.

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